Signs of the times
A guidance counsellor of 20 years reports from the front line of a decile-one school.
Kathryn Barclay is at the counselling coalface at a decileone South Auckland school. She says the downward trend in risky behaviour isn’t translating into fewer troubled teens in her office. “I’m seeing as many kids as ever, and the issues are just as big, so for me it doesn’t feel like it’s changed. It surprises me how big the trend is – if I hadn’t seen the statistics, I wouldn’t have said there was one.”
She suspects that’s because the students she sees are often the ones engaging in the risky behaviour, rather than those who aren’t having problems.
In nearly 20 years as a school guidance counsellor, Barclay has worked at both a decile-10 school on Auckland’s North Shore and in one of the most deprived areas, where she’s spent the past 11 years. One thing that has changed, she says, is the number of unplanned pregnancies. When she arrived at the decile-one school, there were up to 18 pregnancies a year resulting in girls leaving school. This year, there were none, a drop she attributes in part to the school’s health service, which gives away condoms and supplies contraceptives for girls, including longacting implants.
Barclay, a member of the School Guidance Counsellors Advisory Group, says most students’ problems relate to adolescence: they’re moving away from their families, developing their own identities and sexual identities, and dealing with peer group pressure and the need to fit in. “That’s always huge: kids who have had friendships fall apart that have turned into bullying or mocking.”
Teens appeared to have ready access to cannabis through local tinny houses, and smoking the drug was “quite normalised. One kid said to me that in the holidays, they get stoned a lot, because it’s easier to get hold of cannabis than alcohol. They say they can’t rock up to the dairy and buy [alcohol] – it takes a long time to stand outside and con someone to go in and get it for them.”
Cigarettes are expensive, but it isn’t uncommon for students to buy a pack and sell single cigarettes for a profit. “They cost $2 each – when I started it was $1.”
Many students binge-drink regularly, she says, and the area probably sees more drink-driving and car conversion than higher-decile suburbs.
But Barclay says social-media bullying is particularly problematic. “It’s really emotionally damaging because young people will say things on social media that they wouldn’t say face to face. When you have a post on Facebook and 20 people send you abusive messages and everyone sees those posts, it’s hugely shaming and embarrassing. Some kids don’t want to come to school because they feel everyone is laughing at them.” She’s often frustrated when adults weigh in on the online fights, escalating the abuse.
Most students have a smartphone, even if pupils in lower-decile schools are a bit slower to get them. Sometimes parents confiscate them for misbehaviour, but students usually find a way around bans – for example, borrowing a phone from a friend to update Facebook.
Students aren’t permitted to use their phones in class, unless the teacher allows it. “But kids are sneaky, and they do,” says Barclay. “In my high-decile school, if I couldn’t find a kid with a ‘runner’ to the classroom, I could text them and within minutes, get a message back. With the old phones, they could send texts from their pocket because they knew the keyboard.”
“One kid said to me that in the holidays, they get stoned a lot, because it’s easier to get hold of cannabis than alcohol.”
happening earlier, and even she was “flabbergasted” to discover alcohol use declining, “because that’s not the impression you get from the media”.
Unlike Clark, she describes the regulatory environment around alcohol as “relaxed”, noting New Zealand lowered the drinking age to 18 in 1999. “You can get alcohol practically anywhere; there hasn’t been the tightening we’ve seen around tobacco.”
The Youth2000 study also corroborated Twenge’s findings that secondary school students were much less likely to have a part-time job in 2012 than 2001 – down from 42% to 26%. Ball says it’s therefore possible that even though alcohol is becoming more “affordable” for the average adult earner, it may be becoming less affordable for teens because they have less money to spend.
She doesn’t believe increased social-media use is causing the decline in risky behaviour, saying a growing body of research shows the opposite: that young people who spend the most time socialising “virtually” are more likely to use substances, and engage in other delinquent behaviours, than those who are less social online.
Ball says her anecdotal impression is that many of today’s teens are more focused, smarter and more sensible than earlier generations. “I’m really impressed when I look at young people. They’re articulate, confident speaking to adults, and often very focused on where they want to go in life and what they want to do.
“Young people are doing what they’ve always done – trying to make sense of themselves, trying to make sense of the world and where they fit into it, with all the challenges and new technology we have. The challenges are different now, but I think young people are making a pretty good job of it.”
ON THE FLIPSIDE
But Ball says she doesn’t want to imply that “everything is hunky-dory, either”, with perhaps 10-15% of the adolescent population “really struggling”.
Although the fact that teens are growing up more slowly seems a positive trend, their mental health is not improving correspondingly, and on some measures appears to be deteriorating.
Victoria University professor of psychology Marc Wilson, who heads a longitudinal youth well-being study of 1000 young people questioned every year for six years, says it’s important to recognise that “most young people are doing pretty well. But there appears to be a minority who aren’t doing so well, and we noticed that as they’re getting older, their mental health challenges are increasing, and this minority group is potentially getting bigger.”
The Victoria work found that almost onethird of high school students surveyed had self-harmed, to punish themselves or manage negative emotions, and nearly 20% had had suicidal thoughts.
Wilson wonders if teenagers are less likely to show their distress to the world, but more likely to experience it. “Things like depression and anxiety are what we think of as internalising, so maybe rather than turning emotional distress outwards, as in risky behaviours, they’re turning it inwards, and there’s not necessarily an equilibrium but a see-saw here.”
Youth2000 researcher Simon Denny, an associate professor at the University of Auckland’s department of paediatrics: child and youth health, says US sociologist Richard Settersten identified slow and fast tracks to adulthood that are largely determined by s oci o- e c onomic status, resourcing and deprivation.
“There are teens who grow up too quickly, and the more modern phenomenon where they’re growing up much more slowly and being looked after by their parents into their twenties,” says Denny. “That is by far the healthier, more middleclass route. Those taking the quicker, earlier route are often young people from families who don’t have the same resources, and get into the workforce and into marriage too quickly. Their life outcomes are much more circumscribed.”
Apart from the effect of social media, which has “detrimental aspects”, especially for young women, he says teens could also be growing up more slowly because we’re actually getting better at parenting. “We now know that authoritative, punitive forms of parenting don’t work, and people have moved towards a more relational, collaborative style of parenting, which is much more effective.”
Ball says there’s evidence from the UK that parental monitoring has increased dramatically, particularly in lower socio-economic groups, and she wants to analyse the Youth2000 data to see if that’s modified risky teen behaviour here.
“It used to be that rich folks were careful about where their kids were and who they were with, whereas youngsters in lower socio-economic groups roamed a bit freer,
“There appears to be a minority who aren’t doing so well, and we noticed that as they’re getting older, their mental health challenges are increasing.” “People have moved towards a more relational, collaborative style of parenting, which is much more effective.”
Guidance counsellor Kathryn Barclay says she’s surprised by the statistics.
From top: public health research fellow Jude Ball, professor of psychology Marc Wilson and researcher Simon Denny.