Last month I was invited to attend the Children's Society annual debate. It was an incredibly eye opening event with a lot of important topics and issues raised. The main question to be addressed was: 'Are we failing our nation's teenagers?'
The society highlighted their Seriously Awkward campaign which highlights the need for a change in particular legislation in order to protect a number of vulnerable teenagers, (particularly 16-17 year olds) from various types of abuse, neglect and harm.
Matthew Reed- the chief executive of the Children's Society introduced the event and outlined the structure of the evening.
Edward Hall, who is the artistic director at the Hampstead Theatre, London played a few clips from the play Firebird. Without giving too much away the scenes essentially showed us how a young, vulnerable girl was 'groomed' and then exploited in a number of ways.
It was quite sad to see as this young girl appeared to have very little self-confidence and self-worth. She also appeared to lack a support network. This man preyed on her insecurities and demonstrated how easily vulnerable young people can be exploited, manipulated and abused.
The floor then opened up to the panel which comprised a number of influential people:
Chair: Hannah Azieb Pool- Journalist, curator of debates, Southbank Centre and chair of UK Feminista
Dr. Linda Papadopoulos- Chartered counselling and Health Psychologist
Georgia Gould- Cabinet member for young people and economic growth, London Borough of Camden
Naomi Shimada- Plus-size model, health body image activist and columnist for InStyle UK
Four young adults were also present- with three on the panel.
While the debate was a very complex one, it drew me to an important realisation. I have been extremely fortunate as I have been supported by my family. I would not have come as far as I have without the love and care of my parents. I stopped to think that there are so many children who do not have this. So many children in our society have never known what it is like to have one parent, or even two? They may be in care homes, with foster parents, not knowing if they will ever stop moving from place to place.
Approximately 16,500 young people are at a high risk of being exploited sexually. This is a shocking figure. Perhaps it is shocking because it is not often discussed and so we forget it exists and that it can happen. As a doctor, I undergo 'safeguarding training' for both children and adults; I am taught to look out for particular 'clues' that might raise suspicion of so called 'foul play', not just sexual but any form of abuse to children or adults. I am also aware of the correct channels I need to use if I am concerned. Nevertheless there is still not enough awareness of the abuse that anyone can face and especially young people.
One of the most important things to realise is that the person(s) exploiting these young people can appear in a number of different forms i.e. they could be a parent/guardian, peer(s) or a gang member. The young person is 'groomed' and may not be aware they are being exploited. There are a number of ways to identify sexual exploitation. For instance if a young person starts to change they way in which they behave- if they become secretive, stay out late or stop going to school. For the young person there are a number of ways they can protect themselves- be vigilant; be weary of people you do not know and trust your 'gut instinct'.
I was not raised in the richest neighbourhood; I did not grow up poor but I had enough. I did not always have access to the latest clothes/shoes but I could not ask for anything more from my parents because they provided everything I needed. There are around 3.7 million children in the country living in poverty. Nathaniel Peat- founder of the Safety Box Youth organisation raised a very valuable point in the debate. A number of the children he encountered did not have the money to afford the latest shoes so they would then be in trouble at school. These children could then be lured into gangs because they would be promised the latest material goods by the gang members/leaders who may be much older than them.
I think it is so important that we empower young people. Not listening enough was one of the points raised by one of the young adults on the panel. That is so spot on. It was not that long ago I was a teenager and felt that I was not listened to. Even as a young twenty-something year old I can often feel that way. We need to listen to these young adults who may be crying out for help in ways that we associate with 'acting up'. When a young person does not attend school or seems 'moody' ask them what is going on, take the time to listen to and value their thoughts and opinions. In medical practice a child, (16 or under) may be Gillick competent which demonstrates the different levels of maturity among children; if they are deemed to be 'Gillick competent' they do not need parental consent to make certain decisions. I think as a society we need to give young people more credit; they understand a lot more than some of us may think.
Another important point was the pressure young people felt. It was no surprise that social media had a big part to play in this. The unrealistic way people are portrayed on social media and on television can make those that do not look that way depressed and overly conscious of their bodies. This is such a complex issue and does not only affect young females but males too. There needs to be more positive role models who demonstrate that there are different body shapes and images out there so that a more realistic picture can be painted. The plus size model Naomi Shimada described how she felt during particular points in her modelling career and said that she would only recommend modelling to someone with a strong support network due to the nature of the industry and media. This is just one form of pressure that the young people have to face today. The highly sexual nature of society contributes massively to the pressure felt by young people to conform and 'fit in'.
I enjoy working with young people so much because I remember so vividly how I felt as a young person; the challenges I faced and had to overcome. I had and continue to have a fantastic support network and I do whatever I can to help those who may not. As a society we need to collectively listen to our young people who are very insightful and competent. We need to support and empower them so that they can be strong and resilient to this ever changing world we live in.