Thursday 27 October 2016

The secret lives of Irish teens: 'There is always one friend who Snapchats everything. You can't get away from it'

Obsessed with their smartphones, constantly anxious, champion sexters? With the Leaving Cert results out last week, our reporter takes a look at the secret lives of Irish teenagers

Donal Lynch

Published 22/08/2016 | 02:30

Rachel O'Reilly, 15, Celbridge, Co Kildare.
Rachel O'Reilly, 15, Celbridge, Co Kildare.
Jamie Pim 15, Kilternan, Dublin. Photo: Douglas O’Connor.
Hollie and Sophie Gilson

Don't cry and don't raise your eyes - from your smartphone, that is. It's the gorgeously warm night before the Leaving Cert results come out and all across the country teenagers are fretting themselves to a restless sleep. Or at least we might imagine they are. The class of 2016, or Generation K as they were recently dubbed (after Katniss Everdeen, the grimly determined heroine of The Hunger Games), seems to be a bit more chill about things.

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In Dingle, Ruarc Scally (18) is fairly phlegmatic about his potential results - he wants to do 3D Design in Dun Laoghaire. "I do wish we could just get them now to save the waiting, but I won't be up all night or anything. I'm going to go in with a friend or two. I have a big day tomorrow, not just because of the results but because I'm dropping my girlfriend to the airport. She is doing a 'workaday', where you exchange living arrangements for a work situation. Now she has to leave. It will be emotional, but it'll be fine. Tomorrow I'll go out."

In Offaly it's a slight resignation, rather than puppy love, that leaves Hollie Gilson, also 18, equally non-plussed about Leaving Cert D-Day. "My heart wasn't really in it. I didn't make the best choices. I'm going out now, I'm not waiting until after."

Atta girl. To these kids the mere fact of having to go into the school to get actual pieces of paper seems ridiculously old fashioned. Online availability would be better, they agree. And yet for the smartphone generation, this is one of the last little real-life teenage sacraments in a world that is increasingly digital. Today's teenagers have sometimes been characterised by their reportedly resigned worldview - that we live an already dystopian and unequal society - but the thing that truly separates them from all other generations of Irish people is that they are the first to grow up fully in the world of competing screens.

This shapes everything we regard as innately part of the teenage years, from bullying to their burgeoning romantic lives. Social media broadcasts and amplifies age-old peer pressures. Some parents struggle to control access and the combination of technology and emergent sexuality is a heady mix. For instance, Irish teenagers are among the most prolific in the EU for 'sexting', the practice of sending explicit text messages and images, a conference taking place at Dublin City University heard in June.

Social media triggers body image issues in young people, according to a study this month by Bodywhys, the eating disorder association of Ireland. And there may be a connection between social media and teenage isolation. "It can definitely be isolating," Ruarc tells me. "There might be one sorry sod at home who is just seeing what's happening online. I've been in that situation myself before in the past. I think that might happen to people anyway though, even without social media."

"I think it's hard for some teenagers to draw the line between the internet and reality," Sophie Gilson (15) tells me. "There is always one friend who Snapchats everything. You can't get away from it. There are people who'll wait for the right time of day to post for the most likes." Like most Irish teens, she prefers other social media forums to fuddy-duddy Facebook. "Instagram - I definitely prefer that. I think that would be the same for most teenage girls."

There is a sort of a sense of pity you feel for the teens of today. The generations before them have saddled them with a lifetime of national debt. They come of age in the long shadow of economic decline, job insecurity and increasing inequality. They have the existential threats of war and climate change to deal with. They are bombarded with consumerism but can't afford any of it. They don't even get paid for the endless internships we make them do. Who would want to grow up?

‘Most girls would be shy in talking about how they feel inside’ - Rachel O’Reilly, 15


"Actually, I think despite a lot of that it is still an exciting time to be young," says Rachel O'Reilly (15) from Celbridge. "There might be bad things happening in the wider world. But lots of things change in these years on a personal level and I think most teenagers would still be excited about growing up. Young people are naturally optimistic, I think."

‘Getting good grades is life’s  biggest challenge’  - Jamie Pim, 15


"There would still be peer pressures on teenagers - especially to do with taking drink or drugs," says Jamie Pim (15) from Kilternan in Dublin. "It could come from friends or whoever you're hanging out with. I wouldn't give in to that pressure though. Myself, I don't really care about having girlfriends and stuff, I'm more about enjoying life."

Teenagers can do the Queen's English, but they have their own language. If you attempt to speak it to them - "bae, your hair is on fleek" (I really like your hair) - they will coolly ask you if "that's a thing?" Which is their way of expressing incredulity that you, fusty old dinosaur that you clearly are, might think you're down with the kids. You can sigh but you should really pay attention because teenage jargon is what you will be speaking in very soon. Terms like 'duckface' (self-conscious pouting) 'PMSL' (pissing myself laughing), 'WTAF' (what the actual fuck) and 'jel' (jealous) are just a few of the words that have gone from being teenage or internet slang to being used by adults. It will happen again. Remember when people first started saying OMG and OTT and how silly you thought that was?

