Does childhood really end at seven?
One expert thinks so. In the week when 12-year-old Michaela Davis was buried, Áilín Quinlan asks if Ireland is failing its children
The shock death of schoolgirl Michaela Davis and the tragic car crash that took the life of Kerry teenager Áine O'Riordan and three other teenagers have left us reeling -- and raised questions about the kind of society in which we're raising our children.
Over the space of a generation, Irish society has undergone seismic change and today's teenagers have more freedom, money and possessions than ever before. They're independent, cyber-savvy and, above all, highly mobile. Many own their own cars or have friends who do.
But the liberty enjoyed by modern teens has been thrown into stark relief by the death of 12-year-old Michaela -- who left home in the early hours of last Saturday and whose body was later found in undergrowth near the Royal Canal -- and by the loss of 15-year-old Aine.
This relaxation of traditional curfews has not been the only societal change to take place in recent years. These days, many girls as young as 13 or 14 are obsessed by social networking, wear make-up and dress in skimpy clothes and high heels.
As Junior Cert results night looms and the emergency services gear up to deal with the annual avalanche of out-of-control and often inebriated children, the usual round of questions will be asked.
Do parents know how late their child plans to stay out? Do they know where they are, who they're with and, in many cases, what they're wearing?
"The uniform of youth seems to be overtly sexual. It is about exhibitionism," says psychologist Patricia Murray.
The manifold reasons include the commercialisation of childhood; the decline of traditional taboos; the impact of global media, which publicises the exploits of so-called 'wild children' like Peaches Geldof; and a massive explosion in communication technology.
One of the biggest factors is the earlier onset of puberty for girls, says Dr Patrick Ryan, director of the doctoral programme in clinical psychology at the University of Limerick.
"Puberty is coming on a year or two earlier than a generation ago and we're responding to that physical development," he says. "There's a commercialisation of adolescence that wasn't there 30 years ago and part of it is the sexualising of youngsters."
According to Patricia Murray, "This is a world where to be happy you have to be sexy. We let our society sexualise young children, especially girls.
"We've opened the floodgates and gone from a society where there was a complete denial of adolescent sexuality to one where we've started sexualising children from as early as the age of seven.
"And everyone is standing back and letting it happen. There seems to be a fear of getting in there and tackling it because adults feel insecure about the topic of sexualisation."
"You look at a 12-year-old now, she could often pass for 15," says Dr Ryan, author of You Can't Make Me: How to Get The Best Out Of Your Teenager.
"One of the difficulties is that young girls are maturing faster and parents are responding to that by giving them more freedom and more responsibility for themselves than they would have done 20 years ago."
But, Dr Ryan believes, in some cases they may be getting more than they're really able for. A girl's outward maturity can mask the fact that she is still a child and not yet able to make the best decisions about what is safe.
"Just because your young daughter might look 16 doesn't mean she knows how to keep herself safe."
Our highly competitive consumer culture is also working against parents, according to Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It.
Marketing strategies, she warns, deliberately aim to confuse indulgence with parental love. "The peer pressure to own things that demonstrate a parent's love is incredibly strong -- so if children don't have the right possession, they feel they are excluded.
"Peer pressure in the playground translates into pester power in the home," which, she says, leads to a push outwards for more freedom.
So what can parents do?
"It's important to remember that parenting has to be a balance of warmth and firmness. The warmth is the love which is not the same as indulgence. The firmness is setting boundaries for behaviour," says Palmer.
She warns, however, that this has to be established in childhood.
"It's totally normal for a teenager to push boundaries, but the principle of parenting is that the parent has to try to hold firm.
"We're back to parents' responsibility to monitor and know who their kids are hanging around with and what their influences are."