herald

Saturday 18 August 2018

Secret online lives of Ireland's teens

SHOCKING: In the first of a four-part series, we reveal the pressure on girls as young as 13 to pose provocatively on social network sites as they attempt to attract flattery.

Pouted lips and pushed out chest, a 13-year-old Irish schoolgirl poses in her bedroom. It's doubtful that her parents have any idea what she's up to -- but hundreds of boys and girls her age are watching and commenting

The photo is just one of hundreds the Herald has seen posted on teenager social network sites. She finds her best angle, tilts her head slightly to the side and arches her back to show off her assets.

While she looks every inch the confident model, she is no practised professional. Her eyes belie her vulnerability and true age.

Proud of the provocative pose, the young girl uploads her 'sexy shot' on Facebook within minutes of taking it.

It will be her profile picture, a likeness that will be visible not only to her hundreds of online friends, but also to anyone on the social network site, as she has chosen to keep her account public.

Her hope is that the photo will attract attention from her peers and result in positive comments on her personal page.

So far, her male acquaintances have shown no restraint in telling her just how much they appreciate her good looks. Approving comments can vary from a simple "sexy" to a blunt "nice legs, give us a shot of you".

Many of the girls interviewed by the Herald admitted that they hoped to emulate stars such as Kim Kardashian (30), the curvy US model who rose to international fame following the leaking of an online sex tape. She's now made millions.



Naive

Parents would be mortified if they saw the teen poses on the internet and question their appropriateness.

They might even choose to follow the example of a father who began legal proceedings in the North against Facebook after "sexually suggestive" photographers of his 12-year-old daughter were posted on her page.

He claimed that the social networking website was "guilty of negligence" and that it caused "a risk of sexual and physical harm" to his daughter.

Facebook is meant to be only available to those aged 13 or above but there is no way of checking that a child has not gained access by faking their birth date -- as many admit doing. I spoke to dozens of teenagers aged 13 to 17 for this series to learn how they behaved online and whether they were aware of the risks.

The youngsters came from a variety of backgrounds, but the majority were born in Co Dublin and believed that living in a city had made them less naive than their countryside counterparts. Both boys and girls said they used the internet predominantly to chat to friends but boys were most forthright about the appeal of surfing online.

"When I was 10 or 11 years old I started watching porn online," a 15-year-old boy said. "I got caught a few times and my mum told me to stop doing it, but I still do -- I just delete the internet history now.

"I would say that I've learned a lot from porn, it's better than sex education, you'd learn about what to try. In school, you don't learn about contraception until you're 15. I'd also spend a few hours on Facebook every day, look at photos of girls. They're just normal photos -- they take before going to discos, when they have short skirts on and make-up and we comment on them, rate them."

Some of the boys and girls I interviewed demonstrated the type of comments they like to leave on their friends' profile pages.

They tell their pals how old they look, whether they would consider dating them, what mark they would give them if they rated them on looks or on personality.

"I've told someone they're ugly before," one of the boys admits. "But it depends on the person, if you know the girl, you wouldn't do it, but if you don't know them -- it's alright, it doesn't really matter. And if she's good looking then you'd chat to her, and you'd ask her to go on webcam.

"Some of the girls send pictures of themselves but most [would rather] go on cam. They'd flash their bras, and if they show more then you show more ...

"In discos, a lot of girls just wear their bras so [what they show on Skype] is nothing, really."

The boys interviewed admitted that if a girl was too forthcoming, they wouldn't hesitate to tell their friends about it -- so they can try to speak to the girl themselves. Suggestive conversations between strangers are frequent among teenagers and they insist that Skype keeps them safe.







Account

"I've been on Facebook since I was about 12, I created an account from my phone, it was pretty easy, I just said I was 18," a schoolboy explained.

"I have about 650 friends now, and maybe 100-200 that I don't know but I'd accept, if I'd heard of them from doing sports or they were good looking girls.

"I wouldn't send a photo of myself if I didn't know them, I'd chat to them first, get to know them, go on webcam to see if they're real."

A safety application, ClickCEOP was developed just over a year ago to protect under 18s from being groomed, bullied or abused.

This application, dubbed the 'panic button' is not available in Ireland although the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has repeatedly called for it to be made available in the Republic.

"The ISPCC believes that such a panic believes that such a panic button would help combat child abuse on the web," national advocacy manager Mary Nicholson said.

hnews@herald.ie

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