Paige is growing up in a world where the average Australian household has 7.8 personal devices, with almost all teenagers owning one or more themselves. The TV isn’t in the family living room anymore, where parents can keep tabs on what’s on the “idiot box”. Children are consuming more personalised content with less supervision — more than half of them spend more than 10 hours per week (outside of school activities) staring at those screens. So what is it that they actually see there?
This is one small glimpse at one child’s “black mirror”. Given the increasingly fragmented nature of media consumption and the algorithms that determine what we see, it won’t apply as broadly as observations of the youth/pop culture diet might have in the past. But it offers a taste of a world those of us who fall into a more mature demographic aren’t often exposed to.
My day with Paige is a weekday in the school holidays — but there are few sleep-ins. Paige woke up at about 6.30am and checked Instagram. “I always go on Instagram first,” she says. “I lay on my side and go through Instagram.” (This isn’t, by the way, a trait unique to 13-year-olds. 80% of Australians admit to checking their phones first thing in the morning.)
Most of her friends are up and online at the same hour. Usually, the first thing she receives is a Snapchat message. “It’s normally ‘streaks’,” she says. Today’s “streaks” came through at 6.40am.
“What’s ‘streaks’?” I ask, feeling old and out of touch. “I mean — it’s not like, running naked through a cricket game, right?”
“No,” Paige says, like I’m old and out of touch. She screws her face up, struggling to think of a way to explain “streaks”. “I’m just going to search it up to clarify what it is — because everyone does it but I’m not very sure what it is.” She picks her phone up and Googles it.
“Ok,” she says, finding a definition that makes sense. She reads it out.
“A Snapchat streak is when you send direct snaps back and forth with a friend for several consecutive days. Snapchat rewards longer streaks with special emojis such as the 100 sign emoji for streaks lasting a hundred days.”
“So, that’s it?” I ask. “I could literally just take a picture of me, or a tree, and put the word ‘streaks’ on it, and send it to someone.”
“Yeah pretty much,” Paige says. “Or even just the letter ‘s’.”
“To get an emoji?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Paige says, tossing her phone back onto the table. “It’s dumb.”
It does sound dumb. I later find a lengthier explanation from teens explaining “the world of Snapchat’s addictive streaks, where friendships live or die”.
I think in some weird way it makes concrete a feeling of a friendship,” Jules Spector, a 16-year-old from Brooklyn, says. “Like, you can talk to someone every day, but a streak is physical evidence that you talk every day.
It’s still dumb — but it makes sense in the precarious context of the adolescent social landscape.
As pointed out in a recent series of articles in Nature, focused on the developmental science of adolescence: “The social capabilities of internet-enabled devices tap into core adolescent motivations in powerful ways. Adolescents are particularly motivated to explore peer relationships, and social media provide almost ubiquitous access to these interactions.”
Paige tells me after she’s checked Instagram and Snapchat, she watches YouTube “until Mum yells at me to get out of bed”.
“What do you watch?”
“Tiny homes. These people that live in tiny houses, from there” — Paige stretches her arms out to demonstrate — “to like, there. They’re really small.”
I’m relieved to be aware of what “tiny homes” are. Adults, too, are obsessed with them — there’s even a Netflix show about the trend. The YouTube channel Paige subscribes to is Living Big in a Tiny House. I later watch a few episodes. A Kiwi host goes around meeting people who’ve built themselves very small houses and are pretending the novelty hasn’t worn off.
“And a little bit of Jake Paul. He’s like someone with millions of subscribers. Vlogs and does stupid things and it’s funny.”
I have never heard of Jake Paul, a 22-year-old American with bleached hair and a diamond earring stud with a crucifix hanging off it and a tattoo on his wrist that says “I hate small talk”. He looks like the offspring of Jackass and a ’90s boy band. In the video featured on the homepage of his channel, titled “the results are in…”, Jake drives a blue Lamborghini up a mountain and yells out the window “it’s lit bro!” at other dudes in sportscars. He runs around a mansion spitting bubble tea through a straw at his friends. Later, he visits his girlfriend with a bunch of flowers and a pregnancy test. She’s also a YouTube star. They’re both apparently rich-ish and famous-y. At the end of the clip, he directs viewers to a link for “$10 tees and $20 hoodies”.
“And I watch Hannah Stocking,” Paige says, showing me her channel. “She does like — I don’t know how to explain it — like four-minute little videos, little movies, or sketches. And they’re really funny.”
Hannah Stocking is a tall, wide-eyed, goofy-but-attractive comedian who says “legit” a lot. Her trademark outfit is bike pants and a sweater with a slogan that reads “Hi HOW ARE U?” — available for sale at her merchandise site for US$45. The featured video on her homepage is a paid promotion for the very cheap — and very weird — online retail app Wish, on which many counterfeit products are sold.
