An angst-free adolescence? Do us a favour, Dr Lewis: A recent survey claims teenagers are worried. Of course, says Ruth Picardie. Worrying is what teenagers do best

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Our children's lost innocence,' keened the front page of yesterday's Daily Express. 'Robbed of a precious gift,' cried the leader. On Radio 4, the mood of the Today programme was equally gloomy.

This mourning for a lost era was provoked by the publication of Major's Children 1994, a survey of 600 12- to 18-year- olds, sponsored by the TSB's youth marketing department and interpreted by David Lewis, a social psychologist.

Dr Lewis found that the largest group (28 per cent) were found to be couch potatoes, who 'avoided the stresses and strains of real life by living fantasy lives . . . in front of a TV or computer screen'. The next largest group (24 per cent) were - in the lingo of market research - Major's Minors, grey conformists with limited ambitions. Next (23 per cent) came the ambitious, perfectionist Branson's Babies and the nihilistic New Punks (22 per cent) who 'have taken a glance at adult life and decided they don't like what they see . . . they are going to party on until the music stops'. A tiny proportion (3 per cent) were 'Blyteenies, still in the world of Enid Blyton'.

From this, Dr Lewis concluded: 'Children are missing out on the age of innocence that childhood used to be.'

Clearly, this country is in the middle of a moral panic about childhood. It began last year with the James Bulger case and is being given fresh momentum by the retreat from sex education in schools and the video nasties backlash. The message is: children are fragile angels who must be protected from sex education and horror films, otherwise they will turn into murderous devils.

The atmosphere has become hysterical: Beyond Bedlam, a new British horror film, is refused a video certificate; funding for HIV education is withdrawn; single mothers are found to be the root of all evil. And now this ludicrous reaction to a bank survey.

First of all, the group surveyed were 12- to 18-year-olds. Dr Lewis declares: 'They don't like to be children any more. They want to be young adults.'

That's because, apart from those under 16 years of age, they are young adults who are likely to be having sex and paying tax and national insurance, and voting at 18. Calling teenagers children is like calling the over-sixties middle-aged.

Then there is the invocation of a lost Eden. 'The days when a child used to ride to school on their bike on their own are gone,' declares Dr Lewis, 'as are the days when the only drug was castor oil and when the only crime was scrumping apples from Farmer Giles's orchard.' A brave 3 per cent is hanging on to innocence with the help of jolly hockey sticks and lashings of ginger beer.

Poor old Dr Lewis has got it the wrong way round: frankly, it's deeply worrying that as much as 3 per cent of the teenage population is charging round in short trousers, a copy of Bunty in one hand and a conker in the other. Such a lifestyle seems no less escapist than that of the computer- obsessed couch potatoes.

And when, exactly, was childhood supposed to be free of worry? Apparently, a similar survey carried out 10 years ago found more than one-fifth of 'children' were carefree. Well, when I was 12 - in 1976 - life was hell. I worried about nuclear war and litter and maltreated donkeys. I worried about having a posh accent and slanted eyes and a big nose. I worried about being taller than all the boys, and whether I could have a body shortening operation. I worried about having moles on my arms, and how to snog.

As my teenage years progressed, I worried about whether you could be a punk if you had frizzy hair. I worried about the fact that my hair went Brillo-pad green when I tried to dye it blue. I worried about not practising the cello enough and using the dank, smelly school lavatories, and whether I would ever acquire a taste for alcohol. I worried that I would be outed as the person whose first live music experience was going to see Leo Sayer, on her own. I worried that the police would discover my dad's cannabis plants. Above all, I worried whether I was the only virgin in Wales.

Does this mean life was unmitigated hell? No. I enjoyed annoying my fundamentalist Christian maths teacher by writing '6,6,6', in Biro, on my knuckles. I enjoyed annoying my fundamentalist Christian biology teacher (the one who didn't believe in evolution), by writing '6,6,6', in Biro, on my desk. I enjoyed wearing the wrong colour socks, and an Anti-Nazi League badge. I enjoyed playing Lou Reed records with my male friends and the ouija board with the girls.

Teenagers have always worried about things. The world's mythic teenagers - Holden Caulfield in J D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, the suicidal heroine of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar - are the biggest worriers of all. Being agonised is the whole point of being a teenager.

What about childhood, proper? Full of worry, too. Mainly, I worried about eating school dinners. At infant school, I worried that the dinner ladies would discover the chunks of liver I hid under the mashed potato (which we were allowed to leave) or, if there was not mashed potato, spat out into my hand and threw under the table, as far away as possible.

I also worried after a teacher discovered my 'sex book', a collection of rude words like 'willy' and 'bum'. Like today's moral custodians, she thought she'd discovered evidence of 'Our children's lost innocence' and summoned me to the front of the class to tell me I was evil and depraved. It must have been original sin, because I was about seven, and hadn't yet been exposed to what the Express calls the 'smut' served up in teenage magazines. Anyway, by the time I got home, I was very worried. This made my mother worried and, eventually, at bedtime, I blurted out what had happened. The next day, she marched into school to give my teacher a piece of her mind: that she was evil and depraved.

At junior school, I carried on worrying. Liver was a rare event, but nevertheless I started having panic attacks as midday approached. Finally, I burst into tears and refused to eat anything at all. My sister, cannily, pretended that a great aunt had died, and phoned my mum. For a while, I made her collect me every lunchtime.

I also worried about the big tough kids in the park, and their fierce mum, from whom we ran screaming one afternoon. Another worry was when the whole class was told off for tormenting a girl called Suzy, who smelt. No one would sit next to her; if you did, you were 'it'. I felt very guilty, and very, very worried.

Children and teenagers have always worried. What is new is adult worry - about childhood and crime and video nasties and sex education. Perhaps the real problem facing Britain in the Nineties is the end of carefree adult life.