Last Tuesday I settled down to watch the first episode of ‘Teens’, Channel 4’s new documentary series which follows the lives of 12 sixteen year-olds. The documentary promised to show us the groups’ digital footprint in full, tracking every text, tweet and update, and picking the best to give us an insight into their digital activity. But what can we take away from what we were shown?
Inevitably, the documentary was keen to leave us feeling that the teens’ mobile phones were the portal to their world – where they interacted with their friends and conveyed their personalities to the public. Both Harry and Jess were avid Twitter users and much of the ‘storylines’ of the documentary played out in this space.
The pair’s love for social media came to a head when Jess arranged an open meeting with the campaigners from ‘No More Page Three’, which didn’t quite go the way she intended. An arguably throwaway comment by one of the campaigners, comparing the tradition of page three to slavery, was latched onto by the young attendees and spread across their online networks.
The subsequent ‘Twitter beef’ received by Jess (mean comments about both the campaign she supported and personal to her) gave us a great insight into how the online space can become a platform for gossip and ‘drama’. Groups of teenagers told the camera how anonymous comments on Twitter can be interpreted – “You can always work out who it’s about”. Also, we got to see how public tweets are then discussed privately between friends over messaging apps.
Watching Jess become quite upset by the social media backlash she had received was uncomfortable and perhaps slightly inappropriate for public airing. However, her frustration reflects how the lives of young people can be so heavily influenced by what is happening online.
Despite this, we must remember that the young people profiled in the documentary reflect a very specific type of teenager. Undoubtedly, most teenagers are hooked on social media and their mobiles, but Harry and Jess were both ‘sharers’ by nature, with neither showing much concern about making their lives and opinions public.
But the viewer should take caution in thinking that Harry and Jess are like all teenagers. Our recent Monitor survey showed that 11-16s spend an average of 2.1 hours on their mobile each day, but a significant minority (29%) of this age range are using theirs for half an hour or less.
The frequent use of Twitter is also far from universal, with only 40% of 11-16s having used the site in the last week. Not all young people are willing to share their lives so publicly, apparent by the rise of private messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat.
Therefore, we should see ‘Teens’ as a snapshot into how some teenagers live their lives, rather than an accurate depiction of all teenagers in the UK. Taking this view of the teens helps us to understand the issues these young people face, without assuming that the entire generation are all cut from the same mould.