What Eleven Teens Had to Share with Me About Their Use of Social Media

January 29, 2017

CAVEAT: Given that I travel internationally teaching on the topic of internet/social media safety and digital citizenship, I have both seen and learned that what I am about to share with you can differ from province to province, state to state, and even school to school. Although some of the information that I will share below does cross over in many circumstances, some may not, especially when it comes to what social networks are most popular with teens. On January 28th, I was able to bring together eleven teens ranging from grades 9 to 12 from several different school districts to participate in what I call the “Teen Social Media Think Tank.” When I put the call out for participants, I specifically stated that I was looking for teens who would not be frightened to speak their mind, no matter the topic, and trust me when I say this group of teens did not disappoint. This group of teens comprised of six young women and five young men, who represent a variety of different sub-cultures within their schools such as leadership, athletics, academics, and the LGBTQ community. In other words, I believe we had an excellent diverse cohort that could bring a variety of different thoughts & opinions from their specific experiential social media lenses. Every year, I have asked students via social media, about what they are doing online. This year I decided to do it face-to-face, which I must admit, allowed me to get a better understanding given that I could also read emotion, voice tone, and body language into the discussion. The purpose of this focus group was to help me, the adult, understand what teens are doing online. With this information, it would help me to stay current in my social media safety presentations when speaking with tweens and teens. Too often I find that many of those in our industry share information that is dated, and not relevant to where our audience, the teens, find themselves online today. Although I, too, am a digital citizen who navigates the ever-changing waters of social media, I bring an adult “filter bubble” that creates a perception that may be different from our tweens and teens who don’t have the same filter. As a social media safety educator, I believe that a teen perspective offers me better insight and understanding into the who, what, where, when, how, and why of how tweens and teens are interacting online and using social media. My goal was not to make our discussions on their use of social media rigid, sterile, or judgemental, but rather, I wanted an open, flexible, and free-flowing exchange of thoughts and opinions. What better way to get the party started than feeding all of them with pizza and their choice of soda or water? This allowed a further breakdown of barriers between those students who did not know one another, which was about half the group. During the feast, each student shared a quick introduction of themselves and then we began our discussions.

SOCIAL NETWORKS: Our first discussion surrounded social media and what sites these students were using. In fact, I asked them for their top 5, at which time several of the students started to laugh. Now thinking that I should have asked what was their top ten sites, most of the students in the room stated that they were really only using 3 on a continual basis which were #1: Snapchat #2: Instagram #3: Facebook Yes, other sites like Youtube, Twitter,, and Tumblr were mentioned, but Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook were definitely the top 3 when it came to this group. This made sense to me given that some of the peer-reviewed research we are seeing specific to social media shows that teens are becoming more “Social Media Homesteaders” (staying true to a few). When I asked why they ranked these social networks in the above-noted order, here is what they shared: Snapchat: This is the app that everyone is using to communicate primarily with one’s closest friends. It was all about the ease and functionality of this social app that makes it attractive to them, combined with some of the fun that the filters provide. The other main reason why these teens stated that Snapchat was so popular is that it offered instant gratification to the user, given how it allows them to be more themselves, not being as guarded in their content given what we adults call the ephemeral nature of the app. This teen group also acknowledges however, that this could create a double-edged sword, and one still needs to be careful about what they share on Snapchat. All students also understood that things just don’t disappear. Instagram: This social network was all about sharing “specific and well thought out pictures” with others over an extended period of time, that would not disappear like they do on Snapchat. Several students also mentioned how they like the new live streaming function that Instagram now provides. Facebook: Facebook is all about sharing information with school groups, friend groups, and family. It ’s about getting your message out to the masses. One student also mentioned that they use Facebook as a way to filter YouTube given that she doesn’t have to search YouTube for videos she likes, she usually finds them on friends’ Facebook feeds. Several other students agreed with this comment as well. When I asked why Facebook had dropped to the number three spot, all stated that it was becoming too complicated given that they were trying to be all things to all users, rather than specializing in one or two things like Instagram and Snapchat do. If anyone is reading this from Facebook you might want pay attention to the last sentence. When I asked the students about the “unwritten rules” surrounding the use of these social networks, here’s what they shared: Snapchat:

