The new girls' world
‘All teenagers want some sort of secret life. I know I certainly did. It’s just that, these days, they have more ways to hide,” said a mother when discussing her teenage daughter this week.
The recent deaths by suicide of two teenage girls, 13-year-old Erin Gallagher, from Co Donegal, and 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley, from Co Leitrim, both allegedly linked to online bullying on the website ask.fm, have pushed the lives of today’s teenage girls centre stage. The usual preoccupations, such as crushes, clothes and celebrities, haven’t changed much, but with technology teenage girls can conduct their business less visibly than their parents, who were limited by the landline. We asked four teenage girls to tell us about their lives: the good, the bad and the Ugg boots.
We spoke to Sarah, a 14-year-old dancer from rural Co Donegal; Jenny, a 15-year-old bookworm from inner-city Dublin; Polina, a 15-year-old feminist originally from Poland now living in Ireland; and Lucy, a 14-year-old Rihanna fan from Co Dublin. Some names have been changed.
On the bedroom wall
Lucy: “Posters of Rihanna and pictures of friends and family.” Jenny: “Bruno Mars and pictures of places I’ve been.” Sarah: “Photos of family and friends, a Harry Potter poster and tickets.” Polina: “I’ve got two poems: one is a Polish poem, Milosc, by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska.”
Lucy: “I get €20 a week and earn more from babysitting.” Sarah: “A tenner a week if I clean my room.” Jenny: “I don’t get regular pocket money, but if I need something I’ll ask for it.” Polina: “I get €10 every month, but if I ask my mom for money for something, I know she’ll give it to me.”
Hobbies and interests
Sarah: “I am in rehearsals for a panto and for the school musical. I do dance every Friday night for two and a half hours.” Lucy: “I play piano and I try to get a short practice in every day.” Jenny: “I love painting and drawing; I can get lost in that for hours. I am also in a choir.” Polina: “The drama group I’m in is more like a really close group of friends. I’m a member of the Socialist Party and United Left Alliance. I support LGBT rights; I’m pro-choice and a feminist.”
Music, books and TV
Jenny: “I like Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga. I have to admit I watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians; it’s entertaining, though I can’t stand them. I am reading Gigi by Colette. Lucy: “Since Twilight I like anything with vampires. I’m a fan of Chris Brown . . . of course I think what he did to Rihanna was horrible, but he has such good songs for our generation that everyone I know puts that aside. Sarah: I am into Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles and The Script. I am rereading Harry Potter for the billionth time. Polina: “Mostly, I listen to skater and classic rock. I’m reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I don’t have a TV, so I mostly stream episodes of my favourite shows, including an animated one called Young Justice.
Social life and alcohol
Lucy: “I would go out to parties every two weeks. Everybody drinks. Normally we drink vodka in somebody’s house before the party or on the bus on the way there. A few friends have had their stomach pumped. I am careful, though, because my mum says if I ever have to get my stomach pumped I will never be allowed out again.” Sarah: “I don’t drink, and lots of my friends don’t either. I think there is plenty of time to do it when you are 18. I do go out sometimes, but what I like best is sitting in my jammies all day watching TV like a middle-aged person. I am probably not a very good example of a teenager.” Jenny: “I took the pledge along with a lot of my friends, so I don’t drink.” Polina: “None of my friends drink, and neither do I, but I know that girls in my class do. One classmate comes in every Monday telling me how wasted she was during the weekend.”
Lucy: “The best thing about being a teenager is going out, having no responsibilities and discovering who you are. The worst thing is worrying about boys, our bodies and our clothes, but mainly about how we look. Sometimes I think, I am so fat compared to her, I am not as pretty as her. I look in the mirror and tell myself to lose weight. You want to be skinny and have nice hair and good makeup and have the right shoes, such as Uggs. I don’t know any teenage girls who are content with themselves.” Jenny: “I like having the freedom to do what I want, without stress about work or bills. But I feel overwhelmed by schoolwork sometimes, and I don’t really feel secure at this age.”
Polina: “I like having my whole life in front of me and knowing that I can offer something to the world. On the downside, there’s peer pressure to dress, behave and think a certain way. And periods.”
Lucy: “Girls are definitely meaner than boys. Girls drag things out, texting and talking on Facebook and bitching about each other the whole time. They won’t talk for weeks, and everyone has to get involved.” Jenny: “I’ve seen girls have physical fights that are just as bad as boys’. But girls are also better at mind games.” Sarah: “Boys get over things quicker. Girls remember things until the day they die.”
Lucy: “You can have a secret life from your parents if you want; the technology and apps make it easy. Mine are pretty tuned in and they know most things, but I have friends who live almost double lives and their parents are completely clueless.” Sarah: “A lot of people don’t know about privacy settings on Facebook. I am careful. My dad is a Facebook friend, which means I don’t lose the run of myself. A lot of people aren’t Facebook friends with their parents because it’s too embarrassing, but I am pretty happy about it.” Jenny: “There are no secrets between myself and my parents. They know everything I do with my friends because I tell them.”
