In Being 14, author Madonna King explores what it’s like to be a teenage girl in today’s world.
When Madonna King, former Brisbane ABC radio host and journalist, asked a group of 17-year-old female secondary students what advice they would give their younger selves, their responses surprised her.
They ranged from how hard Year 9, or being 14, was, to warnings to stay off social media at that age, and the conclusion that it’s the worst year at school.
Soon after, King received a message from a friend. The words arrived in an SMS, but the exasperated tone of the sender was unmistakable: ‘… do not let your girls turn 14’. A few days later, nearing the end of a talk she was giving, when a woman from the audience made a similar comment about her 14-year-old granddaughter, King realised she was on to something.
From the outset, the author of the recently released book, Being 14, who is also the mother of two daughters, aged 12 and 13, was clear. She didn’t just want to speak to principals, teachers, counsellors, doctors, parents, police and psychologists about 14-year-old girls. Sure, they would be important sources, providing valuable insights, knowledge and strategies, but it was the girls themselves she would engage with and interview. And the book would be directed towards mums and their daughters.
These were the questions King posed.
What, in the 14-year-olds’ view, were the main challenges they faced?
How did their world look through their eyes?
Were there things they’d like to let their parents know, but they weren’t sure how to?
In pursuit of answers, King approached schools – country and city, public and private, all girls’ and co-educational, across different states – to see if their students would participate. Students, with their parents’ permission, could opt into the initial two-page survey, and the follow-up chat, assured their identities would be protected. (Overall, there were just under 200 14-year-old participants.)
The questions in the initial survey included but were not limited to:
1) how does it feel to be 14,
2) name three adjectives that describe how you feel today.
3) how many devices do you have?
4) if you had a problem, who would you go to?
5) have you ever been bullied?
King studied the responses thoroughly prior to visiting the schools. With her affable, easy-to-talk-to style, and non-judgemental approach to listening, King embarked upon face-to-face interviews. Some were one-on-one, other were in groups, from three to twenty.
The chats were open, relaxed and honest. It seemed the girls were pleased that King cared about them and really listened. They trusted her. During one interview, with around twenty girls, when King asked if anyone was on anxiety medication, around half the girls raised their hands. King was not so much surprised by their openness, as the number on medication.
She adds, ‘The issues raised were similar wherever I went.’
Putting all of this together, what did the author discover?
Not all 14-year-old girls are struggling, and as well as having a number of after-school activities, many are volunteering and supporting a variety of causes and activities in the community. However, a significant number are growing up in busy homes, with a ‘not-stopping lifestyle’, feeling the pressure of being pushed academically.
The digital landscape has changed the way 14-year-olds operate in the world: from the way they learn, organise their extracurricular or social activities and fill up their free time, to the way they communicate with friends, and about each other. In this context, mobile phones are akin to a life line.
Kings says that 14-year-olds now have a vulnerability and confusion that their parents’ generation didn’t. Before, home was safe. But now, social media can create its own stresses. It can escalate issues, with its reach extending way beyond the walls of home or school.
Bullying and setting up false social media accounts pretending to be someone else – an act of revenge – are not uncommon. And it’s easy for young girls to make mistakes on social media without understanding the ramifications of their digital footprint.
The digital landscape is tricky terrain that many parents find difficult to navigate – not just using the technology, but their responsibility as parents, making sure their children are safe.
In Being 14, King explains the obsession with social media and FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and the power of the friendship group. While being more connected in one way, it’s also easy to feel alone.
The book describes the experiences of 14-year-olds, as well providing commentary by experts while raising important issues, and providing strategies.
King found that seven out of every ten 14-year-old girls get insufficient sleep – social media and extra-curricular activities being the main causes. Yet, as King points out, at this age, girls need a minimum of nine hours sleep a night. And missed sleep equates to a quantifiable difference in IQ.
Furthermore, the pressures 14-year-olds feel, from their parents and their teachers to do well, only adds to their anxiety.
‘There’s an anxiety epidemic’, Kings says. Girls are seeking counselling because their results are not as their parents expected, or they didn’t get into an extension class. She, therefore, asks, ‘Is this what we want from our daughters?’
King suggests that while parents are doing the best they can, perhaps it’s time to give our daughters a break and let them know it’s okay not to do well sometimes.
As to what our daughters want, King says, ‘Our girls don’t believe we’re listening to them, yet we’re so involved. They think we’re not sitting down and listening.’ They believe their mums are too busy, and when their parents speak to them, they’re often judging them.
‘We’ve got to find the hangout time with our daughters, and the place for it’, reflects King, who adds that she particularly enjoys conversations with her daughters during car trips.
Being 14 is well researched, easy to read, and an invaluable resource for the community.
Michele Gierck is currently researching a book on listening.
If you have a story about listening – that made a real difference – or of not being listened to, contact Michele at www.michelegierck.com.au.