  • No nudes… it was surprising to hear how all students voiced this rule in unison
  • Don’t send “Streaks” more than 2 times a day, 3 tops. A “Snapstreak” is how one keeps a private message going with a good friend over an extended period of time. It’s one of the features that is built into the Snapchat app that almost turns it into a competitive game with others


  • don’t post more than three pictures a day
  • don’t like your own pictures
  • don’t go crazy using hashtags in your postings
  • don’t try to start and stop comments
  • don’t go back and like posts from two years ago (“that’s just creepy”)


  • don’t share gross stuff or vague stuff to get attention
  • don’t call yourself beautiful and everyone else beautiful
  • don’t send chain messages

When I asked about “friends” and “followers” it was refreshing to see how this group on average provided numbers under 100. Sure there were some who had 200 to 300 followers, but this was the exception rather than the norm. When I asked why they thought the numbers are lower today on average when compared to two years ago, many stated that if they didn’t know the person face-to-face, then they would not invite them in. They also stated how age matters. When I asked for clarification on this statement, the consensus was that those in junior high school can be attention seekers thus why they will invite everyone and anyone. Interesting observation, and one that I would also agree with. When it came to messaging one another, their top three apps were: #1: WhatsApp #2: iMessage: all but one of the students had iPhones #3: Facebook Messenger When I asked what they thought were the up and coming apps, all agreed that live streaming such as HouseParty, Periscope, Instagram Live, and Facebook Live was now in play. When I asked why, one of the participants shouted out, “Because our generation loves real-time attention”, everyone else nodded their heads in agreement except one student who didn’t see the benefit of live streaming given that she just doesn’t like to put herself out there. I then asked the students what did their day in the life of a teen social media user look like, and all stated the same thing:

  • as soon as they get up… check and send Snapchat streaks
  • get to school early to check Instagram, Facebook, and any messages
  • in class, send messages to others… the kids called it “sneaking”
  • after school and once home continue to engage with friends online via their social networks or messaging apps
  • just before hitting their pillow to go to sleep… check for any new streaks

