VICTORIA WHITE: Teenage girls suffering from an ‘always-on’ social media landscape

The NHS says 20% of girls are self-harming, three times as many as a decade ago, writes Victoria White

I was on my way into RTÉ to do an interview on Today with Sean O’Rourke on Tuesday when Mandy Throwbridge’s interview about the death by suicide of her 16-year-old daughter came on the radio.

I sat in the RTÉ car park listening to the end even at the risk of missing my own slot on the same show.

How petty it seemed by comparison with the emotion of a mother who had three months ago lost her beloved little girl forever and was now campaigning for restrictions on the anonymous apps which could have played a role in her death.

I have a teenage girl too. And I was in the middle of reading best-selling author Steve Biddulph’s new book on raising girls — 10 Things Girls Need Most (to grow up strong and free) — to try to make sense of my fears for her.

He makes clear girls are suffering from the “always on” of social media, the constant comparisons of themselves with others and the constant bombardment with images of sexualised perfection. And they shouldn’t have to cope with the kind of cyberbullying which played a leading role in the mind-numbing tragedy of Tyrone girl, Elle Throwbridge’s death.

Her mother explained that when Elle was 11 she received an anonymous message through Ask.fm which expressed the wish that she should “cut herself so deep” she would bleed to death. If that didn’t work she was told to throw herself off a bridge, a cruel play on her name, which reveals this was no random message.

Elle immediately shared her deepest pain with her Mum and it is frightening that even a Mum as loving and available as Mandy Throwbridge obviously is couldn’t prevent the tragedy that happened five years later. The experience took its toll and — her mother believes — led to bouts of depression. Mandy left no stone unturned to treat her.

The girl was popular and studious and a prize-winning show-jumper. But it was the detail that she “liked her dressing-gown and her mug of tea” which really brought my own little lassie to mind — those precious chats we sometimes have by the fire on winter evenings.

I simply don’t know how Mandy Throwbridge can hold herself together after sustaining such a loss. Particularly as Elle seemed to be turning the corner when, a few weeks before her 16th birthday, another anonymous message came through, this time on SimSimi: “Throwbridge should go and get hit by a bus.”

Little Elle was only sweet 16 a few weeks before she took her own life. Mandy is going through the hell all parents of teens fear most. Thank God relatively few of us will ever join her there. But so many of us will face mental health issues in our teen girls that we must ask ourselves some very serious questions about where we have led them.

A century after the Suffragettes and nearly a half-century since the gains of feminism’s second wave we are looking at what Biddulph calls “the battle to set girls free”. He says it began to go pear-shaped for girls about a decade ago when:

“Girls who had flown up into the sunshine of a century of feminism started to go into a nosedive.”

He writes that on average they have lost four or more years of their childhoods.

In the UK the department of education says a third of all teenage girls suffer from depression or anxiety, which they call “an important and significant trend”. The NHS says 20% of girls are self-harming, three times as many as a decade ago.

We can be quickly disabused of the idea that we’re any different by looking at Claire O’Sullivan’s reports based on an Irish Examiner/Reachout poll published in this newspaper which ran for three days from March 30 this year.

It showed a third of teenage girls rating their mental health as poor or very poor and only 2% saying they were generally relaxed. The results were shocking for boys too — 20.6% with mental health rated poor or very poor — but they were significantly better overall than for girls.

I’m not usually in moral panic mode. But I listen to Mandy Throwbridge and I listen to Steve Biddulph and I can see my daughter’s generation with my own eyes. There is something very bad going on. It’s just hard, as a parent, to know how to keep a girl safe.

Mandy is trying to cope with her own grief by fighting hard for an end to apps which facilitate anonymous comments, particularly from kids. She’s right in theory but I don’t know how you’d ban anonymity in practice.

She suggests that service providers could alert parents before certain content is accessed by under-age users. Again, I don’t know how that could work in practice, but I’d love to hear suggestions.

Fine Gael’s Jim Daly got a lot of abuse for his Bill banning the sale of phones with internet access to under-14s but such a law might have stopped little Elle getting that terrible message at 11. In the UK, a former advisor to David Cameron, Steve Hilton, argued for under-16s to be banned from using smartphones.

And so it goes on. When really — and this is a point bravely stressed by Mandy Throwbridge — it is most of all parents who need to act to supervise their children online. This is where I am a big offender. Over the summer my 14-year-old girl and my 16-year-old boy have had unlimited access to every device in the house.

An Australian study showed 37% of older teenage boys accessing pornography daily. Meanwhile 60% of girls are exposed to pornography between the ages of 13 and 16; most of them worry about how many “likes” their selfies get and a third of them send an explicit image of themselves if repeatedly asked by a boy they like.

This early exposure to emotionless sex is, apparently, leading to teens having sex with no kissing, no petting, no intimacy, and no foreplay. Young women are deprived of even that avenue for pleasure and release.

I promise Mandy Throwbridge, in Elle’s memory, that I’ll try to cage the internet monster I’ve unleashed. But already banning devices from bedrooms has become banning them after 10pm.

Except not tonight, because I’m working late in my office… It’s not all about the internet, though, is it? The internet is just a magnifying glass trained on our society and the deep issues in our society which harm our wee girls.

What was going on in the head or heads of whoever wrote those hideous comments about Elle? Why are girls subjected to so much competition and bitchiness and why do some engage in it?

Isn’t it because that’s what our individualist, materialist society values over the things which Biddulph says our girls need to help set them free: community, nature, our time?

The NHS says 20% of girls are self-harming, three times as many as a decade ago


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