Young people now spend hours a day on social media: so what happened when we asked seven teenagers to switch off?
sixteen-year-old Henry Button is Skyping while bouncing up and down on a big pilates ball. “I sleep with my phone on my pillow. It’s the first thing I reach for when I wake up in the morning,” he says, from his home in Essex, appearing in and out of shot as he goes up and down. Doesn’t he worry about sleeping with a phone so close to his head? “Oh no!” he says, bounce, bounce. “I mean, ha, if I got a brain tumour, I’d have something to tweet about!”
Henry is very bright and confident; he’s being flippant, and I suspect he thinks the question of how much he uses social media is a lot of fuss over nothing, but he’s too polite to say so. He knows it’s not the best idea to sleep with a phone on his pillow and he knows that he probably uses it a bit too much, but really, where’s the harm?
And where’s the harm? Two-thirds of 12- to 15-year-olds in the UK now own a smartphone. For older teens, the figure is 90%. Under-16s spend an average of three hours a day online, which overtook time spent watching television for the first time this year. They watch videos on YouTube, scroll through Instagram (400 million users worldwide), post on Facebook (1.5 billion) and hang out on Snapchat (100 million). Their adolescence will be shaped in ways that are significantly different from the experiences of their parents, most of whom will wonder about the impact of so much screen time.
Most of the teens said their sleep habits changed. Some reported reaching for their phones in the middle of the night
In 2001, the US author Marc Prensky invented the term “digital native” to describe the post-millennial generation who would grow up in an online world. “Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet,” he wrote. The term quickly became shorthand for describing the experience of children and adolescents, but it also became open to misinterpretation.
“It concerns me when you hear people in government or education throwing that term around,” says Emma Cooper, of digital media agency Rocket and The Children’s Media Conference. “There’s an implication that they have an inherent understanding of technology. But while they might understand what buttons to press, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to use it. My nine-year-old has hacked our Netflix account, but that doesn’t mean he’s emotionally ready to watch something that’s certified 12.”
“Children should be considered children until they reach the age of maturity, not until someone puts a smartphone in their hand,” says Beeban Kidron, director of the 2013 documentary InRealLife, which looked at the way the internet affects the lives of British teenagers, from the ready availability of hardcore pornography to online bullying.
Kidron is one of the founders of the 5rights campaign, which promotes the idea that the rights children have in real life, as defined by the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, should be granted to them in the digital sphere, too. “If your 13-year-old daughter walked into Topshop, you wouldn’t expect the staff to follow her round, keeping track of everything she looked at and put in her bag, and you wouldn’t expect them to stop her at the till to say, ‘We noticed you were looking at that skirt. Don’t you want it?’ Yet that’s just one small example of exactly how companies behave online.”
This generation of teenagers may have agile thumbs, but most have no memory of life before the internet was constantly available in the palm of your hand. Spending two to three hours a day on social media has become the new normal; what would life be without it? We asked a group of teenage volunteers to go on a social media fast for as long as they could manage.
Some of the changes they noticed were physical. “I got to sleep earlier,” Esther Laver, 16, says. “It was nice having more time – but then there were times when I felt like I couldn’t unwind, because I wasn’t using social media to relax.” Most of the teens said their sleep habits changed, although some also reported reaching for their phones in the middle of the night, before realising what they were doing. A study of Welsh secondary school pupils published last year found that a fifth of the 12- to 15-year-olds analysed woke almost every night to use social media.
We asked our group to map their moods, scoring how they felt throughout the day, with one being very negative and 10 being very positive. Several reported that, for the first few evenings, their scores were around two or three. “Even though I was able to catch up on some revision, the anxiety of being without social media really got to me,” says Janice Da Costa, 18, from London. “Everything moves so fast – I hated not knowing what was going on.”
Being bored and feeling isolated were mentioned over and over again; these teens were experiencing for the first time what it is like to be cut off from some of the most sophisticated distraction methods ever devised. “We live in an attention economy,” says Elsa Bartley, a user experience designer for a large social media platform for adults. “People in my industry are constantly talking about engagement: how do we keep people engaged, what info do they need? How do we give it to them at the right time?” Everything about platforms such as Facebook is designed to keep you coming back. They tap into our very basic needs – the desire for social bonding, the fascination with information that is relevant to us. “It’s very powerful, that feeling that everything you’re seeing on social media is basically connected to you,” Bartley says.
