Anita Naik receives a thousand letters a week. You or I might pass her in the street, but her beaming, reassuring face is as familiar to the average 15-year-old as Jason Donovan's. Last month a row with her boyfriend in a supermarket attracted a gaggle of schoolgirls, agog that she was screaming and he was ducking toilet rolls.

At 26, Anita is the resident agony aunt on Just Seventeen, the teenage magazine, which sells 225,000 copies a week. She is the figure to whom many anguished adolescents turn for guidance. It is a responsibility that she does not take lightly. 'Sometimes I do feel out of my depth. But I don't tell anybody what to do. I advise them of their options.'

Dispensing advice to teenagers has become a serious business. Today a group of agony aunts will lay aside any professional rivalry to take part in a seminar on child abuse. It is the first such meeting and reflects their growing concern about the issue and the pressing need they feel to be better informed. Along with representatives of ChildLine, the NSPCC and Parents Under Stress, there will be an expert from Lifeline, an organisation that is willing to counsel the abusers in addition to the abused.

The seminar's organiser, Deidre Sanders, of the Sun, says: 'Where do agony aunts turn to with their problems? We're meeting because we are much more conscious of our responsibility to give accurate advice. We hope that after the seminar we will be aware of a wider range of options. But we can't transform people's lives. There is no magic solution.'

Ms Sanders, a specialist in adult letters, is fully aware that the consequences of sexual abuse outlive childhood. 'Women in violent relationships have often been sexually abused as children, and as more male rape cases are reported, more and more men are talking about their experiences of child abuse.'

Anita Naik estimates that on average 400 letters a month to Just Seventeen are from young girls purporting to be the victims of sexual abuse. 'Some of the letters are really upsetting but I think eventually you get numbed to them,' she says. Because the vast majority of letters are anonymous, and most girls anyway would find it difficult to explain the sudden arrival of an official- looking letter, she often has little option but to recommend ChildLine (it doesn't show up on the telephone bill) and urge the victim to talk to a sympathetic adult.

She is angry that provision for youth counselling is falling. 'Money is not the answer but it's a start. Kids don't want to tell their teachers and often they can't get through to ChildLine, so who do they turn to? Lots of places that we used to recommend have cut their services.' She believes that only through educating the victims of abuse can one hope to break the cycle.

At first glance, it's a far cry from the knotty problems that appeared to niggle the children of the Sixties. In 1966, the girls' magazine Petticoat - 'crisp as the starch in your Sunday petti, as colourful as the colours in your party petti' - was recommending that a teenage girl could pass a highly enjoyable evening making a patchwork quilt. And in its regular feature 'Problems in Living', it tackled such gritty matters as correct table manners on a first date. 'While you're talking and not actually eating, you might feel like resting your elbows on the table. Go ahead. It used to be taboo, but it's all right now.'

At the same time, Cathy and Claire in Jackie - '6d for go- ahead teens' - were telling readers that the solution to catching a boyfriend was easy. 'Get a swish hairdo and a snazzy dress, slosh on the perfume and go where the boys are,' they gushed.

In many ways the 'bread and butter' letters to agony aunts have not changed. The adolescent who was 'going out of her mind' for David Cassidy in 1972 is now besotted with River Phoenix. The usual obsessions with spots, weight and the dishy but unapproachable boy at the bus stop live on.

More surprisingly, in many instances the level of sexual ignorance remains the same. 'You'd think there would be a greater awareness about Aids now. Teenagers should be getting a good sex education, but they are not. Girls still write in asking about their 'public hair' and their 'virginia',' says Anita Naik.

Claire Rayner, who was once Petticoat's agony aunt, remembers one problem that cropped up repeatedly. 'Girls thought that they were changing sex because they had developed their labia minora.' Twenty-five years later, a terrified Just Seventeen reader is asking the same question.

But some problems are new. Along with an increasing number of inquiries about HIV, the effects of the recession are biting into teenagers' lives. Charlotte Owen, of 19 magazine, paints a bleak picture: 'They leave home at 16, can't get a job, their social life falls apart, their friends disperse and they can't afford to leave home. That affects their self-worth.'

All the agony aunts deny any suggestion that they might slip in the odd fabricated letter. Patently, then, there is a thirst for hard facts. Some readers are evidently desperate. Anita Naik recalls one letter: 'This girl sent me in the crotch of her panties stapled to the letter, which said 'I've been having a discharge, what is it?' I thought, I need danger money to be doing this. The saddest thing is, I really didn't believe it was a joke.'

Charlotte Owen says: 'An awful lot of my readers don't know how their bodies work. If I'm not explicit, who's going to be?'

This mission to explain is not welcomed in all quarters. The girls who wrote to Jackie in 1972 are now the complaining mothers who sign themselves, 'Disgusted'. 'I've had letters from born-again Christians telling me I'll burn in Hell and really venomous letters saying that I'm corrupting our youth,' says Anita Naik.

Girls do not have the monopoly on teenage angst. Nick Fisher is Just Seventeen's agony uncle. Drafted in to give a boy's-eye view of girls' problems, 30 per cent of his letters are now from the lads themselves. 'With boys, it's mainly fears about sexual inadequacy, prick size and whether they're going to be able to do it. But I don't believe there is such a thing as a 'teenage problem'. Asking someone out at 13 is just the same as at 30,' he says.

As a man, is he disconcerted that so many girls' letters chronicle a catalogue of abuse? 'Yes, they leave you despairing of mankind. It's not until you get into a job like this that you realise how rife incest and abuse is.'

(Photograph omitted)

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