The dangerous myth of today’s ‘toxic’ childhood

Today, frontpage newspaper headlines sensationally report that our ‘toxic digital world’ claimed the life of 15-year-old Tallulah Wilson, who killed herself in October 2012. Today’s stories follow on from claims earlier this week that children and young people are growing up in an ‘unprecedented toxic climate’ of stress and pressure – following a national poll commissioned for the charity, YoungMinds.

Lucie Russell, director of campaigns at YoungMinds said: ‘Young people tell us they experience a continuous onslaught of stress at school, bullying, sexual pressures and bleak employment prospects.’ We should take these findings with a rather large pinch of salt – considering this was a poll commissioned for the launch of a new campaign and specifically asked respondents ‘about the issues that worried them’.

Whether genuinely motivated by a concern for the wellbeing of the younger generation and a desire to make the world better for them, or cynically manipulating the media to promote and raise money, YoungMinds should seriously consider the possible unintended consequences of this kind of scaremongering.

Yes, the world has changed. Many of these social changes have given the younger generation opportunities and benefits that earlier generations never even dreamed of. Of course, it is not all a bed of roses. Today’s youth face many challenges that fortysomethings like me never faced when growing up – in particular, in relation to negotiating the online world.

But adults need to think seriously about what our role is in socialising and raising the next generation. We have a role to play in helping young people negotiate new challenges. But we do not help young people by painting an overly bleak picture of the modern world, exaggerating every difficulty and possible danger, and telling them that they are vulnerable and fragile and unable to cope in the face of today’s ‘toxic world’.

I would not dispute that there are some young people who seriously struggle to cope with life. As a society, we do need to think about how we can help those whose suffering and mental anguish goes way beyond normal teenage angst. As someone who struggled to cope in my teenage years, I tended to think that teenage angst was a given. It is not. The reality is that the majority of youth are on the whole content with their lives and benefiting from social changes and new technologies.

But those who do suffer from teenage angst – or more serious mental-health issues – are not helped by continually being told how vulnerable their generation is in the face of modern challenges. And it is wrong to attribute tragic suicides to single, straightforward causes – such as a ‘toxic digital world’. For Tallulah’s mother to try to make sense of the tragic loss of her daughter through finding a scapegoat is understandable. But for the media, charities and politicians to sensationalise these tragic deaths is downright irresponsible.

Adults need to behave like adults and help children and young people put their anxieties and fears in perspective. The last thing we should do is to stoke up and exaggerate anxieties and – worst of all – give young people the impression that taking one’s own life is an understandable response to our ‘toxic’ world.

First published on spiked, 23 January 2014