by Sarah Gorry
It is not a surprise to anyone that the use of social media has changed the world as we know it. From checking in for flights, online shopping, ordering your favourite takeaway in one simple click, it’s hard to fault the easiness of phones and tablets. It has become a new way to do business and work together. We stay connected to friends through Facebook and Skype, we share moments of joy and sadness, funny times and hardships. We offer virtual hugs to our friend’s who are not near by and keep up to date with family across the world. In many respects, a brilliant thing, but as with everything there is a darker side to social media, a dangerous side to smart phones. A lot of that darkness lies on the shoulders of our teenagers.
I’m 28 and still get asked for ID on nights out so, I suppose my teenage years don’t seem so long ago. In fact I blinked and they were over. I didn’t know then, but those years between 15 and 18 were so full of fun and laughter I would go back to it in a heartbeat. It was a time I would describe as stress-free. I had very little pressure on me to be anyone or do anything I didn’t want to, something our teenagers today don’t get to experience. Sex was something that happened naturally in relationships. It was typical teen sex, awkward and not sexy in the slightest. There were fewer expectations or pressure to be of a certain standard back then.
I recently sat down with two teenage girls, who kindly gave me their time to talk all things sex, consent and being a teenager in general. I was quite saddened after it. It almost burst my bubble of thinking back to my younger days and I worried I had been looking back through rose tinted glasses. Maybe it wasn’t that fun after all? But my eyes were soon opened to the differences between my teenage years and life as an adolescent in 2015.
There is a huge crisis going on right now with our teens. My dad actually put it bluntly, we are focusing too much on what our kids are eating and how waist sizes are increasing and not doing anything to tackle other issues that desperately need to be addressed; ‘sexting’ being one of the most vital problems that needs attention.
A report carried out in 2014 showed 1 in 4 Irish teenagers have sex texted, with children as young as 10 sending sexual explicit images. Yet nobody is talking about it. It’s the elephant in the room that seems to be ignored by parents, schools and the wider culture.
The young girls I sat down to chat with explained to me that sending a nude is a normal thing to do. While not everyone one does it, most do engage in the exchange of sexual images. There is huge pressure on young girls to send naked ‘selfies’, these images are then usually shared around without their consent on apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Snap Chat. If you ask them why they feel they need to engage in such behaviours they will explain if you don’t you’re deemed uncool, frigid, and the person will just simply move on to another person to ‘sext’. Keep in mind the request usually comes from a boy they really like, resulting in girls feeling they must keep their crush interested or someone else will. This is leading to a huge amount of adolescents having unhealthy relationships.
Being the mother of an almost six year old daughter, these trends and behaviours are terrifying to me. What is even more terrifying is that they are being ignored. I discussed this with a male friend recently, his view was, it was bad when we were kids too we just didn’t have access to camera phones, whilst I know times change and progress, does that mean we just have to accept this? The mother in me finds it really hard to just brush it off as ‘kids these days’. It’s too dangerous to turn a blind eye.
One of the main factors in these behaviours becoming the norm is how accessible porn has become. At The Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation summit in the U.S last May it was stated that porn sites now get more visitor’s than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined. This is huge. And it is affecting Irish teens greatly. Its leading teens, who are not mature enough to engage in watching porn to have unrealistic expectations of sex, it’s also affecting how we view women, and our teen boys are growing up with a more aggressive attitude toward women than ever before. I see this on an almost daily basis. I hear it personally when I walk by a group of young boys, the language they use to sexualise me, and many other girls, is unbelievable. I’m 28, a mother, and very tough-skinned, but I worry how this type of language will affect teenage girls. We cannot and must not except this. I feel this is becoming so normalised that our girls just expect to be spoken to in this manner. Mary Ann Layden of the University of Pennsylvania who specialises in sexual trauma says that, ‘The earlier males are exposed to pornography, the more likely they are to engage in non-consensual sex’. Given the amount of young males accessing porn so easily nowadays this is shocking to hear. And in Ireland, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre chief executive Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop said the same link between early porn usage and later attacks on women is being recorded in this country. She states ‘from our own annual reports we can see that there is increasingly additional violence involved in sexual assaults, and that can be traced to the growing availability of pornography sites that are increasingly extreme’.
Both people I spoke to said that there is no respect from males in their peer group. When I asked them about street harassment they explained how much the hate it, they cannot walk anywhere now without something sexual being said as they walk by, one of the girls described to me that sometimes there can be two separate groups of boys, on each side of the street, debating while they walk by whether your body is good enough or not. With no concern or thought for the girl involved. One of them put it simply and quite sadly “it’s not fair just because we are girls this happens to us, nothing gets said to them but we must look perfect or a certain way all of the time”.
Another personal story one of the young women shared with me was horrifying. She explained to me that when she was fourteen, a boy she had been out on a walk with held her down and demanded her to perform a sex act on him in the park. She luckily was able to escape to safety but in the weeks after the incident she received verbal abuse online from the boy who had done this to her. She rejected his advances, and escaped rape yet he was still abusing her online calling her ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’. She never discussed this with a parent or teacher. Although she knew it was wrong, it wasn’t all that shocking for her, because “this stuff happens all the time now”. This left me fearful that perhaps our teenagers are unaware of what constitutes rape and consent.
I didn’t sleep properly for three nights after hearing that story. I felt physically sick and angry. Really angry. Why is no one taking action? Surely if I am able to do research for this piece and look on thirteen-year olds Facebook pages that are set to public, then their parent’s can see the same things I could, and step in? I was stunned at how much private information I was able to read. I started writing this piece weeks ago, but admittedly I found it really hard to do. I have watched men in their thirties chat up young girls, I have seen them write ‘why can’t you just just hurry up and be 16’. I have witnessed girls offer oral sex to boys. I’ve discussed videos that have been leaked by males and I’ve been told of bribery for sexual exchanges. Understandably this has been a dark world to submerge myself into. Especially when I have a daughter of my own. It scares me. A lot.
So what has changed over time? It’s apparent that respect and consent are diminishing concepts for these groups of teenagers. I feel the responsibility for these issues lie on many people’s shoulders; parents, schools, sports clubs. We must ask ourselves are we raising our boys to treat women equally and with respect, are we teaching them from a young age no means no, and the absence of a no doesn’t mean yes? There are so many worries here. We must instil beliefs of gender equality into our girls from a young age too, so they realise they are so much more than the names thrown at them as they walk down the street. We, as parents have a lot of work to do here, to ensure the safety of all our children. We need schools, sports clubs, and Gardai involved in this epidemic. Education is key in this area. Parents need help in addressing these issues at home. We should want our kids, male and female, to grow up with respect for one another, to know rights and wrongs. Consent needs to be clearly understood. If we miss these important lessons as they are growing up it will undoubtedly lead to a huge increase in abusive, unhealthy relationships. As a society we should want more than that for our next generation of adults.