It's a freezing night in Bristol, and snow is forecast – but every seat at Colston Hall in the city centre was sold out weeks ago, and not only for Ronan Keating who's playing in the main auditorium. Also packing them in is a 59-year-old, softly spoken Australian psychotherapist, who will take to the stage for 90 minutes with just a whiteboard and some ideas that will keep his audience on the edge of their seats.
The psychotherapist is Steve Biddulph, and most of the people queuing up to hear him are the mothers of teenage girls. A few years ago Biddulph toured Britain warning of a crisis facing boyhood: now he is back with a similar message about girlhood. And if the audience here is anything to go by, he's definitely touched a nerve. "Parents of girls are seriously worried about their daughters," says Saffia Farr, editor of Juno magazine and the organiser of the Bristol part of Biddulph's country-wide tour.
"They feel there's this overwhelming tide of advertising that's targeting their daughters, of inappropriate clothing being sold in the shops, of media messages that encourage their girls to grow up way, way before their time. And they want to know what they can do about it."
Telling them what they can do about it is Biddulph's mission. "A few years ago, boys were a disaster area – there was an epidemic of ADHD, they were underperforming in exams, they were drinking too much and getting involved in wild behaviour," he says. "Back then, girls seemed to be doing just fine. But, about five years ago, that all changed – suddenly, girls' mental health started to plummet. Everyone knew a girl, or had a girl themselves, who had an eating disorder or who was depressed or was self-harming. It was a huge change in a very short period; I started to investigate why this was happening."
Biddulph lives and works in Australia, but the crisis he sees brewing for young girls seems to be echoed across the Western world – and, in Britain, the figures suggest it's worse than in other countries. A few weeks ago, the charity Childline announced a 68 per cent increase in youngsters contacting them about self-harming, and said most of the increase was among girls. The problem also seemed to be affecting teenagers at a younger age, with 14-year-olds now likely to be among callers.
Anxiety and depression in teenage girls is also on the rise: research from the Nuffield Foundation last year found that the proportion of 15- and 16-year-olds reporting feeling frequently anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, and is more common in girls: it has jumped from one in 30 to two in 30 for boys, and from one in 10 to two in 10 for girls. Meanwhile, a report from the Department of Health found teenage girls in Britain are more likely to binge drink than teenage girls anywhere else in Europe; more than half of 15- and 16-year-olds admit they drink to excess at least once a month.
Anorexia and bulimia are also dramatically on the increase: official figures for hospital admissions released last October pinpointed a 16 per cent rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders, and showed that one in every 10 of these admissions was a 15-year-old girl. "There's plenty to be concerned about," Biddulph says. "Everyone who has a teenage daughter right now sees this, in their child and among their child's friends." The people they blame, he says, are the advertising industry and the media.
"They are driving girls' sensibilities and making them miserable. The corporate world has identified them as a new market for products, and is preying on them." During his talk, Biddulph describes teenage girls as being out in the wilderness, surrounded by hyenas: it's starting to get dark, he tells his audience, but they are all alone out there.
His message, though, is one of empowerment: he encourages parents to get together, to challenge the advertising industry and to lobby the government to impose more restrictions on advertisers.
"Take the drinks industry – about 30 per cent of the market is sales to underage drinkers," he says. "Alcohol companies are extremely powerful – but parents are powerful, too, and they have to stand against this and stop the marketing of alcopops and push for a higher drinking age."
But the battle needs to be fought on a domestic as well as a policy front. "What we need to do is re-evaluate how we think of teenage girls: the current philosophy is that they're growing older, so they need us less. But I believe that teenage girls go through a kind of second babyhood, and they in fact need their parents more than ever. We have to spend time with our daughters at this age: talk to them, listen to them, keep in touch with them. Staying connected to their parents makes all the difference to how they cope with the pressures they're up against."