Tag Archives: young people

The Difficult Things

**Content warning: This blog post touches on material which some may find offensive or upsetting, and carries a link to a newspaper article about online pornography and its effect on young people. It may not be suitable for younger readers.** 

I recently read an article somewhere which asked the question: ‘Why are books for young people full of stories about the Difficult Things in life, such as abuse and bullying and death and loss and pain? Why can’t we just write stories about nice things, so that young people can read them and be inspired to be nice?‘ (Or, words to that effect. I may be paraphrasing, here.)

Then, at the weekend, I read a newspaper feature which took as its subject the ubiquity of pornography and how easy it is for young people to access it, whether it be on their computers or on their smartphones or at school, among their friends. Leaving aside my own feelings about pornography – because it’s unimportant to what I’m trying to say here – I found the article to be terrifying. I wasn’t unaware of the phenomenon, because I try to follow the trends of teenage life in order to inform my work, but I was still appalled by some of what I read.

Iamge: joobworld.com

Image: joobworld.com

The article outlined the sort of thing that young people – both girls and boys – are looking at on a daily basis, and it outlined the kind of behaviour they display after a diet of such material. One parent described how her son went into a fit of shrieking and shaking, followed by deep, visceral and destructive anger when she tried to remove his access to his computer; he was acting ‘like an addict’, as she described it. Another contributor described how her friend’s nine-year-old came home from school and told his mother that he and his friends had been talking about ‘boy things’ that day at lunchtime. When pressed, the child revealed they’d been discussing rape. When asked to define his understanding of the word, the little boy said that it meant ‘forcing a girl to do sex and then killing her.’

This child was nine, just in case you missed it.

The landscape that children and teenagers are growing up in is a vastly different one, in some ways, from the landscape in which people of my generation found their way into adulthood. We had pornography, sure. We had dangers, and we had concerns about our bodies, and we had bullying, and we had curiosity about adulthood and sexuality – the same as young people do nowadays. What we didn’t have was immediate and free access to the most depraved and violent material the internet can offer in order to feed this desire to learn about what it meant to be grown up; we didn’t have that, and I am thankful for it.

The ways in which modern pornography teaches young people to think about themselves and other people borders on the sociopathic, in my view. I am not an expert, of course, but it seems clear to me that young people are digesting image after image and movie after movie encouraging them to think of other people as objects, existing merely to provide them – the viewer – with a service. The idea of consent is non-existent; the idea of mutual enjoyment, let alone love, is non-existent. Women are brutalised and discarded, men are creatures of appetite and exist merely to destroy, and both are depicted as being impossibly ‘perfect’ in terms of their bodily appearance – in itself, a dreadful thing to be allowed take root in teenagers’ psyches.

Image: thedailyedge.com

Image: thedailyedge.com

I don’t know what the answer to this is. As I see it, not enough adults and parents are even aware of – or, wish to face up to – the fact that this is a real problem. Kids looking at pornography is not new; ‘we all did it when we were their age’ is the common reply when you try to sound a warning. That is true – but the type of material young people are watching is very different to the sort of thing that was around when their parents were growing up. Whatever the relative harmlessness of the pornography available in their parents’ generation, the type of thing young people are encountering today is less about sex than it is about violence, and less about titillation than it is about destruction and inflicting pain. It is new, and thrilling, and absorbing; ‘everyone’ is watching it, and so a child who is uninitiated may be pressured to watch, or forced to. It is very difficult to avoid something if the majority of your peers are doing it, and this has always been true. Kids egg each other on to watch ever more and more brutal material; smartphones and tablets with super-fast WiFi connections get passed around at lunchtime behind the bike-shed. It’s a long way from a copy of ‘Playboy’ magazine stolen from your older brother.

Children are watching things they do not understand, and for which they are not ready. Children are watching things that are warping their expectations of sex and relationships, and which are forming their opinions of themselves and one another. Boys are watching women being degraded and tormented, and trying to square that with their lived experience of having female teachers, female friends, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. Girls are watching men dominate and brutalise women, and are struggling to figure out how their brothers, fathers, and friends fit into that model of manhood. Both boys and girls are learning that other people do not matter – it is all about your appetite, your needs, and whatever the other person wants or does not want is immaterial. Is that the sort of world we want to give to the next generation? What sort of world will they create?

Books for children and young people should not be afraid to tackle important and painful subjects. There should be no beating around the bush. Children are living in a world which is as frightening as it is wonderful, and as full of inexplicable things as it is happiness and laughter. A child may have nowhere else to turn but books to try to make sense of his or her world; the life they are living may bear no resemblance to stories about missing puppies or stolen rainbows. Children are living in a strange new world and they deserve literature which is equal to it. They need a place to deal with what they’re seeing, and they need to know they’re not alone if they’re struggling to cope. Adults need to realise and be sensitive to what young people are going through, and they definitely need to stop belittling the lived experience of young people. Writing stories worthy of their young readers is one way to help with that.

Facing up to what they’re going through is another.

 

 

 

 

One of the newspaper articles I read which inspired this blog post is here; adults looking for advice on how to help their children can check out http://www.ispcc.ie, and young people looking for help with any aspect of growing up can check out http://www.childline.ie.

Many Ways

Yestereve, as my husband and I sat reading Proust and Kafka side by side on our antique leather sofa, one of us happened to switch on the demonic gogglebox in the corner of the room, purely by accident of course. The programme which appeared on it was entitled something like ‘X-Idol All-Singing All-Dancing Contest Factor’ and it featured several people who were very (very!) young performing popular musical hits in front of a panel of judges.

