Don’t say ‘just don’t go online’ because adults wouldn’t do that if something happened in the real world. If you got followed home, it’s not like [they would say]: “Hey, stop leaving the house.” Help the person understand that it wasn’t their fault and try to help them through it – be a shoulder to cry on, but don’t try and affect their social life personally. (15-year-old girl)
Young people are often reluctant to involve adults in their online lives. Many fear that parents and teachers will misunderstand or “overreact” in response to what they mostly regard as normal, unproblematic behaviour and experiences. Others say they are frustrated by adults who “trivialise” their experiences.
Over the past eight years, I have had extensive discussions with (mainly) teenagers from a diverse range of social and economic backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations and genders about their experiences of social media and messaging apps. A lot of those I speak to initially try to downplay any issues. They make it clear they like being online and know how to handle any problems that may come up.
But when I ask them to tell me more about these problems – while remaining neutral and interested rather than appearing judgmental – it’s almost like the floodgates open. They want to talk about the things they don’t like and struggle with; they just worry that they’ll get into trouble if they are too honest.
Some describe a relentless stream of abuse and hate that can “ruin” the experience of being online. One 14-year-old girl says there is “so much sexism, racism, homophobia” which she thinks is wrong, but at the same time just an inevitable part of being online. A 14-year-old boy discloses: “Sometimes they’ve been racist to me … Racist comments [in] messages from other people.”
Some LGBTQ+ girls tell me about the extent of hate they experience online:
[There’s] a lot of bullying … it’s coming from both adults and other children, [even] in safe spaces. There’s group chats online where people are added and it’s purposely [so people can] hate them.
But they also point out that “in the real world”, people don’t accept their sexuality and gender identity either. Most still want to stay online despite the risks because at least there is the chance of connecting with like-minded others. Yet they often seem quite despondent about how to support each other online and challenge bad behaviour, knowing it’s risky to do so.
Similarly girls, and boys too, seem almost to have to accept being sent unwanted and unsolicited sexual content as a condition of being online. “I think you just sort of keep quiet about it,” one 12-year-old girl tells me, suggesting that calling out such behaviour could have awful consequences if the sender then tells their friends.
What’s clear from all my discussions is that most young people regard reining in the big social media platforms as only part of the solution. They see the issues as social in nature – going beyond just being an online problem but as part-and-parcel of their wider lives. As one 14-year-old girl puts it: “It’s not social media which is the issue … it’s society and how we are taught.”
Legal but harmful
The content of the UK government’s new Online Safety Bill is both complex and controversial. The reported removal of a section dealing with “legal but harmful” content published by the largest and “highest-risk” social media platforms has attracted widespread criticism in some quarters, but strong support among those who regard the bill – which must be finalised by the summer of 2023 – as a threat to free speech.
In theory this measure relates to adults, as children are already protected from viewing harmful material by “under 18” gateways. However, many of those criticising the removal of this section are still deeply concerned about children’s ability to view legal but harmful content.
The coroner’s report into the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell in November 2017 concluded that her viewing of social media content had contributed in “more than a minimal way” to her death. The senior coroner, Andrew Walker, said the material Russell had viewed “shouldn’t have been available for a child to see”. In response, her father Ian Russell suggested that social media firms should “think long and hard about whether their platforms are suitable for young people at all”.
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There have been numerous other examples of young people coming to harm as a result of online experiences including after being bullied or having sexual images shared online. According to the UK’s media regulator Ofcom, more than a third of children aged eight to 17 have seen something “worrying or nasty” online in the last 12 months, while one in three lie about their age to access adult-rated content on social media. Consuming content on video-sharing platforms such as YouTube and TikTok is the most popular online activity for children, with 31% having posted content they’ve created – most commonly on TikTok.
Social media platforms have age restrictions but most lack robust mechanisms to enforce them – the user just has to enter a date of birth, which they can make up. The Children Commissioner’s 2020 survey found that over half of children aged 11 to 13 and over a third of those aged eight to ten reported using platforms despite not being old enough.
Of course, children and young people (my term for 13 to 17-year-olds) vary a lot in how they talk about the issues and in their levels of critical awareness and digital literacy. But in this “post-digital era” where the use of social media is taken for granted by children as young as 12 and in some cases ten or younger – hearing their perspectives is a critical part of understanding how best to monitor and regulate the online landscape. In this article, children and young people talk candidly about what they think the most pressing issues are – and how they want to be supported as they navigate the risks that can arise.
Everyone has perfect makeup and perfect bodies and you think: why isn’t that me? (13-year-old girl)
The idea that online spaces can be fun, informative and uplifting but also fractious and divided has emerged time and again in my discussions with young people. Some girls have been quite animated telling me about the fun they have with each other sharing dances and lip syncs on TikTok “around the world”, with the aim of “trending” and reaching as many viewers as possible.
