Down with the kids Article icon

Down

It has been almost three years since I left secondary school education, leaving behind the need to constantly check my Facebook account in case I overlooked a humorous or embarrassing status that would be the highlight of conversation the next day.

Having seen many reports suggesting teenagers are falling out of love with Facebook, I decide to visit a secondary school in Hertfordshire, which declined to be named, to gain an insight into how my successors are using social media in their day-to-day lives.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of sixth formers I survey, aged between 16 and 18-years-old, claim they are reliant on social media sites. Almost three in four students tick 'seven' or above when I ask them to grade, from zero to ten, how essential social media is to their lives.

Of course, Twitter existed back when I was at school but only a select few students owned smartphones. It was impossible for the majority of us to write a spontaneous tweet, which made the microblogging site unpopular.

Today, every student in the sixth form owns a smartphone. Laptops are rarely used. Facebook, like the once loved MySpace, fell out of favour once students received friend requests from not only their parents but also their grandparents.

While some concede that they still use Facebook to keep up to date with events and stay connected with long-lost friends, Twitter is currently the social media platform of choice for the students at the school.

More than half of those I meet rank Twitter as their favourite social media site. More than eight in ten access Twitter every day. When I ask the students how they would feel if they were to delete their account for a week, the response is unanimous: they simply couldn't do it.

One female teenager admits: 'I would say that I am addicted. I couldn't go a day without social media sites; it's just become a habit now.

'If I haven't been on Twitter I will reload the tweets from the past couple of hours to see what has been happening. I have even paid to access the computers on holiday so I wouldn't miss out on anything.'

Two students have each sent more than 36,000 tweets — averaging in excess of 24 a day — since creating their accounts in 2009. But they concede that constantly posting tweets concerning parties, television and friends to their 500 plus followers does distract them from their school work.

Many students claim they use social media to pass the time — something to do when they are bored, alone or feeling awkward. More than half use it in the evenings while more than fifty per cent are active on social media between two and eight times a day. They claim it allows them to be expressive and engage in topical debates, but is also a useful device to find out what people are really like.

'I like that it is current and a quick way to find out most of the breaking news. It's an easy way to keep in constant contact with people and see what others are doing,' says one. 'But it can be quite irritating when people tweet too often or everyone is tweeting about the same thing.'

Just four in ten students have interacted with a company or brand on social media within the past month. However, almost seven in ten keep up to date with news stories through Twitter and slightly more than eight in ten follow celebrity tweets.

But those who do interact with companies claim they find it very useful. One female student says: 'I like to tweet companies if I have a problem. I usually get a direct message back which is really helpful as the customer service departments don't usually reply to my emails.'

They note that smaller companies regularly try to interact if they tweet specific keywords, such as 'holiday', 'bag' or 'trainers'. But there is scepticism about these accounts which, they point out, tweet the same thing to hundreds of users.

Teenagers want timely personal replies, within the day if possible, and information on discounts and competitions from brands that they trust, such as Topshop, Asos, Jack Wills and Adidas, and the occasional football club or restaurant.

Instagram is ranked second to Twitter by the students, with more than six in ten accessing the site on a daily basis. They follow brands they trust on the online photo-sharing service, which they claim enables them to view and 'like' products and also provides a way to praise the company.

One male student adds: 'I would prefer to post a picture of a product on Instagram and mention the company if I like it rather than posting a tweet about it. But, if I were to complain I would do this on Twitter.'

The photo-sharing app Snapchat is used purely on a social level. More than nine in ten students send and receive images at least once a week. But just one in ten rank Snapchat among their top three favourite sites.

Many describe the app as 'pointless', suggesting it is something that people go through phases of using. One student says that most of the time, he does not want to look at the images — but he fears he will miss out on something interesting if he deletes them.

Worryingly, every student owns a public account, allowing full access to anybody on the Internet. The students concede there are dangers connected with social media and that their tweets could expose them to strangers or generate unwanted attention. 'I would like to make my Twitter account private but if I did my friends wouldn't be able to retweet me,' is one response. 'Popularity definitely comes before privacy.'

Another student adds: 'To be honest, I'm not really bothered about security issues on social media because well, what can people really do to you online?'

But they also recognise the need to take more care when composing tweets, aware that teachers, parents and future employees can easily read their timelines. With the launch of the school's departmental Twitter accounts in April 2012, this caution seems wise.

The school now has eight Twitter accounts aimed at sixth formers for subjects such as history, art, business and economics. The sixth formers are encouraged to follow the accounts of their chosen subjects, which aim to provide them with useful articles and links, exam advice and latest news, as well as a chance to interact with teachers about lessons and homework. The teachers do not follow the students back.

The school is very aware of the dangers of social media and cyber bullying, as demonstrated in a letter sent to parents, stating: 'As you are aware modern technology can be misused. Unfortunately some young people have been bullied through the use of text messages, chat rooms, message boards and networking sites. We wish to reduce the chance of this happening to your child.'

But it seems the students avoid sites such as the controversial Latvian-based Ask.fm, where users are asked questions anonymously. The majority have never used the site, claiming they feel 'some teenagers take it all too seriously...' Today's teenagers want banter, not bickering.