Loneliness and social networking

A survey in Yours Magazine, quoted in Monday’s Telegraph, made for sad reading. Teenagers, it said, as are lonely as the elderly because they spend more of their time on social networking websites such as Facebook than they do going out to meet real people and develop real friendships. The survey found that 6 out of 10 teenagers find it difficult to find and make friends, despite having an average of 243 ‘Friends’ on Facebook, and that they experience loneliness as a result.

This survey highlights one of the central dangers of social networking – namely that, if it is allowed to run unchecked, it can be extremely isolating, and result in fewer enriching relationships rather than more, as the medium promises. It is easy to see how anyone – let alone a teenager, who is still in the process of discovering him or herself, and working out how to relate to others – can mistake the casualness of interaction online, and the immediacy of response, for real friendship; in actual fact, although it is possible to keep up with information online, it stands to reason that it is much, much harder to maintain or develop relationships. Where are the non-verbal clues to what someone is really thinking and feeling? Where is the empathy communicated in a smile or a hug or a touch?

Facebook most certainly has its place, and at its best can enable instant communication in a way which allows people to make good use of their time to keep in touch with people with whom they would otherwise fall out of contact. But it should never replace actual ‘in person’ communication, and we need to help protect young people in particular against its excesses. This is especially the case in regard to the disconnect it can create between real and online worlds which can so easily develop: it is very easy to withdraw to an artificial world which seems in our control, at the click of a button. Teenagehood is a time for exploration and development, and an absolutely central part of this is the development of how to deal with, and live with, other people. Let’s make sure we get the message out, loud and clear, that no matter how challenging this is, it has to be done in real life, face-to-face.

Proud to be a Headmistress: Moira Buffini’s ‘Dinner’ at the Edinburgh Fringe

The very last show I watched at the Edinburgh Fringe before heading back south for exam results week was a show for which I had especially extended my stay in Edinburgh by a day. It was the Fringe debut of a group consisting essentially of 2011 leavers from St Mary’s Calne, presenting an adapted version of Moira Buffini’s dark comedy thriller, Dinner, and it was more than worth prolonging my holiday for. In fact, there are some moments which make being a Headmistress entirely worthwhile, and this was one of them.

The performance went extremely well, and the 23 strong audience – a great number for a first show at 11am on a Sunday morning, with practically no prior publicity – was very appreciative. If there had been a reviewer there, I reckon the show would have received a 4+ star write-up. Lily Wakeley, who played Paige, and who was one of the driving forces behind the production initially, was stunning in her role, but enormous praise must go to all of the cast for the way in which they embraced challenging themes and equally challenging characters and dialogue, drawing out the very black humour while forcing us to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. The acting was superb.

They were brilliant … and I was so, so proud of them. For the most part, I have seen these girls grow from pre-teenagers through the turbulent years of teenagehood, to become poised, grounded and intelligent young women, and it is a privilege to have helped guide them along the way. They are mature, insightful, confident without being over-confident, and absolutely attuned to the world. They have strong friendships, evident in the way in which they worked together for this production. They have a strong social conscience – when they performed the play earlier in the year in Calne, they raised almost £1,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society – and they plan to make a positive mark on the world.

Girls’ schools make a difference to girls and young women; they enthuse, embolden, encourage and empower. No further proof is needed than the young women themselves, several thousand of whom across the country have graduated this summer and are ready to embark on university, gap year and career. It makes me so proud to do what I do. Watch out, world!

Technodelic Comedy Show: astonishing creativity and human resilience

Probably the most extraordinary show we saw at the Edinburgh Fringe this year was an incredibly fast-moving extravaganza of electronic music, video projection and light, with a futuristic feel, and an interaction between dancers and projected images that was timed absolutely to perfection. It was billed as a Comedy Show, and there was a light heartedness about it, but essentially this was an amazingly clever production in which heart pounding techno music combined with split-second timing to provide a series of sets in which electronic images were captured by living performers and manipulated in front of our eyes. A spectacular set which pried right into the life of one of the performers made a pointed comment about the intrusiveness of the online world: a timely reminder for us all.

