Growing up online: it’s a Wild West

Posted: 28th September 2022

As Molly Russell’s inquest lays bare social media’s dangers, Blanca Schofield, 24, looks back on her teens

When I was 13 my friend’s photos ended up on a porn website. It was 2011, I was in year 9, and a local rite of passage meant we had started going to a notorious underage disco, where the uniform for girls was bodycon dresses and wedge heels or Uggs. After each “club night” teenagers would rush to Facebook to upload an album of more than 100 photos from the night before, changing their profile picture to the most flattering one of the lot. Privacy settings, if activated, didn’t seem to deter those who wanted to sexualise young girls so, for a time, photos of my peers would frequently end up on X-rated sites. It shocked us, but we shrugged it off, pushing it to the back of our minds so effectively that I had forgotten about it until now — that’s how normalised it was.

The reports yesterday of Molly Russell’s inquest brought back memories of growing up with social media and how perilous it could be. Molly, 14, had 2,100 depressive posts saved on her Instagram, which her family’s lawyer said simulated and promoted suicide. “Why on earth are you doing this?” he shouted at a senior Meta executive (Meta being the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) before calling Instagram “an inherently unsafe environment”. The executive apologised for Molly’s exposure to content that violated the companies’ policies, but defended the existence of depressive material on the platform. Yesterday it was reported that TikTok may face a £27 million fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office for failing to protect children’s privacy.

I know only too well what a Wild West the online world — and particularly social media — can be. Mine was the first generation to grow up online: Facebook became accessible in 2006, Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011. Years 7, 8 and 9 were Facebook’s boom time in my social circles. I had signed up in 2010, just before my 12th birthday, and quickly got used to documenting my life. It was all so innocuous at first, a continuation of our old brick phone and MSN habits, the messages comprising barely more than “wua” (what you at) and “hul” (who you loving) and statuses about what I was baking (“heart-shaped brownies!”). My first two album names capture this initial innocence: “HoCKeY VicTOrY” and “Random Photies”. But it quickly stopped being just an endearing online diary.

Facebook — and then Instagram and Snapchat and so on and so on — became the popularity indicator. Between the ages of 13 and 21 I would be upset if I didn’t have more than a hundred likes on my profile picture. A sign of an It girl among my peers was if she got her like count in the several hundreds, with some even getting up to a thousand. Can you even really have a thousand friends? Who knew and who cared. “Like for like” and “Can you like my profile picture?” were habitual exchanges, and sometimes you would change your photo twice in a day so it would show up again on everyone’s feed and get even more likes.

Having Snapchat helped me to find out when people were meeting up, because of the many stories they would post, so I could then ask to join. I used to wonder if I wouldn’t have made friends as easily when I moved cities aged 14 if I hadn’t got an iPhone. I really hope that’s not true, but it could well be, because using social media regularly on it made me more visible. Yet there were times when you weren’t invited to that person’s house or on that holiday and the photos were all over everyone’s stories. Or when you were invited, but your friend didn’t want a picture with you for their story. Most things at that time were done to “get a pic” — has that really changed? How many people still choose locations to spend time with their friends based on their Instagrammability?

Then there were the more sordid popularity aspects. “Like for an LPC” spread as a status on Facebook — if you liked it, the person who posted it would write rankings on your wall about your looks, personality and closeness (LPC). Usually they were kind, giving you high scores. But not always, and your humiliation would be public, visible to all your friends. And, lest we forget, there was AskFM, the Q&A platform you could sign up to and share on your Facebook. People could post anonymous questions to you, usually embarrassing or slut-shaming, and you’d feel compelled to answer because the more questions on your feed the more popular you were. There were the times when your friend answered the question “Who are your top five friends?” and didn’t include you, or when you weren’t mentioned in your crush’s “top three”. Thankfully the AskFM craze died a relatively swift death, although its toxicity remains in our generation’s cultural memory; “Oh God,” we say whenever someone brings it up.

Beside increasing adolescent anxiety and other mental health problems (as found by a Harvard study in 2021), the digital world was, and still is, a hazard zone in terms of the sexualisation of minors. From the age of 12 we could go on to Omegle or Chatroulette, platforms set up for talking to strangers, and be exposed to men masturbating at their webcam, barely knowing what we were witnessing. One friend told me she would search for tags on social media to do with One Direction so she could talk to strangers who were also 1D fans, but would end up faced with grown men who had used those tags to find minors. It’s hard to believe how many teenagers were (and are) actively being groomed. I knew people who would regularly speak to men ten years their senior.

From the age of 14 many, and I mean many, of my peers had their nudes or sexual images shared by their peers. Once I was on a bus in year 10 and a boy started playing a nude video from a girl in our class out loud. Another time, aged 16, a girl I knew accidentally put a nude on her story instead of sending it privately to her boyfriend before going to bed, and woke up to the news that many of her followers (especially boys) had taken screenshots. In my sixth form someone set up a gossip account on Instagram and Snapchat from which they shared nudes and private messages for a few days before the school found out and shut it down.

Writing this brings back memories of cultural phenomena so dark I had to double check with friends to make sure I was remembering correctly. There was the “pro-ana” phase (meaning pro anorexia), where dark corners of Tumblr would be taken over by the romanticisation of eating disorders. One friend told me this was related to the “indie sleaze” trend, wherein the ideal aesthetic was skinny, smoking and grunge, and sometimes anorexic and depressed. Images of self-harm were not uncommon, especially once the “cut for Bieber” hashtag spread in January 2013. It started when Justin Bieber fans posted photos of their self-inflicted wounds in an effort to get him to stop doing drugs.

Although “cut for Bieber” showed the world again how dangerous the digital space could become, it didn’t stop other alarming trends and challenges from going viral. Among the worst ones I saw (and thankfully never participated in) was “neknomination”, where you had to post a video of yourself downing a pint of alcohol. At first glance this could seem harmless — drinking dares have existed since long before social media — but as people pushed themselves to cocktails of straight spirits it started leading to tragedies; up to five deaths in the UK and Ireland have been associated with the challenge. Another more random, but dangerous trend was the cinnamon challenge, where you filmed yourself eating a spoonful of cinnamon without any water in less than a minute. As this took off it too led to hospitalisations and allergic reactions.

And yet it’s not as if challenges have disappeared even now. TikTok is full of them — from the earphone challenge, where women and girls showed how skinny they were by wrapping white Apple headphones around their waist, to the blackout challenge, which may have been linked to the death of Archie Battersbee. The apps may have changed, and there may now be more guidelines. Fundamentally, however, it’s frightening how the dangers I experienced at school five to ten years ago are still a reality for today’s teenagers.

Source: Growing up online: it’s a Wild West | Times2 | The Times

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