Many are quite dismissive of any negative impacts, and breezily say that it’s just about enjoying themselves. They maintain that online spaces can include more diverse representations and “body positive” content, while pushing back against fears over narrow concepts of beauty and overly curated lifestyles.
But they also describe seeing streams of abuse and “shaming” as they scroll through posts and comments – some of which is directed toward them personally. Girls tell me about being “hated on” including about their bodies and appearance:
The way I’m dressed: people will just tell me to go kill myself and slit my wrists but it’s just something you can’t escape. If someone dresses in a smaller dress or with cleavage showing, they are called a slut and told they’re asking for it. However you look, you’ll be made fun of for it.(15-year-old girl)
Even those who think such comments are funny or insignificant at the time can be worried about digital footprints and so-called “cancel culture”:
If you said something maybe a couple of years ago … people will bring that up now and then, like, cancel you for it. They will constantly hate on you [even if] your opinion on it has changed … I know now from when I was young my opinions on many things have definitely changed. (15-year-old girl).
Many of the girls I speak to suggest this “toxic” environment is more of an issue for vulnerable girls who may “get anxiety” or develop an “eating disorder”. But as we talk more, some admit to struggling themselves and, like this 15-year-old girl, can seem quite downbeaten by it all:
People might see someone online and compare themselves – and think they need to lose weight and start changing their eating habits. Then gradually it becomes like a routine – they start changing their eating habits and then it can sometimes become so extreme.
Among the most commonly expressed fears for young people today is that teenage girls are being exposed to relentless images of the “perfect body” and pro-diet culture messaging on social media – and that this is damaging their self-esteem and body image.
One group of 13-year-olds I speak to seem quite conflicted – they want to present themselves as “savvy” about what is and isn’t real, and the way that people use social media to portray “perfection”. They are perfectly aware that what they see online isn’t “real” – that it constitutes the “highlights reel” of someone’s life. But they also look quite despondent when talking about how it makes them feel about themselves personally:
You see a lot of people who look so pretty and perfect but it’s so hard to tell because they’re on social media and they could have used Photoshop or filters. And then you kind of look at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, I don’t look like them.
The role of adults
In my work with young people, I’m mindful of not simply listening uncritically to what they say. While I need to be non-judgmental and open-minded if I’m going to get them to open up, I also need to try to make sense of the ways that young people may themselves behave in harmful ways online, either putting themselves or others at risk.
Many of those I speak to seem to think it’s just common sense that involving adults is not desirable. These 15-year-old girls explain how differences in what adults and young people think is “normal” and “acceptable” can close down dialogue:
A lot of adults have strong opinions about sharing things with other people online. If they don’t approve of sharing pictures and stuff, they think that’s bad – but, like, it’s normal and a good way to have a good time.
I think they’re not very familiar with how we use modern technology. Adults might have heard of, say, a bad incident that happened with one particular person. But I don’t think that means the app generally is unsafe.
In the right environment, however, many young people do want to talk about what they see and experience online. Like this 15-year-old girl, they want to be understood and taken seriously:
If you go and tell a teacher, sometimes they might not take it seriously because it’s, like: “Oh, it’s on the internet – it’s not affecting you in real life.” [So] they don’t think it’s a problem.
Few appear to think the solution is coming offline altogether. Well-worn narratives of “stranger danger” shape implorations from adults to ensure social media profiles are private and that young people only speak to those online who they already know offline. Yet such advice is completely contrary to the way in which meeting new people online is, rightly or wrongly, an entirely normal way for young people to expand their social circles:
I followed mutual friends and started replying to their stories: “Oh, you look pretty, this and that.” And then I got added into group chats and you had a laugh … It’s nice to get to know new people. (14-year-old girl)
During lockdown when otherwise unable to spend time with people, this 17-year-old boy says he was especially thankful for being able to meet new people online:
[During the pandemic] everybody was so far apart, it didn’t really matter where someone lived … because you couldn’t see them. I got to meet a lot of people through social media that I didn’t know in person.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 30% of children aged 10-15 in England and Wales have accepted a “friend request” from someone they don’t know, and 17% have spoken to or exchanged messages with someone online who they’ve never met in person. Around 2% say they have done so with someone they thought was their age but later found out was much older, and 5% have gone on to meet up with someone they first communicated with online.
But the interplay of risk and reward means young people don’t simply want to be told not to interact with new people online. They consider this advice a “scare tactic” and seem frustrated about such messages:
School has taught us to understand the dangers but I think it comes with some kind of self-assessment when you’re actually talking to them. Otherwise, if you don’t add anyone and you don’t get to meet new people online, then you’re stuck with the people that you already know so you can’t expand your social circle. (16-year-old girl)
Many young people say they feel more confident and comfortable when talking to new people online than “IRL” (in real life). Some also feel that online communication with friends provides freedom from the usual pressures and scrutiny – for example, as one 14-year-old boy confides, when developing romantic interests because “online it is more private”.
