One of my survey and interview questions was: “What do you keep secret from parents?”
The girls told me they lie most to their parents about boys.
In their phones, they hide their boyfriend under a girl’s name. They say they’re going for a walk or run, or to the shops or the park, or to catch up with a girlfriend from school, but they’re meeting a boy.
They sneak out at night to see a boy. Survey responses were chock-full of girls fessing up to the lies they tell about romantic attraction and physical intimacy.
But there was another very common response to this question: social media and screen use.
Our daughters may not think there’s much for us to be worried about when it comes to screens, but they know that many of us are worried, nonetheless. They know their screen usage creates conflict. Their solution? They lie to us about their screen use.
“I lie about when I turn my laptop and phone off at night. “[I tell them] I’m doing schoolwork on my laptop when I’m actually watching YouTube, scrolling through PetRescue, or just looking at other interesting pieces of information that I find on the internet.”
I love that she’s scrolling through PetRescue. This highlights that our daughters aren’t all watching mindless shows on Netflix, having nefarious, backstabbing conversations, or looking at porn/sexting boys.
They’re real people with real interests, and they want to be left alone to explore the things that matter to them – including the good things.
One Year 9 student told me: “The most common thing that I lie to my parents about is that I’m studying when I’m actually watching Netflix or I’m on chats.”
Okay, so some of them are watching mindless Netflix and having whatever kinds of conversations they have on chats!
The strategies they use to deceive us aren’t particularly sophisticated – but they don’t need to be. It seems that many parents aren’t that sophisticated either. More than 50 per cent of the girls in my survey said that their parents don’t bother enforcing their tech rules anyway.
One Sydney-based 16-year-old girl laughed as she explained to me that “Mum and Dad sat me down a couple of years ago and had the talk about it [technology], but that was pretty much it. Every now and then they go off about how I’m on my phone too much, but they never check or do anything about it.”
About 30 per cent of survey respondents indicated that their parents don’t give them any rules around device use at all.
As for the most popular strategies for using screens or apps when we would prefer that they didn’t? Their best and most deceptive hacks are described below, in their own words.
As an aside, I laughed out loud at how many of the girls said they don’t do any of these things but their friends do:
“My friends create an account for their parents to follow and then create accounts that their parents don’t know about.”
“Block them on the stories.”
“They don’t allow their parents access to their phones.”
“My friends lie about what they’re doing on their screens.”
“My friends sometimes sneak into their parents’ room after they are asleep to get their device.”
“My brother keeps changing his phone password so Mum can’t snoop.”
“It’s pretty easy. A phone can be dimmed down or hidden if someone walks into the room. Headphones exist as well.” [I love the spunk of this kid!]
“Don’t tell them you have it [an app they don’t want you to have], have a password they don’t know, if they’re talking to a boy or someone they aren’t supposed to, just change the name so it looks like someone else is texting. Btw, this is my friends, not me.”
“My friend has to take her phone and laptop upstairs every night. Sometimes, she just takes the phone case and her parents don’t look so hard, so they don’t see that the phone isn’t there.”
“My friend turns off her tracker and blocks her parents.”
“I leave my phone at my friend’s house so we can go out but it looks like I’m there on Find Friends. If mum calls, I just say my phone was on silent.”
“Once my mum left her Facebook account open, and I unfollowed my account on her Facebook so now she misses most of my social media activity.”
“My friends usually download an app and then delete it at the end of the day before they go home, and they do it every day.”
“My friends pretend to read but they hold their phone in their book and use it, similar to a hollow book safe, but you don’t actually cut the book.”
“Turn Messenger to inactive so it doesn’t show they’re online late at night, but they can still chat.”
“One of my friends isn’t allowed on her phone at night so she hands it into her mum and then uses my old phone, which her mum doesn’t know about.”
“Use their laptops when their parents take their phones.”
The girls aren’t using amazing technology hacks to get around filters or software that limits access. These cheats are so basic that, in some cases, they’re laughably funny. It’s all so that the girls can be on their screens with their friends or watching something entertaining.
Most girls I spoke with didn’t want to admit that social media could be a problem. But when I probed deeper, some girls shared incredibly troubling stories about the dark side of screens. It’s not just that screens are all-encompassing. It’s not just that they interfere with friendships, sleep, physical health, schooling, family life, and wellbeing.
The girls I spoke to suggested that almost all of our daughters are victims of behaviour we can only describe as sexual harassment and abuse.