Paige also watches people on holiday. There’s Sailing La Vagabond — a channel documenting the adventures of a photogenic Australian couple as they sail the world funded by contributions from viewers. And Kara and Nate — a couple from Nashville who are also paying for their ongoing world tour with sponsored content and “travel hacks”. (Their 30-day course on how to travel for free costs US$147).
The content these producers are putting out seems less relevant than the fact that they’re making a living doing it. Little wonder kids in the West are most likely to say they want to be a “Vlogger/YouTuber” when they grow up.
“I want to show you a really funny video!” Paige says.
It’s on TikTok — the social media platform I am least familiar with. Until now, I’d thought it was just for teenagers filming short videos of themselves lip-syncing to pop songs. The clip she shows me is something else.
It’s an adult man, with his face painted pink and wearing piggy ears on his head, and a big t-shirt with an enormous pig face on it, sliding around and snorting in a muddy patch of grass beside an inflatable pool.
Paige is cacking herself. This is @JohnniRiddlin2.0’s thing. It’s made him popular enough to be invited to this year’s VidCon, along with a host of other TikTok stars preparing to take over the internet. They all seem to have carved out bizarre niches in a universe of quirky nihilism.
Paige says she doesn’t use TikTok that much, but shows me a couple of videos she’s recently posted. One is her mouthing along to a Chipmunks song, another is her and a friend copying the dance moves of another user.
Throughout the day, Paige intermittently checks Instagram. In total, she likes about 30 posts — more than 20 of them are ads from companies. Some of them are accounts she has actively followed, others appear as sponsored posts.
“I don’t want braces so I’m trying to convince them to get me an Invisalign,” she says.
I ask how she thinks Instagram knows she’s interested in Invisalign.
“I searched it on the web. I don’t know if it’s from that. I’ll get things from real estate ones and everything though — so it’s really weird.”
Paige also gets Instagram ads for cafes and TV shows, but more than anything else, she gets advertising for cosmetics. Either the ads are working — or their targeting is.
“I’ve got a whole tub of it — makeup stuff — and it just sits there. There’s about six makeup pallets for eyes and cheeks and stuff, and a couple of foundations, tonnes of stuff and it just sits in there and I don’t use it. I’ll do it on my friends but I don’t use it because it’s just boring. And it makes my face bad. Like my skin.”
By sheer chance, today happens to be the day Instagram’s “hidden likes” trial began. (The company says it’s to “remove pressure” on the platform’s users — although some are sceptical that’s the real motivation. It may be more to do with re-routing advertising dollars from “influencers” to Facebook.)
At midday Paige sees this on Instagram…
One of the boys from school is trying to work out what’s going on. He’s posted an Instagram story — a blurry black and grey image with a question laid over the top in white text:
“Can anyone else not see how many likes their posts get?”
Paige replies to him with a direct message
“Yeah they’ve changed it so that people don’t get bullied over how many likes.”
“He’s one of the competitive boys who puts posts up to get the most likes,” she tells me.
I ask whether she thinks hiding the likes will do much. She’s not sure.
“It’s always about the likes — how many likes you get, how many followers. They should really hide the number of followers too.”
I ask to see examples of the kids at school that are most “competitive” on Instagram. She shows me a few accounts. There’s a clear gender divide in the kind of images posted by these users.
The boys’ posts are silly. Seemingly little effort goes into the aesthetic of their images — or maybe there’s a lot of effort going in to making them look like there isn’t. Either way, it’s clear they’re intended to be funny, or obnoxious, or pointless. In one, a group of six boys hang off some playground equipment at night. One kid has taken his shirt off and tucked it under his hat, another is giving the finger with both hands. The rest are just smiling at the camera, their eyes reflecting the flash. A second photo shows the same group sitting at a picnic bench, all holding pieces of toilet paper. The same kid who gave the finger in the first photo is doing it again, but with one hand this time.
Paige scrolls past dozens of similar images. A boy standing at the edge of a park, giving the finger. Walking past a grandstand, giving the finger. In one short video, a group of kids in school uniform are chanting the user’s name. He has captioned it “legends”. Chris Lilley’s latest offering, Lunatics, wasn’t well-received by critics. But surely even they must admit his character “Gavin” — a 12-year-old “Instagram lord” — is bang on.
The girls’ posts — for the most part — emulate modelling shots and celebrity culture. There’s one of a girl sitting on the edge of a pool in a black bikini, wet hair, looking down. She’s only 13 but in this image could easily pass as being in her 20s. Another is a side-on shot of a girl standing on a beach in a bikini. She’s got one leg slightly bent, hair covering the side of her face. In the next shot, she’s standing on top of a climbing tower in a kids’ playground at dusk, turned away from the camera, one hand flicking her hair through the sunlight. She’s wearing short denim shorts, and has her hips turned toward the camera. In another post, the entire screen is taken up with a girl’s butt as she squats in a pair of denim shorts.
