Today's teens are living in the shadow of going viral

Yes, we were all young once, but let’s be honest, we have no idea what today’s teenagers are going through. Lives are at risk as we roll our eyes — and this must change, writes RP O’Donnell

There are a million articles, a million think pieces, written for parents worried about their teenagers’ social media habits. Every article starts the same way, with the assertion that social media is toxic to impressionable minds and that teenagers need to unplug, followed by the shared delusion that not only were we outside all day long during our youth, but that that is the direct and primary cause of our success.

These million articles — they’re the same as the ones our parents read when they had the same concerns, when they fretted over the role models we had in the beauty magazines, the rock n roll bands, the movies, the sports.

The modern articles offer the same solutions, based on the same logic. Simply teach your children not to compare themselves to the models they see on Instagram or beauty mags or Snapchat or movies.

Tell them: ‘Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel.’ Constantly remind them that just because some people look happy, beautiful and fulfilled in a snapshot of their day doesn’t mean that they aren’t also spending the rest of that day with their legs cramping because they ate that yoghurt in the back of the fridge that smelled kind of funny and now they are stuck to the toilet, and oh dear god don’t let the toilet paper run out.

These articles, I imagine, are a comfort to parents. They present the problem of social media in a way that parents can handle — as the same one they grew up with. And these articles offer the same solutions they heard as well, solutions they recognise. And if they didn’t give into the pressure from the beauty mags, more or less, the pressure must not have been all that bad — they don’t have anything to worry about with their children.

So, if these solutions worked before, why aren’t these articles helping now? Why are suicide, depression and self-harm rates among teenagers doubling and tripling?

Because these articles are based on Print Age thinking. This is the Digital Age. Kids these days are living in the Digital Age — they have to live in the shadow of going viral.

There are plenty of examples of good-natured fun going viral, with no consequences; there are many thousands more of people either going viral for negative reasons, or suffering negative consequences for no apparent reason.

Many people, mainly of the older generation, think that teenagers who participate in social media are ‘asking for’ attention, and should expect some negatives along with the positives.

And sure, there are some people who should get negative viral attention, because they say horrible things. Like the woman who tweeted an offensive joke about AIDS before boarding a flight, and by the time the plane had landed was a newly-jobless international pariah. That’s where the story ended, with no recovery or redemption. Attention just wandered erratically on.

There are some people who are participating but don’t deserve the negatives.

An 18-year-old woman, with one picture of her prom dress, became the focal point of a raging discussion about cultural appropriation. Her name was leading hundreds of national headlines for a week.

And then — where things really get troubling — there are the people who have no idea they are being posted about, let alone going viral. A woman recently spent an airplane flight spying on the two people seated in the row in front of her, posting pictures of the apparent whirlwind romance, which went viral. Things escalated and quickly became nasty. It ended with one of the unsuspecting viral stars issuing a statement through her lawyer, saying: ‘…my personal information has been widely distributed online. Strangers publicly discussed my private life based on patently false information. I have been doxxed, shamed, insulted and harassed…’ This woman had no idea that she was going viral. She did not want to go viral. She did nothing wrong. Her life was changed irreparably anyway.

This is the new normal; a person is put on display with a narrative over which they have no control, and they are poked and prodded, jostled and jeered, by an unblinking audience.

Have you ever performed in a play, or sang in a concert? Do you remember that first time, when you stared out from the stage, under the hot and blinding lights, knowing that everyone important to you, everyone you love or hate or desperately pine for in the back of your notebooks, knowing they’re all out there, somewhere in the darkened audience? Even though you can’t see them, they can see every bit of you, clumsy you. If you mess up, everyone will pick you out. Every movement, every action you take, becomes wooden with self-consciousness. You can’t see them, but you can hear them laughing, and you’ll hear it again in the halls or in the rooms or in the shops — the next day, the next month, the next year.

I know that I’ve made you shrivel up. Not because of any particular skill in my writing, but rather because it is such a universally horrible feeling, one that never goes away.

Unfortunately, this is how your son or daughter feels every single minute of every single day: sleeping or waking, social or lonesome, shouting or crying or quiet. And they don’t have the luxury of opting out of drama class or the choir.

The stage is social media, and messing up is going viral — becoming the unwitting centre of negative attention.

I recently heard a woman say disparagingly that all the 12-year old girls she sees are covered in makeup. All I could think was, of course they are. Teenagers today have to be constantly vigilant. They are constantly on stage — the lights are never off and the mic is always live. At any second, any picture of them, even a picture they are in the background of, can go viral and be seen and laughed at by everyone they know and millions they don’t. Any stupid joke they post can ruin their lives, now or in the distant future. Of course teenagers are breaking down. Nobody can stand that kind of constant internal pressure.

To be clear, I am not defending people who say horrible things, I am defending the right of children to learn slowly.

When we were growing up, we were allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them as we went. Our parents and peers applied gentle pressure to correct us, and our teachers built complex worlds on simple concepts. Kids these days, if they want to make a joke about Karl Marx, better be able to write a damn dissertation on Communism and its global effects, just in case their tweet goes viral and they need to be able to defend it to national newspapers the next day.

Imagine going to a zoo, just wanting to hang out with your friends. Going viral is like then being strapped onto a wild monkey. And sometimes, sure, it works out great and you spend the day eating bananas and swinging from trees to a Phil Collins soundtrack. But, most of the time it’s shrieking, violent and entirely too many faeces are being thrown.

Going viral can be terrifying. Suddenly, the entire narrative of your life is taken out of all context, and guessed at by strangers with no impulse control. Teenagers are suddenly out beyond the edges of the map, and there be dragons — mainly fat old men who call children sluts and slurs without regard for decency or fear of punishment.

Teenagers are breaking down because nobody can be perfect 24/7.

We should be protecting our children instead of making snarky comments about their makeup, rolling our eyes and posting memes about kids these days with their selfies. We should understand that the makeup and selfies are not a symptom of vanity — but of self-preservation. They’re an attempt to preemptively control the narrative, just in case. There is no changing the internet— even Kim Kardashian couldn’t actually break it. So, what can we do?

We can enforce laws against cyber-bullying. We can treat the 40-year old man threatening teenagers with rape and death as the serious criminal he is. But that’s not good enough. That’s what we should’ve been doing all along—the absolute bare minimum.

We need to enforce laws about protecting the identities of people who have gone viral, especially those who go viral against their wishes, through no fault or design of their own.

I worked at a call centre, so I know how many of you out there called in to report breaches of GDPR. (Which, by the way, absolutely none of you understand. Your postman is not breaking GDPR. Please stop calling.) You cared about your information being threatened. Companies spent €6 billion on GDPR, to protect men and women’s personal data. There are talks about passing laws to protect politicians against online harassment. But when it comes to the privacy of our children — to the mental health of our children — we sit back and do nothing.

We roll our eyes and think about ourselves. Meanwhile, our children kill themselves.

We pretend that we know what they’re going through — we were young once, we went through it all. But we don’t — we have absolutely no idea what it’s like. Not anymore.

This is not the Print Age. This is the Digital Age — not just a different age, but a different epoch. It’s time to do better.

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