From online bullying to body image issues to the benefits of staying in touch, five Irish teenagers speak frankly about how they use Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and TikTok
Parents have long been suspicious that social media — with its addictive, all-consuming nature — mightn’t be good for our teenagers. And the troubling revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Hauger have only confirmed these fears for many parents. Speaking to US politicians last month, Hauger said the company was aware of apparent harm to teenagers from Instagram, but prioritised profits over concerns about young people’s mental health.
But on the other hand, with the isolation of the pandemic, many young people relied on social media platforms to stay connected. So what do our young people really think about their lives online?
We asked five teenagers to share with us what social media really means to them. Which platforms do they use? How much time do they spend there? How does social media affect their self-esteem and their body image? And what do they love about it?
— Mia Byrne (18), from Birr, Offaly
“I started off at 13 with Instagram and Snapchat and I’m also on TikTok and Facebook now.
“My favourite app is Instagram, and I like following makeup and beauty accounts and Irish influencers. I have bought makeup and tan brought out by people I follow, as Instagram is great for promoting their brands.
“It can affect your mental health when you think you don’t look perfect like someone you’re seeing online or have amazing clothes, and I definitely thought at the start that some people had everything. I now prefer to follow people who are ‘real’, and social media has become a lot more honest and raw, which is a good thing.
“Young people can be very impressionable so it’s great that we can see that the visions of perfection online aren’t real. Although we’re all guilty of following people like the Kardashians for a bit of escapism.
“The downside to social media is that people make comments online that they wouldn’t make in person, and it gives trolls a platform. You would get pages adding you that are not real people, but people now know to block or unfollow them.
“While it gets a lot of criticism, I think social media is brilliant for keeping up with people, and there’s a very positive side to it. I follow lots of animal rescue accounts as I’m a volunteer with Galway SPCA, and help them write their Facebook posts.
“Social media is a great tool for rescues because it creates awareness around neglect and cruelty and helps to rehome animals, which is brilliant. We adopted our own rescue greyhound after seeing her on Facebook, and social media is great for spreading messages about good causes to a wider audience.”
— Cara Sullivan (13) from Dublin 12
“A lot of my friends were on social media before me, but my mum was very strict about it so I only got my first phone in sixth class.
“I think Snapchat is a brilliant way for talking to friends and seeing what they’re up to, and I love taking pictures. It can be hard to know what’s real though, because people might just be putting on a smile for their stories although they’re not really happy. Also, pictures can be filtered, and I prefer photos of myself with filters on too.
“Some really weird people can try to add you, which is a bit scary. If I see that we have five or so friends in common, I might accept someone thinking they’re my friend’s friend, but if they start saying weird stuff I block them.
“I don’t like that some people can be mean on social media. I’ve been added to big group chats and have seen people being slagged off. If it’s a friend, I’d stand up for them, but if I don’t know them, I’d leave the group.
“I love watching funny videos on TikTok. I don’t post much myself, but when I do, it’s usually of my friends and I dancing. I was definitely on my phone way too much over lockdown and the summer, but now that school has started again, I’m not on it as much.
“My mum takes my phone away at 8pm, which is hard, and gives it back the next morning.”
— Mikey Ó Siochrú (19) from Clane, Kildare
“My relationship with social media has definitely fluctuated between healthy and unhealthy over the years, and I like to think it’s very healthy now.
“When I was younger, there was more of an addiction there and I definitely used to follow the wrong people — ones who made you feel critical of your own personality or physical appearance. I was kind of obsessed with what others were doing and wasn’t in tune with my own lifestyle as much.
“You come to realise that often you’re not seeing the full picture. I used to watch travel influencers living great lives, and back in the day, they wouldn’t say they were getting paid to promote trips. Now it’s much better as they have to say if it’s an ad or sponsored.
“The big thing on Instagram is body image, and you can end up feeling bad about your own body. Even I felt the pressure and it made me get into the gym. I play rugby and a few lads on my team would be very confident with the T-shirts off on Instagram.
“Beefing up meant that I experienced fewer injuries and it improved my overall physical health, so I guess there are good and bad aspects to it.
“Over lockdown, I realised that I was spending four and a half hours daily on social media, but I have cut it down to around half an hour. It’s not healthy to spend so much time looking at screens.
“My favourite app now is VSCO, where people can ‘favourite’ your pictures, but are unable to comment on them, and only you see how many favourites you get. It’s not as toxic as Instagram, where people worry about many likes they have.
“My friends and I now buy a disposable camera before we go out and leave our phones in our jackets in the cloakroom. We don’t spend the night posing for photos and retaking them so we’re enjoying living in the moment, which is much better. Although my dad thinks it’s hilarious that we’ve gone old-school with disposable cameras.”
— Aoibheann Ní Fhaoláin (15) from Ballyfin, Co Laois
“I got a phone when I was 12 and went on Snapchat to chat to friends. People I didn’t know requested me but I didn’t add them because I had the whole ‘don’t talk to strangers’ thing in my head.
“If you had talked to me a year ago, I was a different person. We were in lockdown and I could spend hours scrolling through Instagram or watching short videos on TikTok, and that’s all I was influenced by. I was seeing friends doing fun things while I was sitting at home, and I became a bit too sensitive seeing so much activity. Not that I’m against that, but I wasn’t thinking for myself.
“You see an ad for a moisturiser where the woman looks amazing, but she may have been sitting in a makeup chair for four hours. You can be influenced to buy it but you just end up looking like yourself with a slightly shinier face. So you feel bad about yourself, thinking there must be something wrong with you.
“The appeal of social media is contact and seeing people’s lives from around the world, but I’m more of an ‘in-person’ person. I read somewhere that after being on social media, your attention span goes down, and about six months ago, I gave up Snapchat and Instagram. I kept YouTube and WhatsApp, but I only text my closest friends and family and use it for clubs that I’m in.
“I miss some aspects of social media, so I went back on TikTok last month. After 15 minutes, I deleted it again and was wondering what I ever saw in it? I’m doing my Junior Cert this year, so it’s good that I don’t have apps to distract me.”
— Dara Kavanagh (16) from Ratoath, Co Meath
“I joined Instagram when I was around 11, and a lot of my communication with friends is through social media.
“I tend to put my phone down when I’m out with friends and don’t document what we’re doing to people at home. I’d like to think I’m sensible enough to know that you’re getting a one-sided view of people’s lives on social media, but there is so much stuff going on, it can be overwhelming. So you have to keep it in perspective.
“When it comes to bullying, Snapchat messages disappear which can give people confidence to send whatever they like. I have seen people sending photos around that everyone will have within minutes, which is a real problem.
“I have a huge problem with ‘influencers’ selling products to followers, because often they’re cheap, white-labelled makeup and skincare products being sold for very high prices. It really annoys me because so many people fall for it because they don’t know any better.
“The biggest downside is probably that I can spend too long on social media and lose track of time. My sister Freya recommended a good app to me called Forest, where you grow a tree and earn credits by not using the phone. You can plant real trees around the world with the credits, which is great.
“Overall I think the positives outweigh the negatives on social media. There is a lot of stuff I watch around my interests, including Formula One and basketball. I play basketball myself, so I follow a good few of the NBA players. I find it very inspiring because you can see what they’re doing in training to get to the very highest level.”