Youth is the time when we grow and develop. We face choices which some of us embrace. Free will is a privilege, tested at school. We can choose to pay attention and carry out to the best of our ability assignments teachers set us. We can choose friends whose example inspire us. We can also opt to defy the authority of teachers, and to waste our time with idlers and mischief makers. In his poem “My Heart Leaps up” Wordsworth said “The child is father of the man”. At first glance this makes no sense; fathers precede children. Wordsworth, though, is deploying paradox. He means that all we say and do as children and adolescents affects the rest of our lives. This means that youth is important and to waste it damages us and leads to regret.
Youth has always encompassed challenges: the need to become independent; expectations of adults; exams; peer pressure; bullying; dealing with physical and emotional changes in body and mind. Some young people thrive as they change, and with every success their self-confidence increases. Others struggle, and every failure undermines them. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of climbing the mountain in front of them they stand at the foot and tell themselves, “I can’t do it – it’s too high.” The spectacle of such defeatism can be irritating, provoking such ripostes as “Pull yourself together”. Somewhat more encouraging is “The gods help those who help themselves”, a saying from ancient Greeks to enjoin effort and perseverance.
In the twenty-first century, information technology is increasingly pervasive. Old people who struggle with it find it a mixed blessing. For the young, though, IT is just as integral to day-to-day life as breathing. Instagram, owned by Meta (formerly Facebook), is a free, online photo-sharing application and social network platform that was acquired by Facebook in 2012. It is popular with teenagers, who find it so easy to use that there is a risk of addiction. If Instagram showed images of strong, healthy people working to achieve their goals, its influence would be salutary. Evidence, though, tells us that some of its messages are harmful, especially to young minds. Content includes glamourisation of depression, self-harm and suicide.
In 2017 Molly Russell died at the age of 14, the coroner said, of self-harm while depressed because of the negative effects of online content. Her father, Ian Russell, has the strength, in his grief, to call for regulation of such content. She is not the only victim. Too many young people have harmed and even killed themselves when under the influence of toxic online messages.
The harm and suffering some adolescents suffer is needless. Growing up is hard in any circumstances. Parents want their children to be resilient, but resilience cannot be acquired overnight. To help young people to grow up strong and able to face reality, adults should encourage the practice of speaking out. Suicide is terrible, but it happens. We ought to be neither shocked nor dismissive if teenagers talk of killing themselves. Instead we must ask them why, dissuade them from poring over pernicious images, and encourage them to learn to distinguish truth from lies which lead to a distorted viewpoint.
G K Chesterton has been out of fashion. Let us hope the BBC television series featuring stories based on this eloquent and brilliant writer revive his former popularity. He eschews obfuscation and superstition, and says:
“If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it.”
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― G.K. Chesterton, The Wisdom of Father Brown