Upon reading the recommended book list, it appears evident that my teenage years are meant to consist of parties, dances, and a penchant for rebelling against my parents. So is it any wonder that I have learned to shun these books, because they no longer relate to my own teenage years?
These books do not bear any relation to the issues faced by the youth today, such as managing a balanced life, maintaining a good mental health, and the ever-looming beast of social media. Students are finding it harder and harder to keep up with the growing amount of revision they face throughout their school life, acting as a constant shadow that follows them even when the sun goes down. Upon speaking to others, it is clear why pupils are finding this such a conundrum.
‘Monitoring your mental health is a struggle, especially between going out, and also studying for each upcoming exam,’ a Year 11 student explained to me. Perhaps these fictionalised teenagers in novels written by adults more than twice our age are even dangerous, due to the pressure they have on the current youth who feel the need to fulfil this expectation to be typically young in a burgeoning world where there are too many distractions.
But was it always like this? Surely, the rise in mental health problems cannot be completely due to the pandemic.
I spoke to Liang, who grew up in the 1980’s, in a small village in Malaysia. Her ideas of childhood were more befitting of the literary ideals- she described how she would play badminton and swim in the sea with her friends, how she would go out dancing and pine after the latest pop stars and learn all the words to their latest songs. But what about the academic side to growing up?
‘We were always studying hard, making sure that we stayed at the top’, she explained to me. ‘It was a matter of respect- I suppose if you were the clever one, people would give you another level of respect. And maybe because I was a school prefect as well, I needed to maintain that status, I needed to be clean-cut, well-disciplined… the star student.’
This seemed typically resonant of today’s perception of success- this drive to be the best, and to forever be ahead of the game through academia, which is constantly enforced in teenage years to sound as if scholastic excellence is perhaps the most important road to success there is. Target grades, league tables, and the persistent question that forever echoes around school corridors (‘what did you get? what did you get?’) all intend to push students to their utmost potential- yet also cause an unimaginable amount of stress, low self-esteem, and physical and mental fatigue.
When asked about the pressures faced as a student, Liang replied, ‘I wanted to impress the teachers, because they had given me this responsibility and they trusted that I could be good in my position as prefect. I needed to prove this to them.’ It is evident that this pressure teenagers feel is not only internal but also external- parents who push study hours and feel an instant twinge of horror whenever they hear the buzz of a phone or the resonating call of Netflix’s thunder, married up with an internal voice that pushes work with guilt as a side dish, even if the body’s mental and physical stores cry out for rest. The omnipresent need to simply ‘do well’ follows teenagers wherever they go, and although a great deal of this is academic pressure, the mounting social pressures are not to be ignored.
If students study for extended periods of time, they are then accused by their peers of a lack of social life. If students go out with their peers, they are then chased by parents who are only so very slightly aware of the upcoming exams that loom ahead like a terrible stench that cannot be rid of. It remains true- that a balance of socialising and studying is difficult to undertake, especially with the increasing awareness of mental health and a growing need to look after ourselves.
Whilst the past will never look exactly like the present, the teenagers of the 1980’s do understand what it is to go out, and talk to their peers, and relax for even just half an hour.
‘We always got together after badminton or basketball, and we had fizzy pops or crisps, and just talked about what music to listen to, who were the most popular artists at the time’, Liang said, then quickly added, ‘But the world today is not as safe as it was where I came from. The village was so safe, because everyone knew everyone.’
So perhaps it is the world that we live in, and the culture of the time period and the greater society that affects teenagers, not simply the singular environment of school or home. Although some aspects of typical youth do remain true, such as studying and going out, the world around us must be factored in as part of a collective society, and understood that teenagers live in a world full of constant judgement from all sides, with the general consensus being that if we can survive this, then we are miraculously able to survive the adult world, as if it is all a game that we need only pass each level to succeed.
So, a word to the authors who write books concerning teenagers and their own private worlds- do not undertake such a feat unless you can open up the minds of a teenager going through each day and fully understand what it is like to be young in today’s society. Otherwise you will run the risk of patronising the future.