Opinion

If you want to understand mysterious world of teenagers, try listening to them

Teenagers will give you a far better insight into their world – if you ask – says BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast presenter Rachel Burden

A teenager blowing vape smoke

The proportion of young people who have tried vaping increased by 50% last year, according to figures from ASH. Image: Shutterstock

About two years ago, my daughter, who was 15 at the time, told me about a new trend going round her school. She told us that dozens of pupils were getting together in the school toilets to vape, that it seemed like almost every kid in the school was getting into the habit and despite the fact that it’s illegal to sell vapes to under 18s, you could pick them up from pretty much anywhere – at school, online, and in the shops.

What’s more, she said most people were using supersize vapes with high nicotine content that were illegal, but all of the shops were selling them. She suggested we ought to be talking about it in the wider media.

From reading this, you might think that my smart, well-informed daughter was on a crusade to stamp out the scourge of teenage vaping. Far from it. In reality, she and her younger brother were both caught up in it. Cheap, sweet, accessible and addictive – disposable vapes have become the must-have accessory for many of today’s teenagers.

It is always worth listening to teenagers, because they will give you a far better insight into the world they inhabit than anything you pick up from the media. When we started talking about teenage vaping on the BBC 5 Live Breakfast show, we were contacted by headteachers and parents from all over the country confirming exactly what my daughter had told us.

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In fact, many of the headteachers we have spoken to told us vaping has become the number one disciplinary issue in their schools. Recently, BBC 5 Live and BBC Bitesize joined forces to commission an exclusive survey on teen issues. The online survey of two thousand 13- to 18-year-olds by polling company Survation, suggested around a third of teenagers said they had tried vaping.

A third of those questioned said they didn’t feel safe walking down the street on their own, a quarter of teens said they felt anxious most or all of the time, and nearly one in six teenagers said that they had been asked to take and share nude images by a peer. All pretty bleak… 

But that didn’t tell the whole story. As part of the BBC’s Across the UK strategy to get closer to our audiences and better reflect, represent and serve all parts of the UK, BBC 5 Live recently hosted Teen23 Summits in Birmingham and Salford. The agenda was set by a live audience of teenagers who came from a broad spectrum of communities across the two cities.

On the day, I had the privilege of chatting to teenagers both on air and off air, and came away feeling energised by what they shared with me. They were smart, and funny, and clear-minded about the way today’s world worked for them. They know the pitfalls of social media, understand how to handle the trolls and the haters, they think parents fret way too much about screen time, and were generally optimistic about the future.

Of course, we know that life isn’t totally straightforward for every teenager, and there are some very real challenges, particularly around mental health that need to be addressed. I know that parents and guardians will instinctively want to build a protective ring around their kids, and that it can sometimes feel like you’re walking along a cliff edge, with the dark forces of teenage temptation threatening to pull them over at any time.

The truth is, your kids are probably up to some stuff you would rather not know about, but when they open their lives up to you, it is well worth listening to them without judgement. I guarantee you will have your eyes opened to their real-world experiences, and be surprised with how they are navigating the challenges we as parents find so difficult to get our heads around.

Since we started talking about teenage vaping on BBC 5 Live, the topic has pushed its way to the front of the political agenda, with all parties now saying that they will put up tougher restrictions for young people, and look to tighten the rules on the way these devices are sold and distributed.

This goes to show that sometimes the real news comes not from Westminster, the front pages of newspapers, or debates on social media platforms, but from simple conversations in the car on the way home from school.

Rachel Burden co-hosts the BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast show with Rick Edwards each weekday from 6am. 

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