But the same boy goes on to say that communicating online can be risky because “with your messages … that information gets passed around”. Many I’ve spoken to, both girls and boys, seem conflicted about the potential harms of using social media. But they don’t want to give up the benefits just to avoid the risks.
How young people feel about sexual content
While most young people are more reluctant to talk about their experiences of sex online, this does also depend on whether they will be judged for doing anything “wrong”. Once reassured, many talk quite openly about being sent unwanted and unsolicited sexual content – perhaps because they think it’s not their fault and can’t be told off for it.
Many seem almost resigned to being sent unwanted and unsolicited sexual content. The notorious “dick pic” – mainly sent to girls both by boys they know and, worryingly often, by older men they don’t know – is something that some girls have got used to. They are often visibly frustrated, angry and disgusted by these experiences and want to get them off their chest:
On Snapchat where you add someone and before you start a conversation, they’ll just send explicit photos. (15-year-old girl)
I feel like the girls have just gotten used to it [being sent dick pics], and it’s really disgusting to see. (14-year-old girl)
According to the ONS, 11% of children in England and Wales aged 13-15 report having received a sexual message (69% in the form of a photo or image) in the last 12 months. Girls aged 13-15 are significantly more likely to have received sexual messages than boys (16% vs 6%).
Reporting rates are low. Young people tend to just block the sender if it’s an older stranger – easy enough because “it’s done with”. But then, as one 14-year-old girl says: “It plays in your head for a bit [because of] the amount of times it has happened.”
If it’s a boy they know who has sent the message or picture, it can become complicated because of their concerns about boys “getting annoyed” if they report it and get the boy into trouble. Here, I often see more embarrassment and awkwardness – even among very young girls:
I think you just sort of keep quiet about it [and] try to avoid them … Imagine if they go to their mates [to say you’ve complained] – it’s really awkward. (12-year-old girl)
If they find out you reported it, they have a go at you saying: “Oh my god, you’re too uptight, why would you do this to my mate?” … And then it would go round school and I would think: “Maybe I am too uptight.” (16-year-old girl)
Many girls say they have to deal with being asked for nude images – risking being abused by a boy if they say no, and shamed and ostracised by peers if they say yes and then the images are “leaked”. There’s the familiar double standard that boys take pleasure from these images while the girl carries the risk:
It’s almost like an ego or self-confidence thing. If you were to say no to doing something then they’ll pin that on you, instead of [thinking] what they did was wrong. Then they’ll insult you or say something just to give themselves more confidence again. (16-year-old girl)
Ironically, some girls tell me about learning from TikTok videos how to refuse nude requests in a light-hearted way. Some describe fake boyfriend snaps as “lifesavers” – they feel that while they do not expect boys to respect them, they will respect another boy. These girls are almost laughing and joking around as they recount using these techniques, despite knowing it is a problem that they cannot just say no.
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And while it’s often assumed that boys are happy to consume porn, a lot of the boys I’ve spoken to – aged 12 and upwards – don’t like being sent this content and, like the girls, just block the senders. When I’ve spoken to boys about porn more generally, I have found lots of nuance and variation in their perspectives. They often want to talk at length about the confusion and insecurities they feel.
Many seem quite innocent in how they talk about what they are watching, which is a contrast from the nature of the porn they describe seeing and the regularity with which they are watching it. They are worried for themselves, it seems, but don’t know how to make sense of it or where to go for help.
The role of algorithms
Many young people bemoan the social media algorithms and platform design features (also known as “affordances”) that make trying to stay in control of their online experiences so difficult. Some suspect that algorithms “elevate” the most argumentative and abusive content and exchanges, and want social media companies to do more in this regard:
Social media platforms should be more strict with people. There are all these bad comments but [the people posting them] don’t get punished. (15-year-old boy)
However, many of my interviewees point out that the algorithms are “gamed” by young users, and appear fatalistic that such issues can ever be solved:
There’s a setting on Twitter where you can block certain words to reduce the likelihood you might see this stuff … but they don’t count out the synonyms.“ (15-year-old girl)
The dynamics of “likes” and “follows” reinforces the idea of there being an agreed-upon standard for aspiration. This 13-year-old boy is almost cynical in his exasperation about how social media works:
It’s a cycle. Once that person’s likes rise, unless they do something really stupid or something that a large majority of their fans or followers disagree with, then they’re going to keep rising. It’s a bit of a cycle – it’s quite subconscious: “Oh, I should like them.” And then that amounts to another like and then another person says: “I wish I had got even more.”
