By Madonna King, 5th January, 2019
At a school in Perth, a group of teen girls is sitting in a circle, practising breathing techniques. One. Two. Three. Four.
“I’ve only got a couple of minutes with them,” a school counsellor tells me later. Why? Because if this cohort can’t learn to slow-breathe in two minutes, they’ll consider they’ve failed.
Failed breathing? It seems risible, but this is a telling example of how the curse of instant gratification is colouring our teens’ lives.
In an instant we all can — and expect to — do our banking, book a holiday online, or check a medical diagnosis. Success needs to be now. We don’t have time to wait, or waste. And nowhere has instant gratification found a more welcome home than in the teenage world of touchscreen and WiFi, of devices and apps, of television on demand, music in the pocket, and 24/7 connectivity.
The Perth example is one of dozens I’ve encountered since writing Being 14, which charts the challenges faced by teen girls, and how the rest of us might help them. Often we — their parents — are feeding on the same diet of instant gratification: sprinting through the doors at Boxing Day sales, or cursing the slow driver in front of us.
Technology plays a Brobdingnagian role here because it allows us to want, pay and own in seconds. But social researcher Mark McCrindle says it has been so transformative with our teens that it has left them without any real view of the history behind them. “Everything is in the now,” he says.
Interviewing 200 14-year-old girls, many issues race to the fore. One of those is the link between instant gratification and the epidemic of anxiety among teen girls (about 54 per cent of girls suffer an episode of depression or anxiety during their teens).
Developing teenage brains reward instant choice over long-term goals, but other factors which we can change come into play too. Ask the girls what they’d really value their parents understanding about them, and anxiety comes up trumps.
“I’m scared that I won’t succeed or be happy,” Molly says. “I don’t know what I want to do after school,” India says. She fears ending “up on the streets and not at uni”. “Please don’t forget that mental health is important. Stress. Anxiety. Depression,” Tara advises me.
Rose fears “people abandoning me”. Lauren worries that she won’t be successful at what she chooses.
These girls are all 14, and fear pops up repeatedly: fear of what’s around the corner, of missing out, of not fitting in, or having to wait, or even a fear of the unexpected. I put that to psychologists and educators, and the role we play as parents should not be underestimated here. In many ways, we might be role-modelling that instant gratification, and inadvertently adding to our daughters’ anxieties.
Just consider how busy we are, compared with our parents. One counsellor quipped that some parents are so busy now that the only time they stop is when they need to sit still in a dentist’s chair. She was joking, but her point is well-made.
Several educators urge parents to schedule boredom into our children’s lives (somewhere between their homework and extra-curricular activities). And the difference between those teens brought up in country areas and their city cousins was also raised: those on the land were more likely to have their spare time filled with real things, like feeding animals or fixing a fence, that held them in good stead.
Our teenagers are too busy. Now, on offer, they have dozens of sports, can be tutored to get a B+ to an A, join holiday camps or extension music try-outs, or invitation-only maths clubs. Parents encourage this because they didn’t have those opportunities and they want the best for their children.
But how much is too much? Girls explained to me how they would fall into bed, exhausted, but unable to sleep. Seven in every 10 14-year-old girls gets insufficient sleep, most of them recording fewer than eight hours, when nine hours is the minimum required. Heavy school workloads on top of extracurricular activities are a key reason behind the sleep deficit epidemic.
Our 14-year-olds are worried sick, even if they are not telling you.
It might be anxiety over an upcoming test, or a friendship angst that follows her home from school. The lure of the blue-lit screen resting on the bedside table adds to the problem, with the short-wavelength light delaying sleep onset.
Often, they see their parents living similar lives. Working hard, staying up late, squeezing in friends before Christmas and commenting on their daughter’s friends’ successes from the Facebook highlight-reel. “Did you see Isobel’s academic award?” Or, “I see Olivia’s the state swimming champion”.
That is putting significant pressure on both high-achieving peers, but also on those who try hard but never scrape into the top team. “I have to get up early and go for a run, do weights, because I want to get into the eight in rowing,” Phoebe says. “Dad is the rowing coach. He expects me [to be] in it.”
Schools are helping our teen girls navigate this anxiety by offering yoga and meditation and lessons in mindfulness. But the disease of instant gratification starts being cured at home, where hard work, failing and then succeeding and setting goals are talked about and role-modelled.
Professor Ian Frazer co-invented the science behind the cervical cancer vaccine, which saves millions of women’s lives. But success came after a decade of failed experiments. Ask your teen daughters: what would have happen if he’d given up after one year? Or even nine?
Or tell them how photographs were taken when you were their age. Remember? Firstly, we needed to adjust the focus because that was not automatic. And then we would snap a photo and put the camera away.
Why, they ask? Because we had to wait to take another 11, or 23 or 35 photos, before we could develop them. Then, when the film was full, we’d open the door (that’s right) of the camera and remove it.
I’ve relayed this story — given to me by a teen psychologist — in dozens of schools now, and it’s the next line that’s the clincher. We’d then take the film to the pharmacy to be developed.
It’s only a story, but it’s a reminder that memories are built up over time, and not everything needs to be uploaded in an instant.
But when we returned for the photographs, a week or so later, we’d carry two things: money to pay for them (which meant we thought about those we were taking) and a delightful sense of anticipation.
Instant gratification has stolen that feeling from so many of our children. We need to help gift it back.
Madonna King is author of Being 14 (Hachette).Leave a reply