Disconnected in a Connected World: What Are Teenagers Doing Online?

By Kirsten Krauth

In the internet age, we’re technically more connected than ever - but does the ease of connecting online make it harder to connect IRL (in real life)? How do we negotiate public and private space? What are teenagers doing online - and how can we make sure they’re safe? Kirsten Krauth researched these issues for her first novel, just_a_girl.

Since the emergence of social media, there’s been a perception that people are more connected than ever before: Facebook, Twitter, blogging, instant chats, the ability to access apps from your iPhone when you’re on the move, photos of events posted before the event is over. There’s pressure to be always available, always accessible, always switched on.

But status updates, blog posts, tweets, RSS feeds: do they offer any sense of real connection? Your friends might ‘like’ your posts but does that convert to a genuine response? My own experience is that relying on social media is making us lazy in the offline world. It doesn’t translate into action. Why call when you can text? Why commit when something better may come up? Why send a birthday card when you can just say ‘happy birthday’ on Facebook when the calendar reminds you?

There’s also the question of public versus private space. Many older users of Facebook are careful in the information they distribute. My own rule is that I use Facebook and Twitter as a kind of online work cubicle. If I wouldn’t be happy pinning it up to a wall at work, I don’t put it up on Facebook. If I distribute images of my children, I’m very careful about how they are represented. But what about our children’s use of social media?

I’ve recently published a novel, just_a_girl, which features a 14-year-old girl who is reckless with her internet use. When researching the book, I was interested in the idea of characters more isolated than ever in the digital age. I began to focus on teenagers. I stalked a lot of young girls on Facebook (in the early days). I was astonished at how naïve they were in terms of the information they shared. With most I could easily find out their names, their birthdays, where they lived, which school they went to, their pets, boys they liked, and what they were passionate about. Parents were rarely in the equation and I’m guessing they had little knowledge of their daughters’ online worlds.

According to a 7.30 Report story on ‘sexting’, ‘one in five young women have posted images of themselves nude or semi-nude online. Nearly half the girls have been asked to.’ These are not small figures. An increasing number of girls are being exposed in this way, some by choice and others not. If girls come from regional towns, the problem can be heightened. As the ABC’s Louise Mulligan reports:

They’re the images that make any parent of a teenager’s stomach turn: young girls in so-called ‘selfies’, shot by themselves in a state of provocative undress, taken on their smartphone and sexted, maybe to a boy they like, but the pictures get out. And, snap, they’re on a Facebook page dedicated to exposing girls it calls ‘sluts’. The page is the third to come out of one Victorian regional town in the past two years. We’ve chosen not to name it to avoid further harm to the girls. Two of the girls were aged under 18 and one under 16.

Girls walking down the street in their hometowns are then accosted as ‘sluts’ by people who recognise their images from Facebook. Labelled and judged. When parents of the girls in the above case tried to get Facebook to remove the images, their requests were refused. The girls are stuck up there. Imagine your first sexual experiences captured and displayed to a wide audience …

I wrote just_a_girl for parents grappling with the new technologies thrust upon us. I think about my four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. They deftly scroll through my photos on the iPhone and iPad, their little fingers flicking the screen like experts. How do I teach them to respect each other and themselves? To commit to friendships? To take time to focus on things that aren’t on a screen? To think carefully before posting images and words?

It’s time for parents to sit down and notice. To help teenagers negotiate these changing spaces - to help them connect both in and out of the digital spheres.

But we can’t do that unless we understand these spheres ourselves. And most parents are looking the other way.