Smells like teen spirit

Television - Andrew Billen enters the scary world of huge spots, stress and raging hormones

''Ask anyone. Fourteen is shit," concluded the Village Voice writer Richard Goldstein in "Gear", his definitive portrait of American adolescence, preserved in Tom Wolfe's anthology The New Journalism. The first programme in BBC1's three-part Teen Species (Wednesdays, 9pm) explained why. And the answer was "puberty".

"Today, we look at the girls, spots and all," enthused the narrator, Amanda Redman. Frankly, I have heard greater come-ons for a tele-vision programme. Fortunately, Teen Species had the good judgement to interweave its gee-whiz popular biology, meaningless but colourful close-ups of exploding hormone crystals and pyscho-soundbites, with the stories of five extremely personable girls who had agreed to be filmed and to confide in the cameras over two years. Each illustrated an aspect of the shittiness.

"Unfortunately, Claudia has lost control of her body," intoned Redman, reciting one of those bits of script that you hoped Brass Eye would have made it impossible to write. Claudia was studying ballet and had been fine, until she shot up six inches in a year. Her limbs were growing faster than her muscles (quite normal, incidentally). As a result, she kept falling over.

Sharmaine, from Wolverhampton, rowed incessantly with her mother, from whom she hid the bad news that she had got 37 per cent in a maths exam. "No way is she getting pregnant at 18," said Sharon, who could not at this stage have heard the gloss of Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a professor of child development. Where better, Brooks-Gunn enthused, than the safety of the family to learn how to argue? Concealment? That was all part of "resetting the boundaries" with your parents. Chill, ma.

Poor Alex, meanwhile, had suffered the first intimations of puberty at seven. She was diagnosed by a doctor who took an X-ray of her hands and discovered that she had the cartilage development of a teenager. Her adoptive parents - who originally assumed that her moods were the legacy of her first five years in a Romanian orphanage - reached the same conclusion, as their little girl began to need regular showers, deodorants and a razor for her armpits. Alex was a rarity and hormone treatment quickly halted her blossoming, but, we were told, the onset of puberty at nine is no longer uncommon, thanks to the accelerating effects of all the fat that kids now eat. This makes for a very protracted adolescence indeed - and even more shit. Girls who experience early puberty are three times as likely to have eating disorders as girls who develop later, twice as likely to have a drug problem, and twice as many attempt suicide.

Finally, we met the identical twins Rebecca and Jessica, for whom the long wait for their first spot seemed unending, and who were all of 13 when their periods started. Interestingly, the late arrival of their hormonal starburst made them the most sensible of all the interviewees, appreciative of childhood, only mildly envious of their peers' breasts, and pretty unimpressed by the horror stories when they finally began menstruating (within a day of each other). As we heard, there is no correlation between physical and emotional development.

The good news is that teenage eventually ends. Before the closing titles ran, Sharmaine was once again her mum's best friend. Claudia was sailing through her dance exams. And even the twins and Alex, for whom the worst was still to come, had the comfort of an economy pandering to their every greedy little thought. Worth £20bn a year, the teen market not only has disposable income, but disposes. The most shocking moment in a programme that generally failed to shock was hearing a teenage girl estimate that she spent between £200 and £250 a month on clothes - and that a teenage face produces half a litre of sebum a year.

If you wanted to know how shit teenage can actually get, you needed to see Inside My Head (30 June, 8pm, Channel 4). In the conclusion to this drab but therapeutic (for its subjects) series on young people with mental illness, we followed the video diaries of Sarah, a self-destructive anorexic, and her friend Emma, whose phobia about germs was linked to a desperate self-hatred. Here, all the normal anxieties about body image and acceptance had mutated. And if the two girls were brilliant at anything, it was the adolescent's skill at concealing how they felt, a survival instinct that, here, literally threatened their survival, as it conned their carers into releasing them prematurely from a psychiatric unit. There will be few more affecting moments on television this year than watching the video of Emma's 16th birthday and hearing her mother say beamingly that neither of them thought she would live to see it.

In contrast, there will (one hopes) be few less compelling moments than those Channel 4 served up at around 1am last Saturday morning. This was Big Brother Live, and it consisted of a single-camera shot of someone sleeping. Channel 4 once used the licence of the weekend small hours to stage open-ended debates on important subjects. Is this what is meant by the Sleep of Reason?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times