Rachel was fifteen today. She has been told at school that her country- one of the rich, English-speaking nations of the world- is highly privileged, and that she is living one of the best lives it is possible for young people to have, right here, right now. While Rachel sees the logic of this when she learns about the young industrial workers of the past in history, or about the current refugee and child labour issues in PSCHE, she wonders why her life doesn't feel better, inside her own head.
Her problems seem petty in comparison, but still they occupy her mind. Her mum and dad, both of whom work in insecure employment roles are often so busy they have no time to talk to her. They split up during a particularly bad patch five years ago, when they were constantly arguing about money; now Rachel, like many of her classmates, lives with her mum in a single parent family. Her dad has a new relationship, and although he is always happy to see her, seems to be drifting away from her, somehow.
Rachel has always had a vague feeling of insecurity. When she was very little, her mum and dad both had to work long hours, which meant that Rachel had to attend daycare from 7am in the morning until 6pm in the evening. The policy of the government at the time was to open as many daycare facilities as possible so parents of young children could work long hours. No one was paying attention to research that was being published at this time that indicated long hours of daycare raised children's stress levels, and that the biological indications were that this was likely to have a lifelong impact upon stress coping. The daycare setting also paid such low wages that the staff were always leaving and being replaced, which impacted upon Rachel's chances of forming the 'secure attachments' with caring adults that psychologists say are important in terms of being able to trust and form affectionate relationships with peers in later life.
Rachel feels under huge pressure at school. She has been regularly tested all through her school life which she has found increasingly stressful. She realises that her teachers put huge emphasis on the requirement for her to know the 'right' answers in these tests, although she doesn't know that their future employment prospects and salary depend upon her performance. Her sense of security has also been further undermined by the constantly changing staff at school, which seems to have increased recently. Rachel does really want to succeed, but sometimes she gets so scared that her mind goes blank when she sits in front of a test paper. She has just taken her first mock GCSE paper and, when the blankness would not lift and she realised that she could not answer any of the questions, she began to feel like she couldn't breathe. One of the deputy head teachers took her out of the room to calm down.
Afterwards, Rachel's best friend Sophie confessed that she panics like that a lot of the time, even sometimes when she is just doing her homework, and that she has started scratching her arm because it makes her feel better. Rachel already knows of several people in school who self-harm, and two or three who had to go to hospital. She told Sophie that she has to get help, and plans to ask her if she did when she sees her at school on Monday; if she didn't Rachel will tell their nice form teacher Ms Jones. That is, if Ms Jones is in on Monday; the class had a supply teacher for the whole of last week because Ms Jones was off sick. One of the other girls told Rachel that she saw Ms Jones crying in the local doctor's surgery when she went to get her lift home last Wednesday from her mum, who is a receptionist there.
Rachel's smart phone pings softly. She picks it up- Facebook again. Sometimes Facebook and all the other social media sites Rachel uses such as Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat are a lot of fun. When Sophie was over last week the girls took pictures of themselves, turned themselves into cartoon cats and circulated them around their friends, who did likewise. It was a really fun afternoon. But a couple of days ago, Rachel fell out with one of the other girls in her class, Samantha, who then started circulating rumours about Rachel and posting nasty, personal comments about her pictures. When this type of thing happens- as it has several times before, Rachel wishes that Facebook had never been invented. She knows she has to be on it, because if she isn't, she will miss all the things her friends are talking about. But sometimes it feels like she can never get away from people, not only those who want to be nasty to her, but others who want the answers to the homework, or some of the older boys she doesn't want to block because it would be uncool, but whose messages sometimes make her feel vaguely uncomfortable.
Rachel doesn't realise that she is not unusual in her social media confusion, or that it will take another ten years for her brain to become neuronally mature, or that in fact, the areas that are currently under the most extensive development are the ones that deal with impulse control and complex social behaviour. Unfortunately, nor do her teachers or her mother; as Rachel selects the twitter icon on her smart phone, impulsively messaging 'fat cow' to Samantha, they will have to deal with the fallout on Monday, particularly given that Samantha is one of the growing number of young people in western society with an eating disorder. As soon as Rachel sends the message, she regrets it. But it is too late now; teenage mistakes stay on the internet forever.
Rachel's mother calls to her to put out the light and go to sleep. Rachel turns out the light and gets into bed; then she hears the 'tweet' tone from her phone. She reaches out for it, knowing she won't be able to sleep without seeing what the message says. Like most people of her generation in English-speaking post-industrial societies, Rachel is not cold, or hungry, or homeless, or physically deprived, but she feels constantly on edge; in psychologist-speak, she lacks a sense of 'well-being'. Perhaps, she thinks, as she reaches for her phone, life will be better for my children.