Technology can act as a lifeline
In the current debate about children's online lives, Lucy Hatton (15) sheds some light on what goes on behind teens' screens
As a young person in 2017, the sentence I hear most frequently is undoubtedly some variation of the idea: "You spend too much time on your phone."
I should be used to it by now, yet every time it's said to me, my face never ceases to flush. Of course I do other things, of course I'm capable of putting it down, but when it comes down to it, it can't be denied - I do spend too much time on my phone.
I'm not alone in this feeling - every teenager has heard the same thing. Last week, Jamie Oliver said he had banned his 14-year-old daughter Daisy from sharing selfies online and described teen girls' use of Instagram as "frightening".
While half of 13 and 14-year-olds were posting what he called "normal young girl" pictures, the other half were, he said, "this weird hybrid of - dare I say it - quite porno, sort of luscious, kind of pouty lips, sort of pushing boobs out". When his daughter showed him these pictures, he said he did not "even want to look", and asked her: "Are their parents not over that like a rash?'."
However, as knowledgeable as our technophobe parents consider themselves to be, do they truly know what their kids are up to?
Naturally, some time is reserved for social scrolling but, in fact, many other positive things are going on at the same time that they are unaware of. Although seemingly unbelievable to some, many young people have an interest in news and current affairs, something that is only assisted by social media. In 2015, Snapchat launched a feature called 'Discover', a curated collection of online publications and web shows that allows its users to subscribe to channels for their interests that are updated daily, from news publications such as CNN and The New York Times to Cosmopolitan, Entertainment Weekly and People.
It's not only Snapchat that has latched on to this. Twitter also introduced a 'Moments' feature, which gathers tweets and links from different profiles related to a specific news story, as well as compiling live updates during major events such as terrorist attacks, political elections and awards shows. Statements from corporations, famous figures and associations are posted online now, making Twitter the go-to site for frequent updates or public commentary. Social media has also become a platform for activism. Many political movements first took root on social media, including Black Lives Matter and the powerful hashtag #MeToo that acted as a call to arms for female survivors of sexual abuse. Given the turbulence of recent politics around the world, sites such as Twitter and Instagram are somewhere you can make your voice heard and stand up for what you believe in. There will always be somebody on the internet that agrees with you even if the trolls outnumber the fans.
Technology can be as useful to mental health as it is damaging. Thankfully, organisations such as Mental Health Ireland and Samaritans make contact details and hotline numbers easily accessible online.
But back to the stereotype of the teenager glued to their phone. Much of what occurs in a teenager's online life is centred around talking to their friends through apps such as Snapchat and Whatsapp, which make chatting with friends easy and fun without an outrageous phone bill. This type of chat is what the internet is for - funny, interesting and ultimately relationship-affirming when distance and transport make it difficult to meet in person. Technology may act as a lifeline to a child living far away from their friends, a social escape for an intimidated teen or simply a source of fun for a young person.
That being said, applications that allow for anonymous comments have made an almighty comeback this year and have been causing concern among parents. Here's a rundown on the top three dominating social media.
What is it? Originally a website founded in the name of "honest feedback", Sarahah is an Arabian app on which users can make anonymous comments.
How does it work? The phone app is the most popular option, where users create an account and share the link to it via Snapchat "story" (public post that expires after 24 hours), Facebook status or Instagram biography. Anonymous comments can be left regardless of whether the Sarahah account is held by the commenter, and the owner will not be informed of who left it. The owner can then choose whether or not to publicly respond to the comments via screenshot or to keep them private.
Who uses it? The app is very popular among secondary school students.
Any drawbacks? As with all anonymous comment apps, Sarahah leaves users open to bullying and it is unclear to the user whether aggressive comments are being left by one user or multiple parties. One advantage of Sarahah in particular, however, is that when a user goes to leave a comment on somebody's profile, comments that have been made previously are not visible to them. Only the owner of the profile can see the messages left on it. The app also allows users to favourite, delete or report messages as harmful to the app's developers.
What is it?: Thiscrush can be used to anonymously post a romantic crush on a user, but has not gained the same traction as Sarahah.
How does it work?: Thiscrush allows anonymous comments to be left on a user's account. Commenters do not need to have their own profile. The user is given a link to their account that they can paste into Instagram bios, Facebook statuses, Twitter and Snapchat, and their followers may comment on them anonymously. Profile owners may respond to comments left the same way as on Sarahah - by taking a screenshot of the message and posting it with a reply.
Who's using it? The website's users are mostly secondary-school aged.
Any drawbacks? There's no Thiscrush app available, so it can only be accessed via its advertisement-riddled website. Any comments made on a profile are visible for anybody to see and are not strictly private to the user, although it does give the option for a "private comment" to be left, which is only accessible to the user and is hidden from public view. The website also gives commenters the option to leave a "Quick Like" - a short message that simply states "I like you!", and the option to sign off anonymously, or give themselves a name. The service also allows IP addresses to be blocked, preventing an abusive user from commenting again.
3. Curious Cat
What is it? Curious Cat is an anonymous question app wherein users create a profile and their friends and followers ask them questions.
How does it work? Curious Cat works in conjunction with Twitter and requires you to sign in with an existing Twitter account in order to use the service. Once a profile is created, the user shares the link to it via tweet or Twitter bio. Their peers may ask them questions or leave a message anonymously or publicly, although the app is frequently used for the former. Users can then respond directly to the questions within the app or website, including response with pictures.
Who uses it? Curious Cat finds its market with Twitter users - if you don't have a Twitter account, you can't use it.
Any drawbacks? Users can leave nasty comments, but they can also be deleted and there's an option to block anonymous questions.
Five tips to keep kids safe online
1. Have regular conversations about how they use the internet
It's important to apply the concept of stranger danger to children's online lives. Review their 'friends' lists for any apps or games and ask how they met each person on it. Check they are applying privacy settings to restrict who can contact them and who can see what they post online. Above all, tell them as often as you can that they can always come to you if they are worried about anything, and that you will figure out a solution together.
2. Beware the boredom factor
Children may use free time to experiment with the latest apps. Know what apps your child is using and what risks they present. Some parents have no idea their child is posting videos on YouTube or similar apps, and others don't understand why this may make them vulnerable to bullying and exploitation.
3. Know what they are up to in other people's houses
Children are sometimes introduced to new apps or games in a friend's house. If your children are spending time with others, it's a good idea to have that awkward conversation around acceptable internet use with a childminder, childcare facility or their friends' parents.
4. Find the balance between technology and real life
Keep an eye out for changes in behaviour that may be signs they are online too much. Set time limits and offer alternative activities. Help them to form healthy habits around technology use by promoting a healthy balance yourself. You could also try a digital detox as a family.
5. Don't leave them to it
Always keep an eye on your child when they are online and don't forget to ask them why they love it so much. The more engaged you are with their online lives, the better, so take time to explore the online world together.
Cliona Curley is programme director of CyberSafeIreland, a not-for-profit organisation that delivers online safety education to primary school children and their parents. For additional resources for parents, visit cybersafeireland.org; Twitter @CyberSafeIE; facebook.com/cybersafeireland.