Lucy: “When we heard about Erin Gallagher we were shocked but not surprised. I’ve seen some of the abuse, and it’s nasty stuff. I don’t have
ask.fmbecause it’s asking people to hate me. I think people get involved with it out of boredom. It’s anonymous, so my friends get told stuff like, ‘You are a fat bitch: you should go die.’ When that happens they delete their
ask.fm, but by that stage the damage has been done.” Jenny: “I couldn’t believe how young she was . . . Online bullying is different and even more cowardly than face to face. It’s easier.” Sarah: “I know someone who went to her school; I was shocked and sad. I like Facebook, but I don’t like
ask.fm. It’s just asking people to give you abuse. If I had the power I would get rid of it.” Polina: “I try to separate myself from people who would engage in online bullying . . . I think you shouldn’t go on websites such as Facebook and Twitter if you’re not ready for the onslaught. Those websites are like an arena in ancient Rome. What really scared me was that I wasn’t surprised when I heard about the deaths . . . It’s kind of normal by now. And, yeah, most teenage girls are pretty nasty, but there are gems, and I try to stick with them.”
What to watch for: How to spot if your child is being bullied – or is a bully
This week’s tragic events highlight the seriousness of bullying for many children and teenagers whose lives can be made a misery. Unfortunately, bullying isn’t uncommon, and in some surveys up to 40 per cent of children report experiencing or being involved in bullying at school. Many children who are targeted are already marginalised or struggling. Up to half of those who are bullied suffer in silence and don’t tell their parents or teachers what is going on.
Bullying behaviours can be physical and direct, such as slagging, intimidation and aggression, or more subtle and relational, such as exclusion, talking negatively about a child to others, or the silent treatment.
The growth of social media, texting and online communication has provided new ways to harass others, and, given the public nature of these forums, they can be more devastating for children and teenagers.
Bullying is also a complex group phenomenon, which is reinforced by an audience and supported by the silence of bystanders. Many children who engage in it are not aware of its impact on the victim or may have been victims themselves. All cases require a sensitive response.
How can you tell if your child is being bullied? Though some children are reluctant to tell, there are many indicators that your child might be being bullied or that he or she is coping with some other problem: unexplained cuts or bruises; sudden lack of confidence; anxiety about going to school; poor school performance; privacy about online communications.
WHAT CAN YOU DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CHILD IS BEING BULLIED?
The first thing is to help your child to talk about what is happening. Being specific about your worries can help a reluctant child to open up. You can say, “I notice you have been very unhappy going to school the last few days. Is there anything or anyone bothering you there?”
Listen to your child’s feelings about what has happened and support them emotionally. Remember this is as important as taking action to stop the bullying. Crucially, reassure your child that he or she is not at fault and does not deserve to be targeted.
Be careful about over-reacting to what your child discloses by becoming very upset yourself or by immediately rushing in a rage to the school to demand action. Impulsive actions can make matters worse and can make your child reluctant to talk to you.
Make a plan of action to deal with it, such as meeting the school or contacting the website host. Seek professional support and guidance as necessary.
Depending on your child’s age, talk through with them what actions they can take to protect themselves or to stop the bullying, such as keeping away from their tormentors, being assertive in response to taunts or talking to teachers. Be wary of thinking children can solve the problem themselves. Most children need the support of an adult.
Remember to support the child’s friendship with children who are kind to them. Encourge their involvement in healthy, enjoyable pursuits that provide respite and another source of support to them.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CHILD IS A BULLY
Take a report that your child might be bullying seriously. Don’t under-react by dismissing the suggestion – “my child would never do such a thing” – nor over-react by being very punitive towards your child. The key is to intervene early to stop the pattern and to help your child to learn better ways to communicate or to fit in with a group.
Present the information directly to your child and listen carefully to their account of what is happening as well as their feelings.
Focus on the alleged behaviour you want to stop and not your child’s “being a bully”. Help him or her to think of the impact of the behaviour on the other child and to imagine how he or she might feel in the same situation. Emphasise the importance of respecting, accepting and including others.
Explore actions your child can take to move forward, such as apologising if appropriate, or communication skills he or she can use to stop the bullying. For example, if it occurs in a group, explore what your child might say or do to stop it, for example by addressing the person who is starting it with, “Come on, don’t be stupid, leave John alone.”
Hold them accountable for their behaviour and warn them of consequences, such as loss of privileges, if they don’t stop.
Monitor the situation carefully and make sure to check with your child how things are going. Work co-operatively with the school or whoever made the report to sort things out.
HOW SCHOOLS CAN HELP
Schools have a particular responsibility to address bullying by having proactive positive-behaviour and anti-bullying policies, with a preventative component such as educating children about the dangers of bullying, and teaching face to face and social-media communication skills.
The silence surrounding bullying means schools need to encourage children to report bullying incidents. Some schools are creative, conducting frequent anonymous surveys with pupils about bullying incidents and, most importantly, following these up.
Schools need to act quickly following reports, including skilled interviewing of the alleged bully (see above), school sanctions and skilled classroom interventions. John Sharry