It was a world premiere, but news was spreading fast; by the end of the week we spent in Edinburgh, it was selling out and had repeated standing ovations. It took my breath away, certainly, to see such clever, rapid movement between reality and illusion, and the concept was so novel as well as so perfectly executed that the room almost vibrated with the sense of something completely new and invented. We had never seen anything like it.

It was clear that the troupe, SIRO-A – 6 young Japanese men – had devoted enormous energy to the development of the show, and their hard work, dedication and energy sparked for all to see in the performance itself. The real story, however, lay behind this fantastical production, for these young men were all from Sendai, the Japanese city closest to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March this year. They had sent off their application to the Fringe on the day the earthquake and tsunami struck, and despite the fact that their rehearsal studio was wrecked in the subsequent traumatic events, they made a commitment to come and show the world that they were a strong nation and would survive. Quoted in The Scotsman, the assistant producer said: ‘This is their message to the world, that this is the energy of Japan that is still alive’.

Alive it most certainly is – alive, vibrant and explosively real. It was an amazing experience to listen to and watch their performance, and humbling to acknowledge the strength, courage and resilience that underpinned it.

I know what I will be speaking about in one of my first assemblies of the new school term!

Edinburgh Fringe: not a supermodel in sight. A celebration of normal people.

On Tuesday I had a conversation with a journalist ahead of the A Level results which come out next week, and we ended up talking about the sexualised imagery of girls and women in our society, which is a subject that I feel very strongly about, and which I have spoken out about several times over the past few months, including on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. My main issue is that we are so uncritical about the images that surround us that we have almost sleepwalked into a situation where sexualised images have become the norm. As a society, we are subscribing uncritically to a perceived idealised image of women which is both unrealistic and, because of its prevalence and pervasiveness, actually dangerous to the mental health of our young girls and women, creating as it does a distorted picture of the world, accompanied by a huge pressure to conform.

Immediately after our conversation, and because I was thinking again about body shape and size, I was suddenly struck by something wonderful. In Edinburgh at Fringe time, there are crowds of people wherever you go. The Scotsman at the beginning of the week estimated that 2.74 million people will attend the shows of the Festival over its four week period. I would certainly count in the thousands the number of people I have seen in the streets and in venues over the past week. And yet I cannot think of a single one – not a single one! – who conforms to the idealised picture of female ‘beauty’ that is perpetuated by advertising and the media. Not a single person who could be said even remotely to resemble the kind of shape and size so frequently portrayed as ‘ideal’.

All shapes and sizes are here – all different, all unique: tall, short, wide, thin – all carrying their bodies in different ways, with different gaits, different hair, different clothes – different everything. All unique human beings with their unique characters, who are happy, relaxed and enjoying the Fringe. The point is that they are normal – beautifully quirky, individual and just normal. There is not a supermodel in sight. And that is the reality of our glorious life. Let’s celebrate normality.

Riots in the UK – what parents need to do to stop the violence

There were appalling scenes of violence again last night in London and other cities around the UK for the third night in a row. And there is no excuse at all for this violence – for all that Ken Livingstone tried to blame the violence on anger generated by government cuts, it is obvious to all who witnessed it that this was just criminal behaviour on the part of young men, some of them still essentially children in their early or pre-teens. Theresa May is right – this is pure criminality: no amount of anger about lack of fairness or opportunity in life justifies stealing and damage to the property of others. And if these young people do feel hard done by in life, they should go to East Africa, where they would be lucky to reach adulthood. People who are really suffering and in poverty do not have mobile phones from which they can organise flash mobs to loot and pillage. This is totally unacceptable copycat crime.