Several of our teenagers said that after the initial adjustment, they felt happier without social media; but when they were given the option to switch back on, they took it. “I can’t imagine life without it,” Da Costa. For this generation, social media is where they make sense of the world. It is increasingly where everything that is important to them is taking place. Going online is no longer the thing you do to take a break from real life. It isreal life.
“Whenever I’m asked by developers what they can do to make their products better, I always say, ‘Give it a bedtime’,” Kidron says. She is working with developers on an app that allows users to limit the amount of time they spend online and, importantly, sends a message to the rest of the world when they are offline. “This is one of the things we found was really important about going offline. Kids hate being unavailable, because it’s like they’re dead.”
Alreadys, something as commonsense as switching off now needs to be programmed, because we’re unable to do it ourselves. Social media is in its infancy, and we’ve reached the point where we’re lost without it, where our children reach for it in the middle of the night, even when they’re half asleep.
Elle Moore, 17
Elle lives in Essex with her parents and brother
Average time online: two to three hours a day
Time without social media: 28 days and 18 hours
About a year ago, I gave up Facebook for Lent, and it wasn’t too bad. I think I have quite a lot of willpower. I know that when I take the internet off my phone, I’m a lot more productive, and I know I should probably do it all the time, but I just don’t.
On a typical day, I’ll probably spend about 20 minutes on it when I wake up in the morning, then, if I’m being realistic, I’ll be online for another two hours or so in the evening, but at the same time I’m doing other things. I mostly use Facebook messenger for group chats and organising things, but then I’m also on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Skype, and I use Facetime a lot.
I couldn’t talk to any of my friends unless I used the landline to call them
Doing it this time round, and getting rid of everything, was much, much harder. I genuinely thought I wouldn’t make it. As soon as I left school, I couldn’t talk to any of my friends unless I used the landline to call them.
I probably fell out with people a lot less, because there’s a lot of miscommunication with Facebook, but I think I grew apart from some friends, too. By the end of the second week, I felt quite sad about it. I had an argument with my brother one night and I wanted to rant to my friend about it, but I couldn’t – I just had to sit in my room. And because I wasn’t there for Facetime every night, my friends just Facetimed other people. It felt quite lonely. I did worry a bit that people would forget about me.
Even though it was really hard, I’m very glad I did it. Lots of little things got better – it was like my life was more together. It was good timing, too, because it was the start of all my exams, so I was a lot more focused, and got all my homework done on time.
I went to the gym more. I’d given up gluten and sugar for Lent as well, and I think that, combined with being off social media, just made me feel so much better physically. I slept better. I spent a lot more time cooking for myself from scratch. The sad thing is that I ever got so bad that I wasn’t cooking food or socialising with my family.
I could have stayed off social media for longer, but went back on it for a few weeks for the convenience of contacting friends. I used to spend ages scrolling down through Instagram until I got to pictures I’d already seen, but when I went back on after the fast, I got bored with it really quickly. I’ve actually taken myself off it again now until all my exams are over. I still see the benefits, like I’ve made friends purely through other friends on Facebook. But I don’t see why everyone wants to spend four or five hours a day on there, seeking approval from people they’ve never met.
Sam Leach, 14
Sam lives in Maidenhead, Berkshire, with his mother, older sister and younger brother
Average time online: one to three hours a day
Time off social media: three days and 16 hours
I got my first phone when I was 10. It was my grandad’s old phone, so it didn’t have the internet. Then, when I was in year seven, I got a Blackberry that I could use to text – most people in my year had phones by then. I’ve got an iPhone 6s now. I use it in the morning to check the time and message friends to see if they’re cycling to school; then at home I’ll use it to check messages, listen to music, maybe do some research for homework. It depends whether I’m going out after school or not – if I am, then maybe I’ll use it for only an hour or so; if I’m at home, it could be a lot more. The time just flies by. The other night, I went on it at about six, then, before I knew it, it was eight o’clock. My parents are pretty cool about it, as long as I’ve done my homework first. That’s the rule.
I use Snapchat and Instagram the most. I follow around 400 people on Instagram; most of them are famous or people who post funny videos. Snapchat is more just for mates. I think the girls I know spend longer on there than the boys.
My mates had to come round and knock on my door to get me
I told my friends I was turning off my social media on Tuesday, then I switched it off on Wednesday after school. I was really worried about getting bored, so I asked my mum if we could go out shopping. On Thursday, I went out after school, and again on Friday, just to keep myself distracted. On Saturday morning, my mates had to come round and knock on my door to get me. It was funny being out without my phone, because I don’t have a watch, so I had to keep asking my friends what the time was.