Lest these observations be taken as pearl-clutching prudishness — this isn’t new, or particularly shocking. Bums aren’t scandalous. We are, after all, living in the “era of the booty” (and arguably, have been for a long time). This is in many ways very normal behaviour. Thirteen is the age around which kids start to develop body image, and nascent sexuality, and a desire to express themselves. And these performative displays of gender are hardly something caused by social media. This is mainstream adolescent social currency as it’s been for a long time — physical attractiveness for girls, loutishness for boys. I’m heartened to see a few examples in Paige’s feed of kids bucking the trend — girls mucking around being funny, boys posing in front of mirrors. As society’s understanding of gender becomes more fluid, and less prescriptive, I suspect we’ll see these binary representations blur further.
I also notice that some of the kids have multiple accounts, using one as a “main profile” account where they carefully curate flattering images of themselves, and another as a “spam account” for more candid “real life” shots. It’s the sort of thing some Instagram influencers do, like swimwear model Jadé Tuncdoruk who posts her more professional hot shots at @jadetunchy, while using @therealjadetunchy to show what her “life looks like without a filter and without me trying to be cute” (well, even there she’s still cute).
I have to admit, I find the vanity of it a bit distasteful — but surely one positive of the age of visual culture is that we all see how the sausage is made (even if it is driving more people to visit the butcher themselves). Twenty years ago, people agonised over how young women were fed unrealistic body image ideals by airbrushing in magazines. This generation is well aware that the “perfect” faces and bodies they see aren’t real — they’re openly faking their own half the time.
While Paige and I are on the tram, she holds her phone up to the window and films for about five seconds. She isn’t concerned with the framing, or the focus, or anything much really. She’s not even watching the screen to see what she’s captured.
She sends the clip to her friend, Emily, who’d sent a message asking what she was doing.
This kind of activity makes up the vast bulk of Paige’s social media use — trivial check-ins with friends, back and forth messages between people doing “nothin’, u?”, group chat plans to meet up at a shopping centre the next day. It’s the un-gamified version of “streaks” — and kids are well aware that it can get out of hand.
2018 research by the Pew Research Center found 45% of teens (US children aged 13-17) said they use the internet “almost constantly”, with another 44% saying they went online “several times a day”. They themselves were often making efforts to curb their screen time — more than half had tried to cut back on mobile phone use, social media and gaming, and admitted to feeling lonely, upset or anxious without their phones. Many parents share the same struggle.
After dinner a girl from Paige’s netball team posts a story that says “UGLY GANG: screen shot this if you think your ugly whoever sends you [heart-eyes emoji] disagrees”.
It’s an obvious plea for reassurance, and it’s risky to not play along.
“One of the girls said ‘you must think I’m ugly’ because I didn’t reply to one of her stories. I just said I don’t do this stuff, I think it’s silly.”
Talking to Paige, it’s clear that hiding the likes on Instagram won’t solve the problem of online bullying. The truly problematic behaviour is far more subtle and invisible than that.
It’s things like creating group chats and leaving someone out of them. Or publicly rating people on their appearance, on a scale of one to 10. Or airdropping unflattering photographs of someone to everyone else at the bus stop — as one boy did recently to another.
Earlier this year, Paige was the target of a group of classmates dabbling in the intoxicating cruelty that can characterise adolescent girl-to-girl bullying. One of them posted an Instagram story asking “who is the worst person?” Some of the replies named Paige. The replies were sent privately to the original poster by direct message, so Paige would never had known about them had someone not screencapped and published them.
Teenagers — as they’ve always done — occasionally behave like psychopaths. I can remember similarly mean messages about other kids being passed around my high school on paper fortune tellers. Technology has amplified that tendency, giving schoolyard humiliations a wider audience with no physical boundaries and a 24/7 timeframe. I’m not sure there’s anything coders in Silicon Valley can do to stop that.
Paige seems to have recovered well from the nasty episode. Her parents have provided support and guidance throughout, and she’s got a better group of friends now. One of them sent her a Snapchat message earlier this morning — a suicide awareness chain letter. Paige replied saying she’d already done it.
I’m more troubled by the story Paige tells me about a girl who’d sent nude photographs of herself to one of the boys from school. Paige didn’t see the images — but others did, and everyone heard about them. It’s clear in her telling that the girl has been shamed for it. I feel for her, and wonder if she’s received the same kind of support.
A less-often talked about issue raised in the Nature series was that of how social inequalities between teenagers can be exacerbated by these technologies. Those growing up in “high-resource contexts” have “parents, teachers and social influences” which help to “scaffold adolescents’ learning and use of technology”, while others in impoverished environments “may be more vulnerable to the negative effects”. Those concerns echoed 2016 research by the OECD, which found that rich and poor teenagers generally spent the same amount of time on the internet, but spent that time doing different things: advantaged students were “more likely than disadvantaged students to search for information or read news online”, while disadvantaged students tended to prefer chatting and playing video games. The poor kids, the report found, “may not have the knowledge or skills required to turn online opportunities into real opportunities”.
That seems, to me, to be something worth worrying about.
*Paige’s name has been changed due to privacy.