When I was growing up, ‘streaking’ meant something quite different from how it is typically understood by young people now. If you ‘liked’ someone, it probably meant that you were attracted to them. ‘Poking’ could refer to an action that was either annoying or sexual, but it certainly didn’t mean trying to get someone’s attention in cyberspace.

The world has changed dramatically in the last quarter of a century. Almost every sphere of human life is in flux: the ways we communicate, conduct our relationships, learn, engage in political action and do business are all adapting in line with the meteoric rise of the internet. In fact, human cognition (language, memory, attention, perception) itself appears to be evolving to fit the new ecological niche in which we find ourselves.1 Although the internet was neither developed by children and young people nor designed with them in mind, they have been at the forefront of shaping its uses – and abuses. This is unsurprising, as children and adolescents have always been creative users of language and new technologies.

Some new practices represent entirely novel ways of living in the (digital) world, although they probably have close cousins in life offline. For example, ‘streamers’ (people!) play video games and broadcast (or ‘stream’) their play live on the internet. The more people who view their streams, the more money they make through advertising companies who sponsor the websites. This simply wasn’t possible before the internet. As career aspirations go, ‘becoming a streamer’ is legitimate enough, but in reality it probably won’t keep bread on the table for most young people and their future families. In this sense, then, it’s not so very different from children and young people of my own generation wanting to find fame by becoming a pop singer or a film star.

Other new activities are adaptations of things that existed before the internet but lend themselves well to the digital world. For example, ‘shipping’ is the practice of fantasy match-making between characters or people – real or imaginary – from different worlds (think Donald Trump getting into a relationship with Snow White’s evil stepmother). The internet makes it much easier for folks who like to ‘ship’ to share stories and artwork featuring their fantasy matches, and offers a fantastic place for children and young people to play with ideas about what it means to be in a (relation)ship.

In my experience, children and young people never fail to surprise with their ingenuity for subverting the norms to which adults would like them to adhere. ‘Subtweeting’ and the creative use of hashtags is a good example. A ‘hashtag’ is a word or phrase preceded by a hash sign (#) to identify digital messages relating to a specific topic. The digital momentum of a hashtag can be powerful; towards the end of 2017, women (and men) all over the world started using the #MeToo hashtag on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share messages about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse.

A few years ago, 14-year-old Paul was describing to me how he was being bullied online. Other students were posting mean messages that didn’t name any particular person but, through a clever combination of hashtags, could only be about him – and would be easily identified as such by peers in his year group. At the time, I didn’t know this practice was called ‘subtweeting’ but when I read the term later, I realised that this was exactly what Paul had described to me.

The impact of the subtweeting was enormous. Paul was having trouble sleeping and eating, had self-harmed by cutting, and was even starting to feel suicidal. His tormentors were hiding in plain sight and he felt powerless to stop the unkind messages because they didn’t directly name him. When challenged, the boys who wrote them simply said that he had misunderstood, that the messages shared some in-jokes between friends and had nothing to do with Paul at all. He felt humiliated, abandoned and lonely – a painful reminder of feelings experienced after his mum went into prison when he was younger.

The effects of the digital life

Stories like Paul’s fuel growing concerns about the impact of digital life on children and young people’s mental health. A 2017 review of the evidence2 offered some worrying statistics: 72 per cent of teenagers report missing out on sleep because of their online activity, while 34 per cent of young people in the UK say that they have experienced online risks such as cyberbullying, seeing sexual content, or harmful material such as pro-self-harm websites. Overall, 27 per cent of young people who use social media for three hours a day (or more) have symptoms of mental ill health.

Given these figures, there is an understandable appetite for increased monitoring and regulation of cyberspace, as well as better education about risks. Earlier this year, the Children’s Commissioner for England called on schools to do more to help young people navigate the transition from primary to secondary education in the age of social media.3 The 5Rights campaign also urges policy makers to consider the potential impact of the digital environment on children and young people’s development.4

Amid these calls and concerns, it would be easy to become fearful about the role of the internet in children and young people’s lives. But of course the digital world brings tremendous opportunities as well as risks, and researchers note that not all children and young people are negatively affected by their experiences on the internet. In fact, there is now good evidence that it tends to be young people who are vulnerable to negative relationships offline who report more problematic experiences online.5 

Commentators also note that the language we use to frame children and young people’s experiences in the digital world can be unhelpful. For example, there has been a good deal of concern about the impact of too much ‘screen time’ on children and young people’s physical, emotional and social development. But blaming ‘screen time’ for all the ills of the modern world is problematic, because screens represent so many different activities, many of which can have a positive effect on children and young people’s lives; the context of young people’s screen use, the connections they make, and the content they access through their screens all matter.6

As a therapist working in primary and secondary schools, I have at times felt overwhelmed by the pace at which the digital landscape is changing. Should I be using my Twitter account more often, or trying out Snapchat and Instagram so that I can better understand young people’s experiences online? Perhaps I should be reading up on cybertrauma, or taking a course in online safeguarding? Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that digital expertise isn’t required (although it can certainly be useful). Practitioners who work with children and young people are perfectly placed to help, whether we know lots about ‘streaking, streaming, liking and poking’ or not much at all. With curiosity and an open mind, a willingness to be taught by the young people we meet, and to listen carefully to what they share with us, we can walk alongside them for a while and hopefully support them to resolve the difficulties – digital or otherwise – that lead them to seek help in the first place.

Sarah Haywood works as a school-based clinician and trainer for Place2Be. She is also a lecturer in Art Psychotherapy at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

References

1 Greenfield S. Mind change: how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. London: Rider; 2015.
2 Frith E. Social media and children’s mental health. London: Education Policy Institute; 2017. https://bit.ly/2IUowgA
3 Life in ‘likes’: Children’s Commissioner report into social media use among 8–12 year olds. London: Office of the Children’s Commissioner; 2018. www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/ publication/life-in-likes/
4 Kidron B, Rudkin A. Digital childhood: addressing childhood development milestones in the digital environment. 5Rights; 2017. https://bit.ly/2A3i6ME
5 Odgers C. Smartphones are bad for some teens, not all. Nature 2018; 554: 432–434.
6 Livingstone S, Kucirkova N. Why the very idea of ‘screen time’ is muddled and misguided. London: London School of Economics and Political Science; 2018. https://bit.ly/2IbfBqZ