I’m sure you know the type of show to which I am referring. Don’t pretend you don’t, because – frankly – nobody believes you.

My better half and I looked a little like these two fine gentlemen as we watched... Image: muppets.wikia.com

My better half and I looked a little like these two fine gentlemen as we watched…
Image: muppets.wikia.com

I wasn’t paying full attention to the screen, because I was lost in a book (in fact, this is true, but I don’t expect you to believe it); however, after a while I put down what I was reading and started to focus on the TV. It wasn’t because I was so intrigued by the cutting-edge, brand-new, thrilling format of the show (zzzz….), but because I couldn’t believe the way these young, talented people were talking about themselves.

‘This is my last chance,’ some of them sobbed. ‘I’ll never be able to do this if I don’t get through today.’ ‘My whole life depends on this.’ ‘I don’t know how I’ll go home and face my family if I don’t succeed here today.’ ‘I want my family to be proud of me.’

Image: onesinglevoice.com

Image: onesinglevoice.com

I felt so sorry and sad to hear them talk like this, and I couldn’t understand why they were putting such pressure on themselves. I was horrified most of all by the fact that they were all so young.

I remember being sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I remember how I was desperate for life to start, and how I felt like every second spent not doing what I wanted was a second wasted. I remember having dreams and ambitions and drive, and I remember more than anything wanting to make something of my life, to get away from everything I’d known up to that point and move to another place, begin a new existence, and meet new people. I can completely understand the urge, at that age, to get started, to stop wasting time, to break into the thick of life and immerse yourself in it. It’s an exciting time, for sure. But what you lack at that age is any way of knowing how much time you have, just waiting for you to turn it into something amazing.

I just wish someone would take those young people to one side and remind them that there are a million different ways to reach your goal, and not winning a TV show is not the death of your dream. I also wish they’d try to explain to them that, when you’re sixteen, you can literally do anything you want. Your life is barely begun, you have so much time, and you can shape your future whatever way you choose. I also wish that the young people concerned would listen, and understand – I know, when I was that age, the advice of anyone out of their teens was considered less than worthless. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing, though.

All the contestants on this particular show wanted to be professional recording artists, and all of them were hoping that their individual skills would be good enough to see them advance through the competition to the ultimate prize of a record deal. I’m sure some of them also wanted to take advantage of the expert mentoring offered to them by the established artists who take part in the show, year after year, and – perhaps – some of them just wanted to be on TV. These contestants are not people who have been working for twenty or thirty years in the business, who have struggled to fill venues, who have played in bars to audiences of four or five, who have had to put up with catcalls and abuse, who have lost bookings, put every penny they have into their career, and live their lives on the road. They are not people who have been worn down by the industry, who have had every last drop of their youthful idealism ground into the dirt by the relentless effort of trying to make it, and who have given their music career every ounce of their devotion and effort. Those are the kind of people who might be able to say ‘This is my last chance’ or ‘If I don’t make it on this show, I know the dream is over,’ and from whose lips it might sound legitimate.

For a person of sixteen whose only prior experience is singing in their bedroom into their hairbrush, the concept of ‘last chance’ shouldn’t even come into play.

But then, these young contestants can hardly be blamed for thinking the way they do – all their lives, these shows have been the biggest thing on TV. It’s not surprising that they think entering one and winning it is the ‘only’ path to success. But if someone has every shred of their self-worth and self-belief wrapped up in winning a TV show – which, I’m sure they don’t realise, is primarily a vehicle to make money for its producers, not to make them into stars – and if they’re knocked out of the running, it’s clearly going to have a terrible effect on their mind and their mental health. I find that thought chilling, and very sad.

I know some contestants enter these shows year after year after year, and each time they ‘fail’ their confidence takes another knock. Eventually, they won’t have any self-belief left, because they’re trying to succeed in an environment which is not geared towards helping them to achieve what they want. Not winning a competition like this is not ‘failure.’ Instead of pouring their hearts into entering the same competition again and again, I wish some of these young people would just make music, if that’s what they want to do. Record yourself performing and upload it to YouTube. Set up an artist’s Facebook page, Twitter account, Tumblr blog, whatever it takes – and build an audience. Get gigs. Get paying gigs. Buy more equipment. Put a band together. Go on the road. Find a friend who’s good at computing, and ask them to make you a website. Find a friend who’s arty, and get them to design your merch. All of this can be done – and it’s amazing how much people want to help when they see you chasing your dream, and working for it. When I was a teenager, all of this could be achieved, too – but it was much, much harder. Nowadays, the internet makes all things possible.

Not winning a TV show which is designed to make money for everyone but the artists who pour their hearts into it is not, decidedly not, the only way to make it in the music business. Every single contestant on those shows has it within themselves to make a success of their career, if they’re willing to put in the effort and use a little imagination. It’s never ‘too late’. It’s never their ‘last chance.’ Their families are already proud of them.

All that pressure, all that stress, and all that incredible emotional pain they’re inflicting upon themselves is damaging, horrible to watch and utterly unnecessary. We’re in the middle of Mental Health Week, and so there’s no better time to remind people that there are lots of ways to get there, and they have plenty of time to make the journey.

Also, I’m never watching another TV talent show. I’ll happily stick to Proust and Kafka from now on, thank you very much.

Image: 123rf.com

Image: 123rf.com