What teenagers do on the internet: an insider's guide

One 17-year-old explains why teenagers are glued to their phones and how teachers can support them to stay safe online

Felix Murray

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In the past 10 years, internet usage has boomed. I recently read that average daily screen time has risen, since 1995, from three hours to up to eight hours for boys aged 13-16, and only half an hour less for girls. 

While I can personally see that these figures seem a lot to most adults, I don’t think they are far-fetched — especially during weekends or holidays. After all, we have our phones on us all the time and if you are a gamer, the hours can quite easily rack up.

Most parents ask what on earth we spend so much time on our phones doing. This is an easy question to answer, because there's so much to see and do online.

On a typical day, you spend most of your time simply checking social media apps like Snapchat, Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Instagram: browsing, sharing posts, taking pictures of things, chatting to friends and seeing what is going on in the world. An app like Snapchat has embraced almost all of these elements. Many mainstream news channels have their own section on Snapchat to broadcast current events, popular culture, style and fashion advice, sports news and general entertainment.

In the past, my generation would have got their news updates from the television or radio but now there’s no need – it is streamed to us. We don’t even have to look for it, it just pings through on our screens and updates as the story progresses.

Addicted to devices?

This is good in one way because it means that the younger generation are much more engaged with current affairs and politics. The downside is that there is definitely a marketing angle to it. The way the information is laid out leads you to browse from one thing to another, with pop-ups constantly enticing you to click through to something else that looks interesting. It is no wonder that teenagers spend as long on screens; you never get bored. 

Most teenagers would deny that they are addicted to their devices, but I'm not so sure. Just watch someone struggling with connectivity when there is a poor wi-fi signal — frustrated, bored, anxious, and jumpy would probably sum them up. I particularly find myself getting irritated when the wi-fi connection is poor, none of my messages will send, and I can’t connect.

Phone addiction is certainly something to take seriously and I think it is far more common than is immediately obvious. A good way of monitoring your usage is to download an app that tells you the time spent on your phone or device – at the end of the day, it will give you a total usage time, along with a breakdown of how much time was spent on various apps. Sometimes it is really shocking to see what we might think is only five minutes here and there throughout the day collected into hours and hours spent looking at our screens.  

One of the most addictive qualities of social media is the way it allows you to portray and get approval for what is, in essence, an edited, more interesting version of your life. You can stream a whole photo library to make it look like you are always doing fun, exciting things and get lots of likes from other people. In reality, everyone’s life has mundane, boring moments, unproductive days, cancelled social plans and just generally times where everything seems to be going wrong. I would say the fact that you only see what other people want you to see is at the root of a lot of social media-related issues. 

Let teens make their own decisions

Another commonly reported problem is sexting. Sexting is a difficult one for parents to manage because it’s hard to create a catch-all definition. Many teens feel that low-level flirtatious and suggestive messages are so normal and accepted nowadays that it is unhelpful to include these under the umbrella term of "sexting".  I think that the way forward in this area is to continue to make teenagers aware of their potential vulnerability through the internet, and allow them to come to conclusions of their own rather than forcing these upon them.  

A lot of adults are scared of what their teenagers are doing online even though they have no idea of what this is most of the time. Parents and teachers struggle with how to police online behaviour and, in many ways, discussions about this issue are not dissimilar to debates about drugs. Simply saying “just say no” and “don’t do it” will have almost the opposite effect on teenagers, whose brains are in a stage of development, which means they are more likely to act on impulse and want to rebel. But providing teenagers with information to help them to see the bigger picture and make their own decisions tends to work a lot better, in my opinion.

We hear a lot of negative things about teenagers being online. Of course, there are risks and dangers, but we cannot forget that we have an incredible world at our fingertips. We are connected and able to communicate with a global community. Technology is offering our generation countless possibilities, which is tremendously exhilarating.

Felix Murray is a sixth-form student and digital ambassador at Hampton School in Middlesex

Hampton School will hold a CPD conference entitled "Digital Wellbeing: protecting pupils online" tomorrow, Friday 9 June

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Felix Murray

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