What’s happening to our girls?

“What a twelve-year-old girl experienced at seven, is not what a seven-year-old girl is now struggling with”. This is the reality for many girls, according to author Maggie Hamilton, who spent more than two years interviewing dozens of girls, teachers, school counsellors, psychologists, law enforcement and medical personnel to get an insider’s view of girls’ lives in today’s society.

Maggie has compiled her research into a new book, titled What’s Happening to our Girls? She believes that in a few short years our girls have become vulnerable – not just teen girls – young girls and baby girls. They are facing challenges no other generation has faced.

KidsLife spoke to Maggie about her new book.

What prompted the research for the book?

After ‘What Men Don’t Talk About‘ (my book on boys and men) was published, people kept asking me, what about a book on girls? My initial response was, “What about girls?”

I thought, naively, that teen life was pretty much the same as it had always been, except that it was a bit grittier, and now had mobile phones, iPods and the Internet. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What did your research indicate were some of the major concerns facing professionals working in the lives of young people, particularly girls?

In the last decade, in the last five years particularly, life has changed dramatically for our girls – not just teens, but for our little girls and babies – with intense marketing, the massive changes in technology and the deepening influence of popular culture and the cult of celebrity.

Advertisers now know babies can retain brand logos from six months – the latest demographic to be targeted are the 0-3s, while the tweens (10-13 year-olds) are now a multi-billion dollar market. We are seeing heightened anxieties about body image, increased sexualisation, little girls addicted to shopping long before we get to the self harm, eating issues, and other risky behaviour that is now becoming commonplace for teen girls. All these influences encourage girls to think about themselves in terms of their ‘packaging’ – to believe that looks and popularity are what counts, with little focus on their internal lives.

As risky behaviour becomes more prevalent, increasingly girls are seeing these routes as a normal part of life. I was surprised at how many girls told me they felt adults didn’t care. Many also said that adults couldn’t help much, because they’re aware of how little we know of their world. They see adults struggling with the new technologies, which adds to the sense of us not having a clue about what they’re facing. And so the ever-widening generation gap continues to grow, fed by the media and marketers who know they’re on to a good thing.

Are there any common pressures on parents of daughters in the early childhood years?

Many parents have lost confidence in parenting. This is perfect for the marketers, because parents become vulnerable to all the ‘stuff’ that’s out there for kids, and this includes educational DVDs for the very young. Without even realising it, many parents are drawn into buying a whole mountain of products for little girls in particular, because this seems the ‘right’ thing to do.

Did you need to immerse yourself in tween (ages 10-13) culture to understand the issues many young girls face today?

I feel you do need to immerse yourself in the tween culture, to get what it feels like to be a tween, to see life through their eyes and influences. Then so much becomes clear.

Is the current generation gap wider than it was a generation ago?

The generation gap now is wider than it has been for decades, because popular culture has become the super parent. Also our girls have access to more information in a day than their parents had during childhood. If they can surf the net there is almost no subject that is not available to them at the click of a mouse.

How important do you consider the teaching of media literacy?

Media literacy is absolutely essential. If it is to be effective, teachers need assistance to ensure these modules are continually updated, to deal with the new forms of information delivery, and the increasingly subtle ways girls are directly targeted.

What issues are young girls most worried about?

Appearance and acceptance are huge concerns for little girls. These young girls are now becoming so self-conscious about how they package themselves, fearful that if they don’t look right, they’ll be rejected. Marketers know this. There’s no better market to sell to, than to those who don’t have a strong sense of self – the fact that this is causing deep unhappiness doesn’t seem to bother them at all. In his book BRANDchild, international marketing guru Martin Lindstrom, described tweens as the most affluent generation ever of kids aged 6-12, and the most depressed.

How important is friendship to many tweens and teens?

Tweens and teens have an instinctive need to bond with those going through the same things they are – this is natural and necessary. The problem we’re now facing is a distortion of what friendship is about. Friendship has become synonymous with popularity – who has the most friends on Facebook? – and with packaging – who wears the same brands? Friendship is much more complex than this. It’s about being there for someone else. Being considerate and supportive, learning to put yourself out, navigate differences, and mend arguments. These nuances are the stuff of life, and are so necessary for our girls to learn before they reach adulthood.

Can peer group pressure be significant in the primary school years?

Peer group pressure is growing with the need girls have to be popular, to wear the ‘right’ clothes, and have the right possessions. Those who can’t achieve these things are in danger of being left out in the cold.

You refer to the ‘lived experience’? What do you mean by this?

When adults look at tweens and teens, it’s very easy to make assumptions based purely on their own experiences at these ages. This isn’t helpful, because the tween and teen years are very different. We have to know how girls are experiencing their world from the inside. When we do, so much makes sense, and the solutions become obvious.

Do you think most girls today need time out to be themselves?

Girls do need time to chill out. Growing up with 24/7 access to friends, marketing and entertainment is way too much stimulation. It also prevents girls from being able to enjoy their own company, begin to find out who they are, what feeds them as individuals, and what their life passions are likely to be – not just career-wise – but hobby-wise.

What general advice would you offer to parents of daughters?

In among the challenges are some great opportunities. Even though today’s girls have lots of attitude, behind that attitude are little girls trying to grow up.

  • Girls want parents who parent, not best friends.
  • Don’t compensate for your busyness with ‘stuff’.
  • Take an interest in popular culture and technology – your girls will love this – and it will help you stay ahead.
  • Discuss tricky issues raised in programs, so your girls have a more balanced view. Be clear about the magazines and other products you allow into your home – it is your child, your home.
  • Try to have meals together as often as possible, and make meals a celebratory time where the day’s joys and woes can be discussed.
  • Get to know the parents whose homes your daughter visits.
  • If you see programs, ads, billboards you find objectionable, speak out and get friends to do the same – not all publicity is good publicity.

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