Not all teenage girls are depressed or obsessed with their image – stop telling them they’re victims

Young women today have access to contraception and advice about relationships and mental health in a way my generation did not. Their attitude to sex is far more mature than mine

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 30 September 2016 14:29
Teenage girls have a lot more to celebrate than research would have us believe
Teenage girls have a lot more to celebrate than research would have us believe

Once, you couldn’t hear a story about the elderly without spotting the word “problem” in close proximity. Older people were routinely accused of clogging up hospital beds, soaking up a disproportionate amount of NHS resources and refusing to downsize to help the housing market. Now, attention has switched from pensioners to young women as a source of “concern”. This week we’re told that a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds are likely to be suffering from a mental health disorder – and social media is partly to blame.

The National Centre for Health Research (NCHR) reveals high levels of depression and anxiety among young women who are worried about their weight, their body image and their social lives, constantly comparing themselves to the glamorous lives of reality stars. The findings are based on just 7,500 members of the public, so should be treated with caution. Young people today have pressures that my generation did not, but I don’t believe for one minute that a quarter of the teenage girls in England are self-harming.

Another study in Denmark claims that girls aged 15 to 19 who take oral contraceptives are 80 per cent more likely to suffer from depression, although they did not discover a more specific link between the two. Meanwhile, a new report from MPs on the cross-party women and equalities committee claims that girls aged 11 are routinely called “slags” and groped at school and a third of girls aged 16 to 18 have experienced sexual harassment.

Put all these stories together and it starts to sound as if a generation of young women are at serious risk. Of course we should be concerned about self-harming and eating disorders, the number of teenagers on antidepressants and levels of bullying, but the truth is young people today are far more mature and sensible than a generation ago.

The number of young mothers has plummeted and today’s teenagers are a pretty conservative bunch: those born since 2000 are far less likely to agree with gay marriage and legalising cannabis than their predecessors, for example.

Yes, teenage girls are subjected to nastiness via social media and boys do need to be taught how to respect women through sex education classes, which must start at primary school. But today’s girls are also brave, bold, ambitious and successful; they comfortably win more places at universities than men.

Self-esteem has always been a problem for teenage girls, but let’s not let blow it up into a massive issue which could make the situation worse, not better. Young women today have access to contraception and advice about relationships and mental health in a way my generation did not. And it’s up to them – not their parents or their teachers – to decide when to lose their virginity. Their attitude to sex is far more mature than mine, which resulted in two abortions and plenty of pregnancy scares.

The other day, a group of students walked out of a Freshers’ Week class on sexual consent at York university, claiming it was “patronising”. Three cheers! A lecture about “consent” seems to imply that all women are potential victims and that all young men don’t understand what the word “no” means. Surely this discussion should have happened in a classroom when the students were 10, not 18?

Pope Francis on selfies

Today, some young women would argue that it’s up to them to decide how to use their bodies as a commodity – such as accepting cash from “sugar daddies” to pay their tuition fees. And what about girls who choose to auction their virginity for cash? In Russia, a young woman who wants to study medicine abroad is asking £130,000 for the privilege. Ariana says she is an independent woman with poor parents. She doesn’t think it’s a moral issue, just a practical solution.

This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates the pitfalls of lumping all young women into a single group, with the same moral compass and the same set of concerns about their lives.

We are in danger of falling into the same trap as we did about pensioners – painting young women as depressed, anxious, inward-looking victims, instead of the leaders of the next government, the future captains of industry and the next people in space. Stop linking teenage girls with all that is negative about life.

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