What makes these young people think that it is ok to take what isn’t theirs, to injure and destroy? What messages have they received in their lives that encourage them to feel that it is permissible to behave outside the bounds of rules and laws that are in place to help ease the workings of society? No system is perfect, and we have to keep working hard – oh, so hard – to find ways to engage all of our young people positively and fruitfully in society, for their long term wellbeing and happiness as well as the effective working of society – but we also have to be firm and strong in saying and showing that this kind of behaviour is entirely wrong. For this to happen, we must as an absolute priority make sure that we work together in schools and communities to support parents to learn how to parent and how to make sure their children have the boundaries they need to function in the world.

When boundaries are not enforced from an early age – and I mean by parents, schools and other adults in the community, and not the police, who should be the last resort to ensure law and order – then lawlessness is bound to ensue. It is never too late to start – parents, adults, members of the community all need to be clear and unequivocal in the messages they are giving out. Let’s not lose the moral high ground and express ourselves physically or verbally in anger and aggression – what message does this send out? – but let us ensure that we are crystal clear in our response, both in words and action.

If this violence doesn’t stop soon – now – then more livelihoods are going to be destroyed, more homes are going to be lost, families are going to suffer, and the chances are extremely high that people are going to be seriously injured and even killed. Parents – stop your children going out tonight. Families and communities – stand up and say ‘enough’. Citizens – follow the example of the people of Birmingham and help clean up your cities to show that togetherness and goodness will prevail. Speak out and stop this now.

‘An Education’: Carey Mulligan and girls’ schools

A parent of a girl at my school said to me a few weeks ago that the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning 2009 film ‘An Education’, starring Carey Mulligan, should be compulsory viewing for all teenage girls, and now that I have (finally) seen it, I entirely agree. The film takes us on the journey of a highly intelligent girl, destined for Oxford, who feels that there is more to life than ‘dead’ study, and is seduced into a seemingly richer, more life-affirming existence, only to discover – the hard way – that it is little more than smoke and mirrors, and there is value to hard work after all.

The message is of course the right one – keep working hard, beware the easy path etc … just the sort of thing of which you would expect a Headmistress to approve. But what interested me too was the attitude towards girls and women which the film reflected, and which was entirely believable as a historical portrayal. Jenny’s father was determined that she should go to Oxford … but only, it emerges, so that she can marry a better match; Jenny’s mother, an understated role which reflects her subservience in the family hierarchy, reveals in one ascerbic comment to her husband that ‘she did have a life before she was married’; and the girls’ school which Jenny attends is portrayed as dry, repressed and hide-bound by rules – so much so that the Headmistress, played by the redoubtable Emma Thompson – refuses to give Jenny a second chance.

Carey Mulligan herself attended a girls’ school, and it was the making of her. She is quoted elsewhere as saying: “I had wanted to act for a really long time, but other schools I had been to did not have such good drama departments. Everyone was so encouraging. You could do anything you wanted to, although you had to take it seriously.’ This is what I personally recognise in girls’ schools today – this sense of limitless possibility and total encouragement of the individual. They are incredible places – and I make no secret of my enthusiasm.

Still, it is interesting how much prejudice remains about girls’ schools – how much people still imagine them to be ‘dry’ or ‘repressed’. To what extent is this a sign of the dying embers of the inherent sexism that has marked our education system over the centuries, with the education of boys and sons valued much more highly than that of girls and daughters? There is a very high likelihood that it is. What we must remember is not to take such prejudices at face value, and challenge them when we encounter them. Girls’ schools are amazing, and I am very proud indeed of mine.

The risk of not taking risks

A quietly uplifting article about Forest Schools appeared in the pages of this week’s Wednesday’s Times. If you can’t read it online, then do at least look at this website about the phenomenon of Forest Schools – this model of outdoor schools, relatively common in Scandinavia, is being adopted by a number of schools in this country, and is definitely a ‘good news’ story.

