By DR MICHAEL CARR-GREGG
A recent survey asked young people who they turn to for advice when they need help and unsurprisingly the generation born with a mouse in their hand, turned most to the internet, followed by parent/s and then magazines.
Not that I needed it but the importance of magazines in the lives of these young people - vindicated my decision back in 2003 to accept the offer to take on writing for Girlfriend magazine’s “Advice” columns.
Despite some disparaging remarks from colleagues, I regarded this then – and still do – as an exceptional opportunity, which would afford me the opportunity to deliver evidence based and hopefully ethical advice directly to over eighty thousand young women – each month – as they struggle with the vicissitudes of teenage life.
The initial response of most people, upon learning that I have been dispensing advice to teenage girls for over a decade is, “Are the questions made up?” To which the answer is no – the magazine receives thousands of emails to its advice columns every week and even the occasional communication by snail mail.
The upside of writing for a teen girl’s magazine is that I know more about Justin Bieber and One Direction than most grown men. But there are some downsides to the role. One is that the moral, ethical and legal dilemmas that our readers sometimes serve up can be tortuous and often require widespread consultation with a plethora of colleagues who thankfully are generous enough to offer their perspective.
After all, what do you say to a 14-year-old who comes home early and finds her mother in bed with a neighbour? Not to mention the 15-year-old who finds her father watching teen porn? Sometimes you just don’t have enough specific details to offer detailed guidance – so you reluctantly have to settle for offering generic advice – usually around accessing help from a trusted adult.
The other problem, which often plays on my mind – is the delay between the time the writer seeks help and the time at which the answers are published. Logic dictates that sometimes the particular dilemma might have resolved itself one way or another by the time an issue hits the newsstands. I take some comfort in the fact that increasingly young people contact magazines via social media and there is a editorial protocol of referring them to Kids Helpline or eheadspace.
There is no doubt that adult sexual concepts are increasingly seeping into the lives of children, well before they’re cognitively or developmentally equipped to process this information and as commentators like Melinda Tankard-Reist and Steve Biddulph correctly point out – it is an imposition on a childhood to have to try and understand or comprehend this imagery and sexual messaging that they are so often bombarded with.
I am conscious as a psychologist of the hyper sexualised messaging which pervades young women’s lives. More and more girls are wanting breast implants because they are dissatisfied with their natural bodies, the power of the marketers is so strong that some end up making girls feel bad about the body.
More and more of my clients despise their own bodies, and the results can be seen in the statistics with one in 100 girls anorexic, one in five bulimic and one in four want to have cosmetic surgery. Sometimes it seems self-hatred has become a rite of passage for many teenage girls.
In the past I worried that the magazines like Girlfriend and Dolly have contributed to this culture. But even our fiercest critics have to admit that these magazines have undergone some significant changes in the decade that I have been with it. Girlfriend has been running “reality checks” since 2006.
These are media literacy tools – that graphically indicate when an image has (or hasn’t) been retouched, when readers have been used in a shoot, and they also let the reader know just how much time and effort goes into getting the ‘perfect’ shot (ie: it took four hours, 123 shots and a professional hair and makeup team to get this one shot).
Many parents ask me at what age their daughter should be permitted to read the magazine – expressing consternation about whether the content is suitable. First, age does not always indicate maturity but second I believe that editors and writers are hypervigilent to ensure that the content is appropriate for our demographic. If I had girls, I probably wouldn’t allow them to read the magazine if they were prepubertal.
For every “despairing” young woman writing to me each month, for every direct or heart-wrenching, hilarious, strange or even downright ludicrous question that comes my way, they are all moving reminders of what is so amazing about adolescents.
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg is a Child and Adolescent Psychologist practicing in Melbourne and the proud psychologist with Girlfriend magazine for the last 10 years.