My notifications were going off all the time, but I couldn’t look at them. It was pretty hard. Then on Sunday, I could see that they were all about playing football and I just thought, “I can’t not look”, so I turned everything back on.
It was a good experience to be without it even just for a few days, but I don’t think I could have done it longer. I would have ended up spending more money. I might give it up again. I don’t know. Maybe in a year or two.
Anna Mayer, 13
Anna lives in Sheffield with her parents and older brother
Average time online: around one hour a day
Time without social media: seven days
I don’t have Facebook. None of my friends has Facebook, so I don’t think there’s much point in me having it. I have WhatsApp, but I don’t use it. I mainly use Instagram. We use it instead of texting, because it’s free. The only selfie I have is my profile picture; most of my pictures are of stuff I’ve been doing. My Grandma Jeanette always says, “Social media isn’t a boasting book.” I think being on social media is a lot more productive than watching TV, because at least you’re talking to other people. We don’t have TV at home – we usually watch a series online as a family, once a week; at the moment, it’s Parks And Recreation.
Spending a week without it was really, really good. Usually, when I spend ages scrolling through social media, it makes me happy when I’m doing it, but afterwards I just feel like I’ve done nothing for an hour. I practised my flute a lot more. I’ve got one of those adult colouring-in books that I don’t usually look at, but I had a go at that, and I spent a lot more time doodling, using my sketchbook. I did my homework as soon as I got in – well, not as soon as I got in, but I did get it done. And I helped my mum out. I think my parents enjoyed being round me more.
Getting rid of social media made me feel more positive, more optimistic, but it’s still hard to do without it
The only negative thing was being at home after school and thinking, “Wow, I’m not going to be able to talk to my friends for hours and hours.” I couldn’t help thinking about what they were doing without me. There were times at school when I had to ask what they were all talking about, because I’d missed a conversation.
Getting rid of social media made me feel more positive, more optimistic, but it’s still hard to do without it. When you’re bored, it’s the easy option. You just open it up and it’s there. For a few weeks after I finished the experiment, I would sometimes delete my apps for an hour or so. I guess that improvement is better than nothing.
Janice Da Costa, 18
Janice lives in London with her mother and brothers
Average time online: “Probably around 17 hours a day – it’s always with me!”
Time without social media: false start of seven hours; then seven days and eight hours
I cannot remember my life before I got social media. I was on Facebook when I was still in primary school. I had MSM back then, like everyone else, and I think by the beginning of secondary school I was on it constantly. I would borrow my dad’s Sony Ericsson to check messages. Now, of course, I’ve got my own phone, which is with me 24 hours a day.
I’m on WhatsApp and Twitter – I’m very active there, and I like to post stuff about my blog. I check Facebook and emails constantly, but I use them more for work. I do a lot of Snapchat with my friends. The basic purpose is to film a 10-second video of anything you like and now there are extra features where you can make your eyes bigger, or make rainbows vomit out of your mouth.
Without social media, I’m not sure that we’d know what to talk about – it’s what gives us a conversation. I really love watching reaction videos on YouTube, too, where people are watching something else and you’re watching their reaction. I think I just really like other people’s opinions.
I had a lot of anxiety in the evenings on the first couple of days. I didn’t know what was going on
I had a false start when I began the experiment. I was with my friends and we were trying to get to see a movie, and suddenly all the buses were on diversion and my friends were saying that social media had gone crazy, so I needed to check it out. Apparently, someone got stabbed. It wasn’t someone I knew. Then, the next morning, I reached out and checked my phone before I’d even thought about it, so I had to delete all my apps after that.
I had a lot of anxiety in the evenings on the first couple of days. I didn’t know what was going on. There was a story about the Kardashians that I didn’t know about, until someone told me to my face. I don’t actually follow the Kardashians, but when something big happens like that, I like to know about it. I swung between being quite productive and being bored. I didn’t read or watch TV.
Usually Facebook reminds me when people’s birthdays are, because I don’t think anyone has time to remember other people’s birthdays. So one of my best friends from secondary school had a birthday party, and I missed it. There was a bit of an awkward moment when I jumped back into social media and she told me she was already 18.
