Show Hide image

Snapchat streaks and revenge porn: what it's like to be a teen online

Since lockdown began, 25 per cent of girls under 18 say they experienced at least one form of abuse or sexual harassment online. The New Statesman asks teenagers what really happens when they log on. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

Late one weekend when André Serra was 16, he opened his Snapchat account and saw something unusual. Mostly there were the typical posts from his friends, the kind of stuff teenagers share on a Saturday night. But then, scrolling through his Stories, he saw something more sinister. 

A girl he knew loosely through a friend of a friend had posted a series of naked pictures. “They were very sexual pictures of her. I wondered whether to tell her, like let her know that she shouldn’t be doing this, people can see.” 

André, now 18, later discovered that what he was seeing was revenge porn. The teenage girl’s account had been hacked and her private images shared with the world by a school friend she had been arguing with. “This used to happen a lot,” he says, referring to revenge porn being used against classmates.

For a generation born into and immersed in social media, the boundaries of online sex are complicated. From sharing pictures with strangers on Snapchat to Instagram bots demanding nude photos, Gen-Z is on the frontline of a rapidly changing digital world. While sharing naked pictures is not a new phenomenon among young people, the platforms on which these images are shared, and who is doing the sharing, are not very well understood by the adults around them. 

According to research carried out by Professors Jessica Ringrose and Kaitlyn Regehr, from UCL and the University of Kent respectively, 76 per cent of girls under 18 have been sent unsolicited sexual images on social media. In their research, they interviewed over 150 young people aged 12-18. They discovered that children as young as 12 report being asked for pictures by adult men on Snapchat. Further, the majority of girls felt they could not report their male classmates to teachers or parents when they requested sexual images on social media.

“There’s this online culture surrounding Snapchat that I guess means it’s now acceptable to just be sent whatever, whenever, and no one is going to report you,” says André. “People won’t report you because there doesn’t seem any point.”

When Bijou, now 18, started secondary school, Snapchat streaks were an essential part of the social hierarchy. “How many Snapchat streaks you have is part of how popular you are. If you are having a conversation with someone and they continuously reply to you, that makes a streak. You could say to your friends, oh I have a streak with them,” she says. But as she grew older, streaks evolved. “When we were about 15, it changed quite a lot. Boys would return messages with a picture of their abs and say ‘streak?’ They would want you to send a naked picture back. If you talk to most girls my age, they probably would have been sent a dick pic without asking.” 

In the coronavirus era, empowering teenagers online has grown even more urgent. Girls like Bijou are living the majority of their social lives digitally, and with an increase in screen time comes a greater risk of exploitation. Since lockdown started, 25 per cent of girls say they have experienced at least one form of abuse, bullying or sexual harassment online, while reports of revenge porn doubled in April, peaking over the Easter bank holiday weekend. 

“Lockdown has exacerbated the risk of online grooming and sexual abuse like never before,” says Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy the NSPCC. “Offenders are taking advantage of increasingly lonely and vulnerable children spending more time on sites monitored by fewer human moderators to act against the harm.”

Alongside a reduction in the number of human moderators responding to online abuses thanks to the pandemic, overdue updates to the sex education curriculum have also been delayed. In June 2020 the government announced that schools do not have to teach the new sex and relationships curriculum, due to have come into place in September, until summer 2021. This leaves sex education lagging behind the online world.   

“Educating teens on digital sex education was one of the notable things that were added to the new curriculum,” says Professor Kaitlyn Regehr. “Now is not really the time to cut back on this education because now more than ever, teenagers need this.”

For 18-year-old Bijou, being harassed by bots on social media was just part and parcel of her school years. “The bots would add us on Instagram when we were younger, like around 14.” Some days, Bijou would find herself added into a group chat with around 20 other users of a similar age. “It would be like, a user called ‘Free Girl Pictures’ sends you a direct message being like, ‘do you want to make money off your body’ or something like that.”

“What used to be really confusing was I would never know that the bots on Snapchat weren’t a real person. I would come into school and my friends would be like, ‘oh because the username is just a load of random symbols that means that isn’t a real person.’ We were never taught that at school, we had to pick that up for ourselves.”

For children that aren’t heterosexual, the current gaps in digital sex education are even wider. “This is going to sound really bad but as a gay person the only thing I’ve ever learned about homosexual sex is through the internet and talking with people that were three times my age on Kik and Snapchat,” says André. 

Like a lot of teens, André used to use the instant messaging app Kik to meet people. “Snapchat is like an updated version of Kik,” he says. “Kik was practically a dating site, but it wasn’t. It was almost like an anonymous messaging service. Instead of giving people your phone number you would give people your Kik pin. A lot of us were very young, talking to people who are very old who were basically exploiting us.” 

“I think if we had just been told when we were 13 that you didn’t have to respond to these people or if we had been taught the very basics of what happens between two consenting adults of the same sex, gay teens wouldn’t have had to rely on social media or talking to these weirdos.”

As lockdown eases, there are still a lot of urgent questions for parents, researchers and educators about the ways teenagers navigate sex online. “Our ongoing research shows that schools are ill-equipped to deal with these issues and that the lockdown has amplified the need for resources to tackle them,” says Regehr.

But for young people, these issues have long been bubbling under the surface. “I think we need to teach children that internet grooming doesn’t always mean meeting up with someone, and doesn’t have to involve sending pictures,” says Andre. “It’s about being taken advantage of, that’s the point.” 

Professors Jessica Ringrose and Kaitlyn Regehr are running an online survey for teenagers, to try and understand the ways social media platforms are used by teens. The survey closes 31 August 2020. 

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.