This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
As part of a series of articles on iGeneration teens, the Listener talks to four teens about risk-taking, social media and their online lives.
Northland school prefect Storm, 17, will be the first person in her whanau to go to university. She’s worked so hard in her senior years that she’s won a $20,000 scholarship that will enable her to study arts and law in Auckland.
She has never had a boyfriend, doesn’t get drunk when she goes to parties, and doesn’t smoke cigarettes or take drugs. She says she’s in a minority, but she’s typical of a growing group of teenagers who are doing fewer risky things than their parents did at the same age – though she does buck the trends by working part-time and getting her learner driver license at 16.
Storm has grown up surrounded by people who smoke, and the idea of smoking puts her off. “I’m the person who has to inhale it when I’m in the car. Even my mum tells me we could have gone on holiday if she hadn’t been smoking, or you see people who are grumpy because they’re trying to give up.”
Her parents drop her off at parties and buy her a bottle of lower-alcohol wine to take. Friends organise a sober driver to take them home. She says many of her peers tend to drink Vodka Cruisers and some dabble in shots. “We went to a massive back-to-school party this year and one girl – it was her first time drinking – drank so much she was taken to hospital. I don’t like to binge-drink; I like to be aware of what’s happening around me.”
Storm spends about four hours a day on her smartphone. She has Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Spotify accounts but spends much of her time online researching assignments, playing music or texting friends.
She says she sometimes sees things online that make her yearn for what others have – a new dress or an overseas holiday, for example – but she’s been inspired and empowered, too, watching speeches by former US first lady Michelle Obama and singer Pink talking about their daughters, or by graduate students who’ve achieved their goals. “It makes you think, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”
Storm is looking at life beyond Northland. “I want to make an impact on a national and global level. I can see myself being part of the United Nations.”
“When my phone dies, it’s like my life has gone.” Year 12 student Siale, who attends a decile-one school in Auckland, says the only time she’s without her smartphone is when her family won’t let her take it to church on Sundays.
Online, Siale reckons she knows where to draw the line with her posts, and rolls her eyes at the friends who post increasingly explicit selfies on Instagram to get more likes. “If a normal photo doesn’t get enough likes, they need to show more of their body.” It’s odd, she says, how they might get hundreds of likes on Instagram, but never seem to have many friends in real life. She talks about an app called Melon that pairs you on video feeds with people based on your age and gender. Men use it to send girls dick pics, she says.
Most of Siale’s friends are sexually active and smoke weed. “I smoke weed. I’m just bored and get stoned. I’m not addicted to it; if there are more important things to buy, I’ll buy them. It’s the last option for me. It turns off everything going on around me and makes me feel like I’m in another dimension and I don’t have to worry about anything. Then the buzz goes away and it’s back to reality.”
Family dysfunction is her biggest stress, says Siale, who lives with her sister, brother-in-law and cousins. “Some teen girls tend to run away from home, but for me, running away would hurt my family more and it’s not going to help anything.”
She occasionally drinks alone, taking wine out of her sister’s cupboard. “I don’t get drunk and want to walk on the road. If I’m out and I get drunk, I know I need to be home at a specific time, so I can pass out in the house.”
She’s experienced cyberbullying first-hand, when she put a post on Facebook about a boy she was dating and discovered he hadn’t broken up with his ex. “They started to put mean comments on it. I couldn’t think properly. The only thing I could think of was giving them a hiding, but I knew if I were to touch them I’d get kicked out of school and it would hurt my family.” She talked to the school counsellor and the issue was resolved.
Siale says if she’s at a party where her friends get drunk, she does her best to look after them. “When they vomit and stuff, and it stays on their face, I make sure I clean it up. I talk to them when they’re sober; don’t shame them. I tell them about the outcomes of stupid decisions – what could happen to their safety, with viruses and stuff, and their reputation.”
Image Credits: Pixabay
At 16, Siale’s classmate Iosefa has his future mapped out – he wants to leave school next year and start studying to be an accountant. He doesn’t drink, or smoke cigarettes or weed. His attitude when his friends do it? “Disgust,” he says, wrinkling his nose.
Iosefa says he’s on his smartphone “the whole day” – it’s a distraction when classes get boring. “I use it 24/7: Messenger, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram – anything to cure the boredom.” But he says if he lost his phone, he’d miss the music and videos, rather than social media.
He says friends invite him to parties so he can look after them. “I’m like the sober safety man. I’m there to stop them having sex with randoms or getting too drunk. They know I’m there for them. They don’t like me stopping them at the time, but they do when they sober up. One time, a mate tried to hit me when I tried to stop him drinking more.”
Iosefa’s from a strongly religious, conservative family and doesn’t tell his mum if he’s going to a party, even if it’s just to look after his mates, because he says she’d never let him. Instead, he tells her he’s going to a friend’s place.
His teacher reckons most parents don’t know the half of what their teenagers post online, but Iosefa says that doesn’t apply to him – there’s nothing he puts online that his mum and dad shouldn’t see. “No, my parents are my friends.”
Fifteen-year-old Natalie attends a high-decile co-ed school in central Auckland. She doesn’t drink, smoke or take drugs and has never had sex. She comes from a solid, Pakeha, middle-class nuclear family and lives with her high-achieving parents in a suburb where the average house price is around $1.5 million. “I’ve got friends who party and are in that crowd, and I also have a lot of innocent friends. I’m somewhere in the middle and wouldn’t want to be in one or the other.”
Natalie’s closest friends, though, are more like her, so she doesn’t feel pressured to grow up too fast or get a boyfriend. “I don’t think you need to do that. For me, there’s being mature, and then there’s being mature because you’re drinking and having sex. But I think that’s being immature. We can see what everyone is doing [online] and how it’s affecting them … we know what’s going on and what it involves, which is part of the reason we don’t indulge in that.”
She always keeps her parents in the loop by text as to her whereabouts, and parties are rare. Socialising more often involves watching films at a friend’s house, going out for lunch, to the movies, or shopping.
She and her friends worry about exams and schoolwork, but Natalie admits that’s pretty superficial stress. Deeper down, body image and comparisons with others cause the most anxiety. “You put exceedingly high expectations on yourself that are impossible to meet. It can really knock your confidence, which lets in all sorts of other stresses and makes school exhausting and living in general exhausting because you have all these doubts and concerns that amplify everything else.”
Natalie uses Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for a couple of hours a day, but usually while watching TV or doing other things, and doesn’t post much herself. In the school holidays, she found herself in a messaging conversation with a friend for several hours after midnight, but that’s unusual. “I’m probably on Instagram more than the others, but only to look.”
She posts few selfies, because she’s afraid of being judged. “I care a lot about what other people think. I’m prone to comparing myself to others. I like to show I’m styley, because at school I look younger and I’m quite different when I’m wearing make-up and the clothes I like. I like people seeing that side of me more, but I don’t put it on social media. If there was a nice photo of me and my cat I would, because that isn’t me trying to look gorgeous. I get my self-validation in other ways.”
*Names have been changed.
Featured Image Credits: Pixabay