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.
Instant choice trumps long-term goals
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.
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.
It starts with us and our busyness
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.
– Madonna King, ABC News, author of Being 14 (Hachette)
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