It’s important to note that this is a constant ongoing process from the time they wake up, until they go to bed. CELL PHONES: Surprise, surprise, every one of the students owned a cellphone. The cellphone of choice was the iPhone and one student owned an Android phone. Also, no doubt that mobile is the number one way our teens are accessing the internet and social networking. When I asked how many were bringing their cellphones into the bedroom at night when going to bed, all put their hands up. One student then immediately spoke up and stated, “we know about blue light and sleep deprivation issues surrounding cellphones.” A big smile came across my face given that this proved to me that education is working. She further went on to say that older teens are not as active on their phones at night when compared to those in junior high school. Another teen observation that I would agree with. It was then interesting to hear how all of the students in this group who do have cellphones in their bedrooms at night, place them on silent (other than their alarm clocks) and position them in their bedrooms where they are not at arms reach of their phone. One student in particular stated that they self-recognized that they were communicating on their phone too often and too late into the night so that he was constantly tired. Several other students nodded their heads in agreement. This provided me with some insight that most, not all, older student are recognizing digital contra-indication that can have a negative effect on one’s emotional, psychological, and even physical well being, and that they themselves are taking measures to minimize these challenges. When I asked about the “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO) and having to read messages that may be coming in at all hours of the night, the group shared that this is more a concern at the younger ages than in high school. Many in the group stated that only a message from a really good friend that they have assigned a specific ringtone to would cause them to check their phones once in bed. Once again, this is refreshing to hear given the challenges of sleep deprivation and the effects it is having on learning once at school. PRIVACY AND SECURITY: All of the students in this group stated that they were aware of security and privacy issues. Several also knew that the day of this gathering was “Privacy Day.” All students utilized passcodes for their phones. Some passcodes were weak and many had already upgraded to a minimum of a six digit passcode… Excellent!!! In regards to to their three specific social networks, all students utilized privacy settings provided by the vendor, and all stated that if they didn’t know a person who was asking to be friended or followed, they would always check them out first. Many stated that if they didn’t know the person then they wouldn’t invite them in. One student shared a countermeasure that they use against people who they don’t know wanting access to their social network; they just do not reply and do not delete the request, they just let it sit there. Several other students were doing this as well. When I asked why, the student stated, “if you delete their request they will know and then they may continually hound you. Just letting the request sit there does nothing, and often this person will just go away.” Smart thinking!!! SEXTING: On this topic I must confess how impressed I was with how open and honest this group of students were. THANK YOU!!! When I asked how many students have seen a sext recently, ALL raised their hands. One student even admitted to sexting with another student. When I asked if sexting was as widespread as adults believe, ALL stated yes, but this is where the discussion became very interesting. Remember those “filter bubbles” i spoke about earlier? The students proceeded to share with me how adults equate sexting to youth actually having sex, and this isn’t true in their world. Yes, some are having sex, but sexting is not the cause. One student stated, “we are using sexting as a form of dating intimacy while maintaining virginity in some cases.” Their message, hooking up in their digital world is different than our adult world. Although all had seen sexts, not all students are sexting as was the experience of this group where only one out of eleven admitted to sexting. Two students stated that at their school sexting was about being popular, being a part of the “ in group.” If you wanted to be popular and a part of the in group, then you sexted. A new form of digital peer pressure that we need to address in my opinion. Another student stated that at their school, it’s all the same small group of people who are all sharing the same small group of pictures. Most of the group also agreed with this statement. So although nudes are freely available, it appears to only be a specific group of students that are doing it in their eyes. When I asked if they had concerns about a nude becoming public that were meant to be private, all stated “yes.” One student stated, “I know that if I send a nude it will probably get shared so you shouldn’t be surprised when it gets shared.” A common theme that this group shared with me is that often sexting in high school is an intimate action taken in a relationship, in junior high its more about “look at me.” Once again, that attention seeking behaviour that was mentioned earlier. This group did acknowledge that there are some in high school (usually the boys) who are tricking younger girls into sending nudes that they will further use to sexually exploit the person who sent them. In the past, these high school boys were known as “LG Slayers” (Little Girl Slayers). According to this group, these type of high school boys are now called FB’s (Fuck Boys/Bois). When I looked at the reasons why students were sexting, here’s what they shared:

  • For some, it creates another step in the intimacy/relationship ladder
  • It’s similar to a one night stand without having to have sex
  • To be popular
  • Being vindictive (revenge)

When I asked about the current abstinence-based education surrounding sexting, they all laughed. In fact one student stated, “Don’t do it doesn’t work with our generation.” Why? my belief is that most of the anti sexting message only surrounds the negative and not the other positive outcomes that many of these teens experience from this behaviour. This only strengthens my belief that we need to start promoting a hybrid “Harm Reduction” message when it comes to sexting (age appropriate, of course). Yes, when things go wrong specific to sexting they go really wrong, but the fact remains that the opposite can be true as well. In high schools, I take the following harm reduction approach to this topic: “I don’t want you to sext, but if you do…

  • make sure your face is not in the picture
  • make sure you are not wearing any jewelry that is identifiable to you in the picture
  • make sure there are no scars or tattoos that are identifiable to you in the picture
  • make sure that you are not wearing any kind of clothing that is identifiable to you in the picture
  • make sure the background in the picture is neutral and not identifiable to you
  • make sure any metadata is scrubbed from the picture before it is sent”