‘One boy begins with the sentence: “After we found out about Dad’s other wife”’

Irish teenagers grow up in a time when family life is rapidly changing, with single parent, blended and gay families entering the mainstream. All of the teenagers I speak to express support for these changes, but, perhaps like other generations before them, they will have their own things to say about the way we shaped these changes. One boy I interview, not named in this piece, begins his explanation of his own family life memorably: "After we found out about Dad's other wife…"

The stereotypical image of the teen emotional state is of chronic moodiness and dramatic strops but more recently it's been accepted that mental health is no joke at that age. Depression is the top cause of illness and disability among adolescents, the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed last week. And it said that globally, suicide is the third most common cause of death in adolescents, after traffic injuries and HIV-Aids.

Our teens are bombarded with stories of celebrities coming out about their mental health problems, but those I speak to say that despite this, most Irish teenagers would be reluctant to share their mental health difficulties. "I suppose seeing a famous person do something does normalise it, but at the same time I think most girls would be shy about talking about how they feel inside", Rachel O'Reilly tells me. "That does still take quite a bit of bravery."

Peer pressure is at a lifetime high in the mid-to-late teens, but tied in with this is the importance of friendship. "The group of friends I have at the moment are very understanding and would help a lot through tough times. I had cancer when I was younger and though there were some people who were mean, my friends always wanted to help me," says Jamie Pim. "After I got through that I felt stronger and ready to take every opportunity. My Mum asked me, 'If you could choose to have had it or not, what would you choose?' and I said I'd choose to have it because it made me mature so quickly."

‘People are escaping into their phones to escape real life’ - Hollie Gilson, 18

SN Hollie and Sophie 1.jpg

It's been said that a progressive can always console himself that one day the young will make his dreams come true. This could not be more apparent with Irish teenagers. They cheered gay marriage past the referendum post, for instance, and they have seen young people in school come out and are generally supportive of this. Their attitudes to abortion, based on this informal survey, however, seemed to be split down gender lines with boys leaning towards the idea that it should only be allowed in exceptional circumstances and girls more likely to be behind bringing it in, eventually, on demand. "I think that it happens anyway and all they are doing at the moment is making it uncomfortable for those women," says Hollie Gilson. "Having a child is such a huge thing, I don't think it's something somebody should be forced into doing. I don't know that I would necessarily want to have an abortion if I got pregnant today, but I know that if it was men who got pregnant the law would have been changed a long time ago."

Gender roles are less defined for Irish teenagers than for any generation before them and within the education system there are efforts to break down the ways in which these roles affect subject choices. Despite this, most of the top schools in the country are single gender, something which, exam results aside, might not be the healthiest thing for teenagers. Most of those I spoke to would prefer mixed classrooms. "I think girls can be really bitchy and nearly worse than the boys," Sophie Gilson tells me. "They might be mean to each other, but if there were guys there they might say, 'Why are you doing that? That's stupid.' I think if you're around males every day for instance, when you have to go on and get a job and a man is interviewing you, you'll have more confidence in that situation."

The image of teenagers is that they are vain, brand-loving and self-obsessed but Irish teenagers are among the top performers in the OECD when it comes to reading and literacy and are perhaps not as shallow as one might suspect. The ones I speak to cite different influences ranging from Lance Armstrong (before his drugs bust) to author Louise O'Neill. "A few years ago I might have liked the Kardashians, but not now," Hollie Gilson says. "I'm more interested in things that different journalists write now. I think if someone is closer to my own age I'm more likely to be interested in them. There are always trends in how we're supposed to look. Having big, defined eyebrows is something everyone loves at the moment, for some reason. I would spend money on clothes but not much on make-up. Brands come and go."

This generation is the first to come of age in a time when bullying has moved from being an accepted part of growing up to a social ill that must be stamped out. Despite, or perhaps because of this, we hear more about bullying now than ever before. There have been harrowing stories of teenagers being hounded to suicide. "I think the difference now is people understand that even someone who is doing the bullying probably has something wrong with them," says Ruarc Scally. "Some of the slagging that anyone would get in school might be called bullying. I've been fine with it but others might have taken it badly."

Tattoos have gone from subculture to pop culture in recent years, to the horror of many parents. Tina Fey memorably wrote a prayer for her daughter in which she wished that "her haunches would remain innocent of ink". Psychologists say the popularity of tattoos among the young is down to a desire for "individuation", or staking out their own identity. The dilemma of being a teen is how to rebel while conforming with peers. "I think I'd be worried that if I got one, when I got old it would look horrible," Jamie Pim says.

That's a mantra to repeat this week perhaps. In Offaly the sun has risen and Hollie Gilson has finally collected her Leaving Cert results. She's breathing a sigh of relief. "It was all a bit surreal. I counted them up wrong at first - they don't tot them on the paper for you. I'm happy with what I got and it was along the lines I expected. I don't think some curtain magically falls back now and everything is open to you. But at the same time it is exciting to get out of school and experience a new life."

Adulthood it seems, is still a thing.

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