by Saaleha E Bhamjee
Teenagers spend anywhere between 7.5 and 11 hours of every day plugged into some kind of electronic device. A lot of this time is frittered away on social media. Much has been written about the impact this ‘connectivity’ has had on our teens. A recent Vanity Fair article, where a teen boy was quoted as saying: “Gotta wheel the b***hes in. Gotta wheel the b***hes in. Nowadays you can do it so easy. There are so many apps and shit that just, like, hand you the girls. They don’t even know that’s what they’re doing, but really they’re just giving teenagers ways to have sex,” was especially disquieting.
I showed this to my niece whose response was to send me an even more worrying piece by Martin Daubney, former editor of ‘the original British Lads’ mag’, Loaded, where he’d been invited, as presenter of a Channel 4 documentary called Porn On The Brain, to sit in on a class with 13-14 year olds, led by sex education consultant Jonny Hunt.
To determine the extent of sexual knowledge these kids had, Hunt asked them to write an A-Z list of the sexual terms they knew, no matter how extreme. It turned out that some of these 13-14 year olds knew terms that neither the once magazine editor, nor the sex education consultant had ever heard of.
Daubney then interviewed 14-15 year olds. Some of these children admitted to being traumatised by what they’d been exposed to. Pornographic videos were often ‘distributed’ via various social media channels. The greater the shock value, the more they were shared. This involuntary (for some) introduction to the world of internet pornography has left some boys disgusted. Girls felt confused and angry. They felt pressured to conform and felt as though they were being (unfairly) compared to porn stars.
In my attempt to understand the impact social media and the internet has had on South African teens, I consulted East Rand based, clinical psychologist, Dr Greg Pienaar and put this question to him.
His response, “It’s not just negative,” he said. “I think it’s been very positive as well. I’ve found, with a lot of children, it’s given them an opportunity to be more social than they would have been normally. A lot of those children would have remained introverted personalities, not have interacted at all. It’s almost like it’s given them – not just teens, adults as well – an opportunity to communicate at a safer level and then that’s given them a platform to build up the courage to take it to the next level.”
But the intimacy is illusory at best. Having 800 friends on Facebook is no guarantee that you will have someone to speak to should you be experiencing emotional difficulties at any given time. The truth is, even on social media, we’re drawn to people who generate a sense of wellbeing through sharing uplifting, positive thoughts. We see people who constantly bitch and moan about how bad their lives are, as attention seeking energy leeches. And this is exactly what many an angst ridden teen has found, says Dr Pienaar. “I’ve had a number of cases where these children in the middle of the night go through anxiety and put a message out. And then, they don’t get any responses and then it’s ten times worse. They feel rejected. They think they have this massive friendship circle. But it’s a false friendship circle.”
Has social media has also bred narcissism and vanity?
“Definitely,” he says. That special kind of narcissism that results in a teen feeling like a celebrity when they’re retweeted a-plenty or added as a friend on Facebook by someone they consider a ‘hero’. That sense of being a demi-cyber god when their twitter following burgeons and their instagram pictures, liked by many. The unrealistic idea that a day is made by having 50 ‘likes’ on a picture of yourself posted to Facebook.
Dr Pienaar points out the pitfalls a Facebook ‘like’ poses. How, by default we confuse someone not clicking ‘like’ for a picture with them disliking it. How that results in a sense of rejection and sometimes, heartbreak for teens with already fragile enough senses of self. “If I could speak to Mr Zukerberg, I’d tell him, take that away, the ‘like’ feature.”
Social media has also resulted in what Dr Pienaar calls ‘over communication’. There is much of our lives that we share with practical strangers, that has no place being shared at all, he says. I suppress the guilt that needles at my conscience as he says this.
That brings me to the question of internet pornography. I naively believe this to be a problem among teens and adults. Dr Pienaar corrects me.
“I get primary school children, not even teens who download things on their phones and then they start distributing it. Porn has become a, I want to say cancer but cancer is not even a strong enough word. As we know, it’s highly addictive. There’s no doubt that it’s terrible for relationships. (It leads to) unrealistic expectations. I’m all for having freedom of choice but, honestly, a child of 12 or 13, have they really got freedom of choice? Do they really know what they’re looking at?”
A big part of the solution, he stresses, is parental involvement. “It’s not an infringement on their rights of privacy. Making sure that you are aware of what your children are doing. A teenage boy is going to be curious so I wouldn’t be shocked if I discover this with my son of 13. If I’m involved early enough I can do something. But if I’m not, by the time I discover the problem it’s too late. I think there’s a measure of curiosity but I think these days curiosity is satisfied too easily.”
Dr Pienaar is careful not to be alarmist though. He emphasises the good that cyber relationships and communicating has wrought. I cannot help but agree. My best friends were all met online.
“It’s the future. It’s more about how we control it and what we do with it. It’s never going to go away. It’s just going to expand. When these problems come up, you just have to deal with it.”