Dear Agony Aunt: The Booming Business of Giving Advice

Who is qualified to offer guidance?
Published: May 20, 2024
Photo: Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez

No teenager is in a hurry to talk about sex with their mother. But, there being no Google to advise my 16-year-old self in the ’80s, my mother it had to be. All my friends were as clueless as I was and, since my mother had given birth to me, I deduced that she must have—gross—at least done the deed at some point.

Pre-internet, if you wanted advice on boyfriends, girlfriends, acne or period pains, you had two options: Asking your mum (cringe) or your peer group (cringe, and also fairly useless). Or, you could write to an agony aunt, who might eventually sift through her bloated postbag and answer your query within the pages of whichever esteemed oracle you read. For me, it was Jackie magazine, and while its agony aunts, Cathy and Claire, never did respond to my question, “Why is one breast bigger than the other, and how can I ever let a boy see me naked?”, they did respond to myriad other problems submitted by nameless girls whose issues, I soon deduced, were uniformly similar to mine.

Many years later, I’d discover that Cathy and Claire weren’t real, a betrayal akin to finding out the truth about Santa. “They” were Gayle Anderson—a woman, yes, but not an agony aunt by trade, a fact that did nothing to stem the steady stream of 500 letters a week she received, alongside the occasional scab or urine sample.

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Photo: Courtesy of Mitch/Unsplash

Then again, what is an agony aunt? The current surge in their popularity seems an apt time to ask. No longer confined to the pages of a newspaper or magazine, today’s iterations are as likely to be found on TikTok or Instagram, the most social media-savvy of whom are using their platforms to carve out not just a niche but an entire career—and, in some cases, an empire. Take Tinx, the 33-year-old American TikTok sensation (real name: Christina Najjar) with 1.5 million followers, whose videos have been liked over 90 million times, and who Forbes lists as the 26th highest-earning creator of 2023, amassing about S$17.3 million last year. Or Call Her Daddy, a TikTok account with 2.9 million followers, whose co-creator Alexandra Cooper, 29, spun her success into a podcast deal with Spotify worth about S$79.8 million.

Huge and loyal followings this new breed of agony aunts may have, but what they don’t possess are any formal qualifications. Nor, in many cases, have they acquired the wisdom that decades of lived experience brings. Sophia Rundle and Mia Sugimoto were 17 when they started the advice site Girlhood, inspired by the Barbie film. They launched in August last year, and three weeks later, they had 20,000 requests for advice and eight million views.

Their fans would argue that their age and reliability are positive, as is the fact that, since launch, they’ve fielded requests from over 6,000 volunteers wanting to help answer their peers’ dilemmas. The most common problems they’re asked about, says Sugimoto, are boy troubles, friendship drama and tips on making new friends. “We try our best to put [advice] on our blog so more girls have easy access to it. That so many of us have similar troubles really shows that every girl is not alone. It’s our goal to spread that message as much as we can,” she explains.

As digital natives, they’re also well-placed to understand the pressures of being a teen in 2024. “Negative feelings centred around adolescence are amplified now as a result of social media and the toxicity that circulates online,” says Rundle. “Teenagers and young people spend hours every day scrolling TikTok or Instagram and comparing themselves to others. This can be harmful to development and instil a dire sense of self-lack. So many young people struggle with self-love and acceptance because they’re constantly succumbing to a vacuum of comparison, which is why we’ve seen such a noticeable increase in mental-health-related issues and a need for advice,” she says.

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Dear Agony Aunt: The Booming Business of Giving Advice
Photo: Courtesy of Sincerely Media

With the rest of the world in the grip of a mental health crisis, it is no surprise that agony aunts are enjoying a resurgence. “One of the things human beings struggle with most is a lack of certainty. With the pandemic, modern wars, financial and environmental crises, identity politics and so-called culture wars, the world has never felt so uncertain and rapidly changing,” notes Dr Kate Younger, a clinical psychologist at The Blue Door Practice in London.

She acknowledges that for people who are in a desperate state emotionally or financially, who can neither access NHS therapy nor afford private care, advice from an agony aunt may appeal. But she advises caution. “I see untrained agony aunts as advice givers for people they’ve not necessarily met. When it comes to psychological and emotional matters, this is tricky and potentially dangerous territory to navigate. Of course, there are some people that only want or have the capacity to receive advice, whereas therapy may feel too intense, exposing or costly, so I am not saying that therapy is all good and agony aunts are all bad,” she says.

Photo: Courtesy of Sydney Rae

Today, two of the most prominent names in the UK are journalist and author Dolly Alderton, who writes for The Sunday Times’ lifestyle supplement Style, and Philippa Perry, a qualified psychotherapist with a weekly column in The Observer. I ask Perry what the trick is to being a good agony aunt in “What I seek to do is get some nice, interesting questions in,” she says. “That’s really important. And then you have to not only answer them correctly, but remember that you’re a journalist as well as a psychotherapist, and try to entertain or interest the reader. You can’t just say, ‘Go and see a counsellor’. You have to say something another person might not have thought of. You also might have to reframe their question because they’re not asking the right one. Because sometimes the presenting problem isn’t the problem. It might be, ‘Why can’t I get my wife to do what I want?’ And I’ll go, ‘That isn’t your problem. Your problem is that you want to get your wife to do something, and you’re not secure enough to let go of control’.”

Does Perry ever worry she’s given the wrong advice? “Not really, because I never say, ‘You must do this’—I’d suggest that they look at it from another angle.”

As anyone who has sought professional help will know, the right resources are increasingly overwhelmed and hard to access. Since 2019, the number of young people referred to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) across the UK has increased by over 75 per cent. Waiting lists for help can be up to three years long, due to staff shortages and chronic underfunding. Whatever the pitfalls of soliciting advice from an agony aunt, the cold, hard truth is that, for many users, they are the only resource available. For advice on spots, sex and sisterhood, agony aunts are invaluable. But for anything serious, they’d be the first to suggest seeking professional help. A problem shared is a problem halved—just always be mindful who you share it with.

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