Whilst a part of us may feel a little nervous about the prospects of allowing our children to explore the outside environment unhindered by too many rules or constraints, the upsides of freedom and the development of self-regulation undoubtedly outweigh the downsides. And how exciting for the children – to be able to roam around and just explore and have fun! I am certain that enough rules must be in place to make it safe enough – otherwise I doubt that Sandfield Natural Play Centre would have been awarded an ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted – but the real attraction is that this is in fact a riskier environment than our children have grown used to.

The real risk, of course, in a world which we endeavour to make as ‘risk-free’ as possible for our children, is that they do not learn how to deal with risk at all. And if this world in which we live is anything, it is risky, and we need to prepare our young people for this, so that they learn how to deal with this risk safely. Catherine Prisk, head of Play England, was quoted in The Times as saying: ‘If a child is given only a safe environment to play in, they will create their own risks. If they are presented with something more risky, they take more care.’, and this struck home as an obvious truth: the more that we have had the chance to get to know ourselves as adults, the better the judgements we take – it makes perfect sense, therefore, that the more that children are exposed to situations where they have to develop independent judgements and learn to know their capacities, the more balanced and wise they are going to become.

I suspect that the university of the outdoors beckons!

Anorexia in children – when will we wise up to what we are doing?

Monday’s front page headlines in both The Sun and The Daily Mail led on a story first published in the previous day’s Sunday Telegraph about the rise in eating disorders in children under 13. The frustration of most articles dealing with figures, facts and medical science is that they tend to obscure the reality with bad mathematics (Ben Goldacre fulminates regularly about this in his blog ‘Bad Science‘), but this time we do have something concrete: 197 children between the ages of 5-9 were treated in hospital last year for eating disorders – a figure that is apparently almost double the number of the previous year.

None of the other figures in the article is compared in the same way, so it is difficult to attempt to draw a real pattern, especially as a number of the hospitals approached under the Freedom of Information Act refused to disclose information, and some only included in their numbers in-patients who were dangerously ill, rather than also adding in those being treated as out-patients. However, it is clear from this one figure alone – referring to children who are shockingly young to be suffering from psychological disorders – that we have a real issue on our hands.

How have we come to this situation? Although Great Ormond Street spokespeople were at pains to stress that there can be many reasons for disordered eating in young children, many parents of daughters in particular have noticed unhealthy attitudes to food/diets/appearance at early ages. Tanith Carey, whose book on the sexualisation of girls, ‘Where has my little girl gone?‘ I reviewed in an earlier blog, describes (also in the Daily Mail) how her own six-year old daughter has become very aware of calories and food and the effect on appearance – the message that being ‘too fat’ is a crime is already embedded in the mindsets of young girls. Inevitably, the distorted view of the world that results – the sense of never being able to attain what is necessary to be ‘good’ or even just ‘ok’ – is leading to intense psychological pressure. It is no wonder that eating disorders are on the rise amongst our children.

Who is to blame? Actually, we all are. We have all participated in creating a kind of fantasy world in which women are only seen to be successful if they are unrealistically thin and groomed – apparently effortlessly, but actually the result of several hours of attention. Newspapers and magazines need to stop falling into the trap of illustrating all their articles with gratuitous photos of women who meet these implausible criteria; advertisers need to stop airbrushing photos to make women seem extraordinary; people in the public eye (including the women whose photos are used) have a responsibility to stand up and be counted against the pressures that children face from the images around them; we need to be ultra-aware of the messages we are sending out about appearance, and we must prepare our children to be savvy to them too. Finally, feel free to refuse to buy for children any dolls, magazines, toys – anything, in fact – that perpetuate the myth.

Do something today to make a difference.