Young people think that the design of the platforms motivate people to engage in negative behaviour online to gain likes and follows. Those I speak to seem to think this is common but also annoying and unhealthy:
People like to post [school] fights in their [Snapchat] stories just to get views … so more people see it. (15-year-old girl)
Many understand that this can promote unreliable content-sharing and “fake news”, because people “want to start something big and they want everyone to be discussing it … people can twist the headline around, make it look more eye-catching …” (12-year-old girl)
Some say they try to make decisions about the social media they use to avoid content and people that cause problems. According to Ofcom, while most 12 to 17-year-olds are confident they can tell what is real and fake online, only 11% correctly selected the components of a social media post that were genuine, and 22% of 12 to 17-year-olds were unable to detect a fake online social media profile.
Overwhelmingly, though, most young people tell me that introducing more regulations for the major social media platforms can only ever be part of the solution for the issues they encounter. They don’t just want technological solutions but broader solutions regarding the way people behave both on and offline. A 15-year-old girl talks thoughtfully about the most constructive way to deal with being sent a dick pic, saying: “If you block someone, it won’t solve the bigger issue of people thinking they can still do this:
Your instant reaction would just be to remove [the sender]. But maybe instead of that, you could just be like, no it’s wrong – speak up instead of just removing it … You might be scared but once you actually do it, you’ll probably feel a sense of accomplishment because you’re actually helping, like you’ve resolved the issue and it would help a lot of other people as well. (15 year-old girl)
But many, such as this 14-year-old boy, sound fatalistic about the prospects of social media companies changing the online environment for young people:
I don’t think there’s anything they can really do. It’s just that people need to be a bit more careful about what they’re posting online on social media.
A 13-year-old girl talks about a transgender friend who is “active on social media” and experiences a lot of abuse. Her advice?
Just don’t post anything … If you want to avoid that situation, you could still have the social medias but don’t post, just text friends.
While many young people think such advice is common sense, it also speaks to an unfairness in the ways that different young people have to act online to keep themselves safe. Some young people may feel shut out because they cannot be open about who they are or what they think.
An impossible situation?
Some boys I speak to think that sharing homophobic jokes in private WhatsApp groups is not a problem, although they know they might get into trouble if other people find out. One 17-year-old boy is dismissive about the significance of sharing such messages:
Some boys do extreme jokes that cross the line for homophobia. They’ve got into a lot of trouble [but] it’s just laughed off [with friends] – it’s just kind of funny. [I’m] not bothered in that respect.
But many other young people feel more targeted and at risk. A group of LGBTQ+ girls describe “a lot of bullying” coming from both adults and other young people. While some say they still feel safer online than in real life, they complain that “your online space is being negative to you as well”. Ultimately, one suggests:
There’s nothing [you] can do without getting made fun of at this point. No matter what you say or do, you get some form of hate for it, so you may as well just let it happen.
It seems these girls feel they have to stay online despite the risks because at least there is the chance of connecting with like-minded others who may be able to provide support. In this sense, they seem to be navigating an impossible situation, and are both angry about the risks they face but also resigned to them.
Across different aspects of online life – as with real life – pleasure and pain intersect for young people. It may be both “funny” and “dodgy” to watch an argument play out among peers online, or to send content that they may get in trouble for if unintended audiences find out. Risk-taking is a normal part of adolescence, but in the digital age it can come with consequences that may be more significant than was the case for previous generations.
Young people both want to look at aspirational content but are ambivalent about how it makes them feel about themselves. They want to connect with new people online but are tired of encountering abusive and hateful content and being sent unwanted sexual content. Boys, particularly, are drawn to pornography online but often feel confused about what they see. Known peers may be involved in risky behaviour online but it may feel compulsory, or even desirable, to take part either directly or as a witness.
Big tech cannot solve these tensions and dilemmas of adolescent life alone. Tackling them requires what is sometimes referred to as a “post-digital” approach that considers risk and harm along a continuum that spans both real and online life, rather than treating the latter as a delineated category that can be dealt with through big tech tools and regulation alone.
Young people have always bullied each other, compared themselves unfavourably with idealised cultural representations of “perfection”, and explored and expressed their developing sexualities in ways that have worried the adults around them. The point is to identify how the design of social media platforms has entrenched and potentially reshaped patterns of vulnerability.
Above all, the tensions in young people’s willingness to involve adults (they both want support they can trust but fear being judged and punished) need to be resolved. Conversations may need to be less concerned with eradicating a particular risk, and more with establishing a dialogue whereby young people feel able and willing to come for help when they need it. Otherwise, as this 12-year-old girl observes:
I think almost everything I know about social media comes from social media. [Adults] just go back to the very basics that everyone already knows. It’s kind of wasting time when they could be telling us something we don’t know.
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Emily Setty receives funding for research from UKRI and ESRC.