“Being 16 freaks me out. Like, I’m not an adult, I’m not ready to be an adult yet,” says Rebecca from the BBC’s Child of Our Time. “It’s almost like I’ve just transformed into an entirely different person,” says Taliesin.
Twenty-five kids have been followed by cameras since birth so the public can watch them grow up like a massive version of the Truman Show – though at least these teens are aware they’re on telly, and at least they’re not stuck in a giant film set full of hired actors dedicated to duping them.
The human specimens have now reached the transitional age of 16 and as they stand on the threshold of adulthood raging with hormones and uncertainty and ambition, Professor Robert Winston has returned for a catch-up.
The documentary series began in 2000, when the BBC and the Open University decided to track the lives of 25 newborn children for the first two decades of their lives. It’s a similar concept to the Seven Up series, but where Seven Up returned to the same people every seven years (clue’s in the title), Child of Our Time would follow their subjects from birth all the way through to 2020.
In the early series we met the infants several times a year. By 2010 the documentary had become less frequent – perhaps because they weren’t cute and small any more, though the BBC said they just wanted to leave the kids alone. Child of Our Time returned with two episodes in 2013, but it has been four years since we last found out what had happened to little Megan, Matthew, Jamie, Rebecca or Calvin.
Rather than being a very long reality show, this was a programme with intellectual ambition. “It was a quest to find out what makes us who we are: nature or nurture,” says Winston. But 25 is such a small sample, and their lives are so diverse, that it’s hard to draw a conclusion even 16 years later (though that won’t stop him from trying).
Instead, huge leaps in understanding of neuroscience and biology over the last 17 years have meant it’s possible to investigate what is going on inside those teenage skulls, so Winston has enlisted the help of Professor Tanya Byron to look at their developing brains. The results go some way to explaining why teens are so influenced by their friends, why they’re more likely to take part in risky behaviour, and why they’re more self-conscious than at any other time.
Despite Child of Our Time’s earnest attempt to answer deeper questions, what is way more interesting about the documentary is the chance to catch up with those ordinary little kids who popped out into the world at the dawn of the millennium. My, haven’t they grown!
They’re all a lot less awkward than when they were 13. Nervous little Matt is a strapping, confident lad. Eve, after a conservative Christian upbringing, has embraced her identity as a lesbian. Megan is super self-sufficient after a life on the farm, but has abandoned her tomboy distain for dresses in favour of a new girly look.
So much has changed and so much has stayed the same, and that’s what’s fascinating about this two-episode special. This may be the generation which has grown up with social media and technology at their fingertips (more on that in episode two), but even with all that, they are still just teenagers being teenagers.
They get drunk and mess up their diabetes medication. They put make-up on with their friends, and giggle. They throw up after drinking too much wine. They sing sad songs as they play their acoustic guitars (I’m being facetious; Rhianna is actually impressively good). They fall in love for the first time, and have sex with their boyfriends. They wrestle with their identities, they do their schoolwork, they wonder what’s next.
After such long gaps between series, I hope we get another chance to see the children who we’ve watched since birth before they make their way in the worlds as adults. I want to see curious, intellectual identical twins Alex and Ivo go off to university. I want to know that Charlie fulfils her mum’s ambition and escapes her teenage years without getting pregnant. I want Eve to get the girlfriend she wants, and I hope Jamie stays on the straight and narrow instead of running with the wrong crowd. Please, BBC: another series before 2020?
Child of Our Time airs on Monday 3rd April and Tuesday 4th April on BBC1 at 9pm