Opt-in not opt-out – why we need to press ISPs to block porn

A short article on page 4 of Thursday’s Times sent me scurrying to find out the truth behind the words. The article claimed that tens of thousands of parents have blocked their children’s access to suicide and self-harm websites on home computers, using TalkTalk’s relatively new HomeSafe service, which requires all new users to set controls and limits (from zero to a wide range) as part of the set-up process; although you still have to choose HomeSafe in the first place, this ISP is at least ahead of the other ISPs in providing a service which doesn’t involve the installation of filter software – it is to some extent more opt-in than opt-out. These figures provided an encouraging start, but the article then went on to say that ‘Fewer than 25 per cent of parents who signed up to the service blocked pornographic sites or sites about drugs, tobacco and alcohol’. This sounded perplexing, and so I went on the trail of more information.

After searching for a while online for a press release, and drawing a blank, I had a very nice conversation with Alex in the TalkTalk press office, who shared with me that although they hadn’t yet officially released any figures, it was becoming clear that more customers were opting to block websites that encouraged suicide or self-harm, including pro-anorexia websites, than were blocking other potentially harmful sites such as those promoting porn, or dealing with smoking, tobacco and alcohol. The percentages weren’t vastly different, in fact, and of course there are many imponderables in there too – do they distinguish between websites discouraging smoking and those advocating the use of cannabis, for example? Moreover, it was actually impossible to tell whether these customers were parents or not, which somewhat skews the figures in the article.

However, the bottom line is that of all TalkTalk’s new customers in the past 2 months, around 75% of them have thought that unfiltered access to the internet is – by default – a good thing, and it is a fair bet that a proportion of these are parents. We need no other proof of the intense potential dangers of the online world, of the disconnect that can happen between reality and fantasy, with fatal consequences, than the case of Joshua Davies, who has just been convicted for murdering his girlfriend. One of the most chilling aspects was the testimony of his friend, who apparently encouraged him in text messages and yet didn’t think Davies’ explicit fantasies were real – ‘I thought he was only joking’. Well, he wasn’t, and a precious life was lost as a result.

The point here is not that all unfiltered access leads to murder; the point is that we have not yet become savvy enough as a society to recognise the dangers of unfettered exposure to potentially harmful ways of thinking. We are too naive … and if we are, then so certainly are our children, and we should protect them.

If you have a moment, visit the Safermedia website or the website of Claire Perry MP – they are campaigning for ISPs to have opt-in rather than opt-out filters. Let’s wise up.

The redemption of Amy Winehouse

Abraham Lincoln said once that the best way to predict the future is to create it, and for me, that determination translates into a positive, optimistic, personal philosophy: good can and should come out of everything, no matter how bad, tragic or awful, as long as we make sure that it does. So when someone dies, we need to look, as we reflect on their life and seek to honour the person, at what we can learn and how we can make sure that the effect of their life – and sometimes their death – is a life-enhancing one.

It would be easy to be sanctimonious in examining Amy Winehouse’s life and draw attention to the lessons to be learned about the consequences of the toxic cocktail of all those drugs and drink that clearly damaged her, and will almost certainly have contributed to some extent to her early death, even if this happened because she was trying to dry out, as reported in the Daily Mail today. And of course we should use every opportunity to communicate to our young people that a drug-fuelled or hedonistic lifestyle is ultimately not the path to happiness that it might appear. But there are two more important aspects to her life from which we can learn – the power of her music and her love of her family – and these have the potential to be lasting positive legacies of her life.

Her musical persona was amazing – that voice, that hair, that face. By all accounts, at her best she was compelling in performance – a kind of white soul icon who transported fans back in time while grounding them firmly in the harsh realities of life in the noughties. She didn’t shy away from controversial subjects, and she seemed just to tell it as she saw it, in an uncompromising, direct, no-nonsense way. We may not agreed with all she said, but we respected her right – and her capacity – to sing it. Her music will live on.

And as for family, one of the images that will remain with us is that of the then 26 year old Amy cuddling up to her father and sucking her thumb. Family was important to her, and her family are distraught at her death. When a daughter/son/brother/sister dies, the scale of loss felt by their family is unimaginable. We are reminded of the intense strength of family relationships, and how we would do anything we could to protect our children from harm. And we share in the grief for Amy’s loss with her family. She was, after all, just a child.