How Teens Are ACTUALLY Acting Online Might Surprise You

Illustrated by Alex Marino.
Some people say the only way to stop online harassment is to stop going online. Well, we aren't going anywhere. Reclaim Your Domain is Refinery29's campaign to make the internet (and the world outside of it) a safer space for everyone — especially women.
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Being a teen has never been easy. Expectations at school and at home increase. Bodies change and hormones rage. Friendships and relationships bloom and bust. And all of the above can easily become the subject of (seemingly endless) gossip, rumours, and speculation in school hallways. That was before social media.
Now imagine capturing — and amplifying — those pressures with the help of all your favourite apps: There's the angst that arises from the constant need to upload hyper-posed photos or craft the perfect tweet. Then there's public stress of being talked about — and sometimes criticised — in a forum where all of your friends and frenemies can see. The potential for stress and social anxiety is enough to make you want to shut yourself in your room and blast some Ed Sheeran.
Increasingly, teens today are sharing life’s ups and downs with friends — and sometimes the world at large — via their smartphones. Those app-stacked screens introduce yet another source of peer pressure and serious feelings of FOMO arising from the already awkward and stressful social dynamics of high school. On top of that, the apps themselves can become virtual hubs for gossip, rumour, and harassment.
In fact, 1 in 5 girls in the United States say they have experienced electronic bullying in the last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while bullying in all forms affects teens of all genders, girls are more than two times more likely than their male peers to report being cyberbullied. Educators, lawmakers, and even first lady Melania Trump have all called for action to address the issue.
The behaviour itself isn’t new, of course. Bullies have long lurked in school hallways. And even overall rates of electronic bullying have remained relatively constant in recent years, according to Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
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What is changing, Patchin says, is where teens say the harassment is happening. First it was MySpace and AOL Messenger. Then Facebook and ASKfm. Now, Instagram and Snapchat seem to be the most-tapped apps (and, as an extension, teens say, the site of much of the online bullying. Nasty snaps, for example, can be seen by your entire social circle, then disappear, leaving no online record of their viciousness.). Those shifts, combined with the unprecedented access to technology among America’s high schoolers (an estimated 73% of teens have a smartphone) make it difficult to predict the long-term effects cruel communications online will have on Gen Z.
Refinery29 spoke to tech-tethered teens across the country about how social media and the risk of cyberbullying impacts their lives — and what they’re doing to stop it. Ahead, six teens share their experiences in their own words.
NAME: Alex
AGE: 15
HOMETOWN: Council Bluffs, IA
GO-TO SOCIAL APPS: Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter
“I’ve had the same Instagram since I was in fifth grade and now I have 10.3k followers. So I get a lot of direct messages from people I don’t know, girls who are jealous of things they see me do. I’m in dance competition. If I post my accomplishments from a competition, sometimes I get messages from people I don’t even know saying, ‘You don’t deserve that win. You don’t work hard.’ Stuff like that. It kind of upsets me. But I just feel sorry for them that they feel they need to attack other people to make themselves feel better. How I handle things now on Instagram is so different than when I was younger a year ago: If I got a hate comment then, I would delete it or reply back. Now it happens so frequently that I don’t even delete it."
NAME: Isabella
AGE: 15
HOMETOWN: Sacramento, CA
GO-TO SOCIAL APPS: Instagram, Twitter
“Cyberbullying doesn’t necessarily happen at my school. There are Twitter fights sometimes. And a lot of girls at my school are asked for nudes — it’s a huge thing. They ask on Snapchat or DM on Instagram. Usually it’s people that you know asking; if you don’t know them, they probably go to another high school. My mom won’t let me have Snapchat because she’s worried about that. I was asked [for a nude] once when I was 13. I didn’t respond back. It made me feel very uncomfortable — like people don’t want to be friends with you, they just want pictures of you. Even though I am dating someone, I still would never send a nude. He's one of the nicest people ever and would never ask for that. I would worry that somehow college would find out and that would just mess up everything.”
NAME: Nicole
AGE: 17
HOME: New York City
GO-TO SOCIAL APPS: Tumblr, Snapchat
“I’m very limited on social media. I don’t have a Facebook, but I’ve had Tumblr since I was 12. It’s more accepting than what I see on my friends’ Facebook accounts. People will use Snapchat to cyberbully other people, too. It happens a lot. People make a fake account on Facebook or Snapchat and they target somebody. Sometimes they find something they just don’t agree on and straight comment on Facebook. But if you tell someone a secret, it might get posted. And you don’t know what to do, because you’re wondering, who said that about me? Only somebody I trust would know that information. Why would they say it online and not keep it a secret? Right now what I’ve seen is that we are experiencing a ton of people who are being cyberbullied anonymously just because of their gender and sexuality.”
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NAME: Grace
AGE: 14
HOMETOWN: Omaha, NE
GO TO SOCIAL APPS: Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter
“Cyberbulling used to be a big deal when social media was still coming out, when I was younger. Before, I feel like people would be ganging up on one person online. Now it’s just one nasty comment on a post or a picture. Most people I know would usually delete it right away and ignore or block that user. There have been a lot of cyberbully articles and things and we’ve done projects and had speakers at school, too. I think we’ve matured and we’re more self-aware of what we’re putting out there and that what we’re doing can hurt people. I don’t think it’s as big a deal as it used to be”
NAME:Tia
AGE: 16
HOMETOWN: New York City
GO-TO SOCIAL APPS: Snapchat, Instagram
“Among the people I go to school with, I’ve never seen bullying as a problem. But I know people who face sexual harassment and comments on their Instagram. They get comments that are unwanted about their body and how they look. Usually they block them. It’s become so regular that they don’t see it as something worth reporting. They’ll tell their friends, but besides that there’s no adult they go to.”
NAME: Molly
AGE: 13
HOMETOWN: Las Vegas, NV
GO-TO SOCIAL APPS: Snapchat, Instagram
“I’ve been on Instagram and Snapchat since fourth grade. There’ve been couple of times when [someone] posted rude comments on my post. It would be like, ‘You’re ugly.’ It made me feel uncomfortable and wish I could change things about myself. I deleted the comment so I didn’t have to see it again. At school, we worked with an advertising firm on a campaign to stop bullying. Our slogan was ‘So Uncool.’ If bullies think they’re cool, we don’t want to be like them — we think it’s better to be uncool than to bully. In the beginning, people were a little bit shaky to it. But we’ve had a lot less suspensions for bullying at our school. It’s really helped.”
Editor’s note: These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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