Esther and Leah Laver, 16 and 14
Esther and Leah live with their parents and younger brothers in the West Midlands
Esther Average time online: “At least a couple of hours a day, probably more.”
Time without social media: 14 days and nine hours
I really hate being bored. I often have nightmares that I’ve gone on a long journey without something to do. I really hate not having my phone with me, or the battery losing charge, because then I feel cut off from the world.
I got Facebook first, when I was 13, then Tumblr not long after, and that’s what I use most for looking at the news or different blogs about books and movies. I use Snapchat a bit, and Google Hangouts. I don’t really like Hangouts, but a lot of my friends use it. I’m probably on there for a couple of hours a day. My parents don’t like me using it, so I tend not to use it around them.
I was irritated at times, because I couldn’t go online and find blogs or stories to distract myself
I was surprised how easy it was to stop. There were moments, after the first couple of days, when it would have been really easy to give in to temptation and sneak a look, but I really didn’t mind being without it. It was good to prove that I wasn’t addicted. I was irritated at times, because I couldn’t go online and find blogs or stories to distract myself. I spent a lot of time reading newspaper websites in the first couple of days, and I watched three seasons of an MTV show in a fortnight.
I don’t think it changed anything about my relationships: my friends don’t use their phones at school that much anyway, because of data charges. There was a day early on when they’d all watched this video and all anyone could talk about was Damn Daniel, like it was hilarious, so when the experiment was over I watched it, to see what all the fuss was about. It was just this guy filming his friend, saying, “Damn, Daniel.” It was so stupid.
At home, I was still spending a lot of time on my own rather than with my family; it’s just that I was reading a book or watching TV instead of being on my phone. I read somewhere that people have always found ways to cut themselves off from other people, whether it was reading or doing embroidery back in the middle ages. I don’t think me being on my phone is any different, really.
Leah Average time online: less than one hour a day
Time without social media: 10 days and eight hours
My dad has this app that can block stuff on our phones, so my screen time is usually limited. I like using Instagram – we use it a bit for group chats and I’ll post about what I’m doing, or sometimes put up a selfie. It’s how we make most of our plans. Some people can be a bit mean. I’ve had a little bit of experience of it. I worry about it sometimes.
For the first couple of days, I was grumpy, but the more I did it, the happier I felt. I think maybe because I wasn’t worrying as much about what I looked like in selfies and things like that. I was pleased to get it back, though, because I missed my old routine. I still want it in my life.
Henry Button, 16
Henry lives in Essex with his parents and two sisters
Average time online: four hours a day, minimum
Time without social media: seven days and two hours
My phone is always with me. Primarily, I use it for Facebook, especially Messenger. We moved from Wales to England a couple of years ago, and it became the best way of keeping in touch. I also use it to plan a lot of things, so at the moment I’m working on a media project at school and I’ve got a group chat going for people who are part of the film I’m making, to coordinate schedules. So I use it quite productively. I’m probably on there for at least four hours a day, but I don’t think it pulls my attention too much.
Going without was far harder than I thought. On day one, waking up was OK – I don’t usually have much time to do social media in the mornings, but when I got home from school, I realised I didn’t have anything to do. I spent about 10 minutes lying on my bed going, “Aaaargh.” Then I thought, OK, let’s look at some notes for school. I ended up going to bed about an hour earlier than I would normally, and I think I woke up later, too, because I didn’t feel like I needed to clock in.
Day one was OK, because of the novelty, but the next few days were just dull and boring. My friends were telling me I’d picked the wrong time to do it, because during the week there was quite a big falling-out in my group. There wasn’t any major real-life confrontation, but apparently a lot of passive-aggressive stuff was being said online and everyone else knew about it and I didn’t have a clue.
When I turned my social media back on, I could see that there were hundreds of messages in my group chats, but I couldn’t read them all. There’s stuff on there that I won’t know about. I’m not going to read over it. I’m just going to assume everyone loves me.
Even though I was more productive, I felt a lot more isolated
It was pretty funny at home, because we’re quite a techy family, so a lot of the time it felt as if it was just me, floating around the house saying, “Hey, guys, do you want to do something fun?” They were all on their phones or laptops.
I wouldn’t turn it off again. Even though I was more productive, I felt a lot more isolated. I’ve always seen myself as someone who can hold a good conversation, but I didn’t realise how much I relied on Messenger, and that shocked me. Without it, I just couldn’t connect with people.
Reference :: theguardian