OPINION26 March 2015

What Channel 4’s ‘Teens’ tells us about teenagers’ digital lives


The world of teenagers depicted on Channel 4’s Teens documentary shows a group obsessed with online social comment, but is this an accurate picture or just good telly?

Last Tuesday I settled down to watch the first episode of Teens, Channel 4’s new documentary series which follows the lives of 12 16-year-olds. The documentary promised to show us the groups’ digital footprint in full, tracking every text, tweet and update, and picking the best to give us an insight into their digital activity. But what can we take away from what we were shown?

Inevitably, the documentary was keen to leave us feeling that the teens’ mobile phones were the portal to their world – where they interacted with their friends and conveyed their personalities to the public. The teens chosen were avid Twitter users and much of the ‘storylines’ of the documentary played out in this space.

The young people’s love for social media came to a head when avid campaigner Jess arranged an open meeting for the school with the organisers of ‘No More Page Three’, which didn’t quite go the way she intended. An arguably throwaway comment comparing the tradition of page three to slavery was latched onto by the young attendees and spread across their online networks.

The subsequent ‘Twitter beef’ received by Jess (mean comments about both the campaign she supported and her personal appearance) gave us an insight into how the online space can become a platform for gossip and ‘drama’. Groups of teens told the camera how anonymous comments on Twitter can be interpreted – “You can always work out who it’s about”.  Also, we got to see how public tweets are then discussed privately between friends over messaging apps.

Watching Jess become quite upset by the social media backlash she had received was uncomfortable and perhaps slightly inappropriate for public airing. However, her frustration reflects how the lives of young people can be so heavily influenced by what is happening online.

Despite this, we must remember that the young people profiled in the documentary reflect a very specific type of teenager. Undoubtedly, most teens are hooked on social media and their mobiles, but those chosen for the show were ‘sharers’ by nature, not showing much concern about making their lives and opinions public.

But the viewer should take caution in thinking that this is reflective of all teenagers. Our recent Monitor survey showed that 11- to 16-year-olds spend an average of 2.1 hours on their mobile each day, but a significant minority ( 29%) of this age range are using theirs for half an hour or less.

The frequent use of Twitter is also far from universal, with only 40% of 11- to 16-year-olds having used the site in the past week. Not all young people are willing to share their lives so publicly, apparent by the rise in popularity of private messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat.

Therefore, we should see Teens as a snapshot into how some teenagers live their lives, rather than an accurate depiction of all teenagers in the UK. Taking this view helps us to understand the issues these young people face, without assuming that the entire generation are all cut from the same mould.

Matthew Nevard is a researcher at Childwise