teens

The call no parent wants to receive: "Your daughter isn't here... we haven’t seen her."

My almost-16-year-old daughter slings her overnight bag on her shoulder and kisses me goodbye. “See you tomorrow,” she says.

It’s the spring school holidays and she’s out more than she’s in at the moment. I’m busy, immersed in edits. “You’re meeting Anna for lunch and then staying the night at Olivia’s, right?”

She sighs at my vagueness, but corrects me cheerfully enough. “Other way round, Mum: lunch with Olivia; staying at Anna’s. We’ll probably stay up late, and sleep in, so I probably won’t be back until lunchtime tomorrow.”

“Sounds good,” I say. “Have fun.”

I love the casual freedom of school holidays, these last-minute overnight stays, the way the girls go back and forth, spend a night here, a night there. There’ll be pizza, chips, sweets, countless episodes of whatever series is the current fave; they’ll stay up watching until far too late.

I like the fact that there’s no need for me to check in with parents: she’s been friends with both girls since primary school and I know their families well. The evening will no doubt involve some sort of teenage girl drama – someone will do something annoying, be an utter bitch, eat more than their share of the skittles, attempt to control the programming, argue a point too dogmatically, whatever, but they’ll all be safe. And I’ll see her tomorrow sometime.

I get on with my work; don’t give her activities another thought.

It’s eight o’clock that night and the Netflix password isn’t working. No one, not even the usually techno-competent thirteen-year-old, can get the combination of letters and digits right. There’s a possibility that Nell has changed it. I call her mobile, but there’s no service. I assume she’s run out of power, or maybe turned it off (though that seems unlikely). I scroll through my contacts, try calling Anna. Her mobile’s similarly afflicted. I scroll down further, call Anna’s father’s mobile. When he answers, I ask him if he’d mind getting Nell to turn her phone on, or perhaps call me back on their home phone. Nothing important, I say, we just need a password. There’s silence on the other end.

Then: “Actually, Nell’s not here. We haven’t seen her all day. And as far as I know we’re not expecting her.”

wendy james teenagers technology
Author Wendy James. (Image: Supplied)
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It’s one of those moments that all parents dread: the stomach lurches, the breath catches, the heart stops momentarily, then resumes at double time.

After the initial panic, we calm down. My husband and I are seasoned campaigners, having survived our two older children’s adolescence, and though we’ve never experienced this exact scenario, there have been similar incidents. We take several deep breaths, think it through logically: If Nell wasn’t even expected at Anna’s place then she was clearly lying to us from the outset. She’s obviously doing something she knows we won’t approve of, but there’s no real reason to suspect she’s in any immediate danger. Still, it’d be really good to know just where she is... So we get to work.

Mobile phones mean that it’s relatively simple to follow her trail, and within a half hour we’ve tracked her down. Olivia’s nineteen-year-old sister, Eva, who dropped Nell off at another friend’s house (just a block away from ours) early in the afternoon, gives us our first clue: Nell told her that she was heading off on an overnight camping trip, somewhere two hours away, with this other girl, a little older than Nell, a P-plater.

Image: iStock.
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We ring around some more, and my son, who goes to the same school, messages some of his Facebook friends, who message friends, until we’re able to build up a comprehensive picture: they’ve gone somewhere past Gloucester, to an eighteenth birthday party. The property is out in the sticks, there’s no mobile coverage, but according to one source (friend of a friend of a friend) the party is only small, was organised by parents and will be properly supervised.

Once we check online that there have been no terrible car accidents on the traffic route in question, there’s a collective (if qualified) sigh of relief, and our heart rates almost return to normal. Oh, don’t worry – she’s going to be in big big trouble (we’re not quite that seasoned), but we’re pretty sure she’s safe.

If my eldest daughter had pulled this sort of stunt, at the same age, a decade ago, there’d have been no way to track down her whereabouts so quickly – if at all. We could never have gone to bed and slept (sort of) through the night. We’d have probably called the police.

But, if I’m honest, ten years ago, if my eldest daughter had pulled this sort of stunt, I probably wouldn’t have known.*

The older two didn’t get mobiles until they were in their late teens, and then only used them sporadically – when they had money (and inclination) to pay for their credit themselves. Mobiles weren’t considered a necessity, and we certainly didn’t rely on them to keep us connected the way we do now.

It’s complicated, a mixed blessing for parents, this new era of instantaneous and constant connection. And it’s a mixed blessing for the kids themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, so much of it is fantastic. I’m all in favour of teens connecting with their peers, meeting up with friends at a moment’s notice, being able to message for advice or a sympathetic ear.

It ticks so many satisfying educational boxes, too: access to endless information, to new – and fun – ways of learning. These summer holidays my son and a distant friend decided to learn the guitar together, doing internet tutorials and practising on Facetime. What parent could ask for more?

But the fact that teens can be just as connected in the holidays as during term time presents its own problems. My eldest two may have experienced moments (possibly entire days!) of actual boredom during their Christmas holidays (and no doubt I beat myself up about them spending too much time in front of the TV), but the enforced time away from their school mates gave them some space, along with a valuable opportunity to get over all the petty shit that went on during term time.

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These days the petty (or not so petty) shit can continue, can even intensify, over the holidays. The new school year doesn’t mean everything’s forgotten – there’s no longer the possibility of a fresh start.

It’s hard enough knowing how to negotiate this new world as an adult. For kids, if the online world becomes suddenly toxic, it can be hard to tune out and turn off. And when there’s no obvious exit – no time or place or space to withdraw to – finding a way out of the social media labyrinth can be almost impossible.

"If the online world becomes suddenly toxic, it can be hard to tune out and turn off." Image: iStock.

The moment Nell’s phone comes back to life the next morning she knows she’s been sprung. There are dozens of missed calls and messages: from us, from her friends, her friends’ parents, from her concerned older siblings.

She calls me straight away, contrite, ashamed, tearful, offering only a partial excuse: "I knew you’d be worried," she says. "But there was really nothing I could do. It was like we were in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t ring you; I couldn’t even get a taxi." She takes a deep breath, "So, am I in really deep shit?"

Oh, she is. Deep shit. But I guess it could have been deeper.

*Author’s note: She did and I didn’t.

Wendy’s new book The Golden Child is available now from all good booksellers.

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