Many senior students who sext are integrating the above-noted countermeasures already. In fact, I learned about these countermeasures from students I spoke to in the past about this specific topic. These harm reduction steps are important because now if your sext becomes public, the teen has plausible deniability. The student can now say that’s not me, that is someone else. If there is anything in the picture that can identify the teen, then this is where very bad things can and do happen. The reality is that really good research has supported the fact that the message of abstinence does not work in most cases when it comes to sex, drugs, and other important issues. This is why we need to combine with harm reduction strategies in my professional opinion. I know for some this is a difficult path to follow, but having been involved in many sexting cases that have gone bad, if the teen would have had some harm reduction training on this challenge, I believe it would not have reached the crisis it did. Another interesting sidebar that came out of the sexting discussion was something that I am going to call “Digital Relationship Abuse.” This is where a boyfriend or girlfriend will use digital technology in an attempt to control/spy on their partner by looking at private messages or pictures sent from others constantly sending messages asking them where they are and what they are doing placing spyware on their partner’s phone or laptop In our group, we actually had a boyfriend and girlfriend who acknowledge that this was an issue early in their relationship that they worked through successfully. Once again this is something that we adults and educators need to be alive to and talk about specific to what is a healthy relationship, both on and offline. SCHOOLS,TEACHERS and SOCIAL MEDIA: All the students acknowledged that the majority of their schools allowed the use of social media to some degree, BUT all wished that more class time be dedicated to using social media in the learning process. A majority of students spoke about the app “Kahoot,” (this app utilizes gamification for learning) and how some teachers that are using this app make learning fun. Several stated that if they weren’t having fun in class, they would just start to “sneak” (send messages) to other students using their phones. When I asked if schools were doing a good job at teaching good digital literacy all stated “NO”. The message was clear that most, not all, of what many schools are sharing is no longer relevant, and does not reflect today’s teen digital reality. The students stated that what teachers are sharing has been passed down by the school and much of the information is too dated. All also acknowledged the fact that this was not necessarily the fault of the teachers, they are just teaching what they have been provided as teachers. PERSONAL THOUGHTS: The two hours I dedicated to this teen meeting of the minds felt like thirty minutes to me. All eleven teens were fully engaged, and were not afraid to voice their thoughts and opinion with my wife and I, or with the other students in the room. Here’s what I learned: It’s clear to me that rather than depending upon written questionnaires, which have their place, to help us learn what our kids are doing online, having face-to-face focus group s provides way more insight based upon emotion, tone, and body language. Senior High School students are definitely becoming more “digitally aware.” Many have moved from treating social networks like the wild, wild west, joining everything and anything that comes out, and becoming more selective “homesteaders.” Like a Swiss Army knife, they are picking and choosing specific social networks as tools to meet their social needs. Given that this group has grown up with social media, they have learned by experience, rather than academic lecture and development, something that academics sometimes do not give enough credit to. Given this fact, teens have learned from mistakes made (sometimes very tough mistakes) and have developed their own valid countermeasures to avoid making these mistakes again. We adults need to learn and share what these countermeasures are with other tweens and teens who may not be aware of them. After listening to the students talking about privacy and security, I do believe that all were still too over dependant upon privacy settings; believing that once set, it will prevent their personal information from being shared or leaked. We still have work to do in this area specific to this reality, given that I believe that they still don’t understand that no matter what your privacy settings everything you do online is public, permanent, searchable, exploitable, copiable and for sale. How we talk to students about sexting has to move from the abstinence/criminal model to a hybrid harm reduction model. Adults need to look and approach this challenge from the teens filter bubble. Now the hard question, at what age do we start having this discussion (age appropriate) given that I have now seen sexting as early as grade 4? Digital Relationship Abuse is becoming more of a reality, and this is something that parents and educators should not only be alive to, but also talking to tweens and teens about. What is a healthy human relationship and how does technology play a roll, both good and bad? It was very interesting to hear how this group acknowledges the fact that some Junior High students in their social media communities are more about attention seeking “look at me” behaviour In today’s world, schools are a part of the digital village and play an important roll in providing their students with digital literacy skills. According to this student group however, most school sand teachers still have a long way to go. Lessons being taught are dated and no longer relevant to today’s teen’s online reality. I believe that we have to become more asymmetrical in our approach to this challenge. Much like I did with this focus group, I think teachers and the Ministry need to start turning to their students for guidance rather than other adult experts all the time. This also comes down to the fact that Education Ministries need to start funding training budgets. This group of students once again strengthened my belief that most are being good digital citizens, and most are doing super uber cool things online. Older teens have become experts at what they do online, and my hope is that we adults start listening to them more, given that they have so much to offer, and that we fail to recognize or even acknowledge, given our sometimes dated and uninformed adult filter bubble. From an Adult looking in Darren

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