While they differ on the date, historians agree that the idea of the teenager was invented some time in the mid-20th century. Previously a no-man’s-land between child and adulthood, it acquired a name and a definition several decades ago, but every few generations we still need to reinvent this intense stage of life and its emotional tumult.
So news this week that one in four 14-year-old girls (and one in 10 boys of the same age) are experiencing the symptoms of depression should detain us. It may be tempting to dismiss today’s adolescent moods, blithely, as something we have all endured. But the sources of young people’s anxiety seem to have changed quite fundamentally as growing up migrates online.
The worst cases have serious real-world consequences. One MP told me of a visit from a family who wanted help to move not just out of the local school, but out of London completely. Images of their daughter, aged 13, engaged in what used to be called heavy petting, had been shared so widely that the neighbourhood had become a hostile environment.
Hemmed in like this, closely watched, what happens to the important juvenile process of “finding yourself”? Instead of a range of rebellions, to be embraced or ignored depending on individual preference and character, the teenage years seem to have become an obligatory performance, a high-wire act. No wonder these depressed teenagers have stage fright. One study of the smartphone generation suggests they are even opting out of spending time with their friends. Because they shy away from going out, they are “physically safer but psychologically more vulnerable”.
I remember most of what I did in the 1980s, but it is comforting to know that hardly anyone else will, and not just because of the revolting mixtures of Cinzano Bianco, Malibu and Smirnoff that my friends and I smuggled on to the night bus. No one else cared. Photographs are few.
This drunken apprenticeship wasn’t exactly backstage with the Rolling Stones - our worst crimes probably involved eyeliner and hair gel. But these experiments, especially with boys, were necessary, and our mistakes, while keenly felt, were essentially private dramas. Not so today, where every triumph and disaster is documented and shared. If each experience has its significance multiplied, you are defined long before you are ready to tell the difference between image and reality. (Is it really a surprise that Instagram is found to be the most pernicious of the social media platforms when it comes to mental health?)
“Teenagers live their life more in public,” ponders Justine Brian, director of schools at the education support network Civitas: “They are always one Snapchat picture or Facebook post away from someone slagging them off.” She and I shared the peculiar frustration of judging a debating competition for secondary schools, supposedly on a motion about fake news. It instead unleashed a torrent of anxiety from the teenagers about managing their online personas. Our attempts to steer the sixth formers back on to the topic failed - they were possessed, as Ms Brian puts it, by “the idea that something terrible might happen online at age 16 and the rest of your life is ruined”.
What if a “frenemy” decides to spread lies? What if an Instagram photo is “stolen” and the poster’s good name ruined by its use to illustrate an article about underage promiscuity? This had happened to one debater’s friend in real life - the anecdote swung the audience.
We older judges agreed that our own youthful exploits had been hidden from family, from teachers and future acquaintances. Growing up without this freedom to take risks should be seen as a real deprivation, even for these outwardly articulate and confident teenagers.
This week’s report, part of government-funded longitudinal studies, shows that parents are no good at working out what is going on: they overestimate how depressed and anxious their sons feel, and seriously underestimate their daughters’ distress. Teachers also feel ill-equipped when dealing with pupils’ mental health problems, according to a separate study.
Paradoxically, miserable teenagers are most likely to seek out help and support from Childline online. Instead of cutting them off from the internet, evidence suggests they need help to develop better digital skills and emotional resilience, rather than an enforced smartphone detox.
Schools have transformed their attitude to pastoral care in recent years, it is true. Where it was once sink or swim, now we have mindfulness lessons and counsellors. But fears of stoking moral panic must not stop us noticing: some of these young people really are in trouble.