The harassment is something that too many brush under the carpet. It’s the stuff they don’t want you to know about. And, when they’re truthful about it, it’s the stuff they don’t want to acknowledge. But it’s there if you ask and wait.
Sixteen-year-old Annabelle shared the following story with me.
Annabelle: I was in the mall with my friends and we caught up with some guys one of my friends knew. I hadn’t met these guys before, but we chatted and then left them to go home. My dad picked me up and while we were driving home I got a Facebook friend request from one of the guys. I accepted it and about 20 seconds later he asked me for a nude. This is with my dad sitting right next to me.
Me: How did you respond?
Annabelle: I just deleted him.
Me: That was it? Did you tell him off or tell your dad?
Annabelle’s response was nonchalant, almost flippant. She gently but dismissively replied.
Annabelle: No. It’s kind of just normal.
Me: Normal? Really?
Annabelle: Well, yeah. Like, not just to me. But, yeah, it’s pretty standard, like, ummm, if you’re a girl and a guy likes you, he’ll always ask. He’s kind of got nothing to lose, right? Like, it happens all the time. There’s no point making a big deal about it, I don’t think.
On at least a handful of occasions in my interviews, and in many conversations with teenage girls after I’ve given a talk in a school, I’ll hear variations on this point.
It’s no big deal.
It happens all the time.
Everyone I know has had it happen to them.
A Northwestern University study in 2018 analysed 462 stories from teenage girls, who were pressured to send explicit photos to boys, who engaged in threats and harassment if they did not comply.
In the study, some girls were as matter of fact as Annabelle: “I was talking to this guy, and he asked me to send him nudes, and I did.”
The adolescent girls shared their experiences in these words (unedited):
“Well … I have this boyfriend n he always asks me to send him nude pictures n if i dont he thinks that i dont love him n i really do.
“When i confronted him about it he said he do love me.”
“I’m 17 and my 19 yr. old boyfriend tries to guilt me into sending pictures of my ***** and says things like ‘but it’s me’ ‘you can trust me’.”
“i like this guy but he always wants nude photos.”
“every time i try talking to a new guy, it starts off with the cute text then it goes on to the sexy pictures …”
Our boys are asking, harassing, and demanding. Often it is straight-up coercion.
“my bf preaused [pressured] me for hours to send him pictures of me naked. now he threatens to send them out if i dont send hin more really nasty pics.”
The data showed that out of the 462 stories only 12 said there was no backlash from refusing boys’ requests for naked images. Girls described feeling trapped, stuck, or scared of the consequences in saying either yes or no.
The consequences were significant. In an interview, one girl told me: “A guy sent a naked picture of me to the whole school, including the principal and my parents. We think about 400 people ended up having my naked body on their phones.”
Girls are constantly being harassed via social media. It’s a case of boys on the attack and girls on defence. Yet so often I hear girls being told not to send nudes. Surely we should be telling boys not to ask! (I acknowledge that a percentage of girls is enthusiastic about sending nudes… In the study, boys were nearly four times as likely as girls to apply pressure for a nude. And it’s normalised: “Everyone else has one.”)
A survey by Plan International Australia and Our Watch called “Don’t send me that pic”, analysed responses from 600 girls aged 15 to 19. They found that levels of abuse and harassment were as standard as Annabelle and other girls had suggested to me:
• 58 per cent agreed that girls often receive uninvited or unwanted indecent or sexually explicit material, such as texts, video clips, and pornography.
• 51 per cent agreed that girls are often pressured to take sexy photos of themselves and share them.
• 82 per cent believe it is unacceptable for a boyfriend to ask a girlfriend to share naked photos of themselves.
That last statistic is particularly curious to me.
Of the girls surveyed, 82 per cent felt that boys shouldn’t be asking for nudes. But boys continue to do so, and girls either ignore it, as Annabelle did, or succumb.
(Collective Shout, an organisation aimed at protecting and empowering girls and women, reports that girls as young as 10 are being coerced into sending sexual images.)
I asked Annabelle why she didn’t tell her dad about the image. Her response was illuminating: “If I told him that, he would have lost it”.
Annabelle explained that when a girl tells her parents about something negative happening on social media, the parent’s knee-jerk response is to threaten to confiscate the phone and ban social media. So our teenagers hide what’s happening from us. The fear of losing their phones – their contact with friends and the ultimate boredom buster – is too great.
They also worry about what we’ll do, who we’ll talk to, or how we’ll react.
I talked with a mother after a conference at which I’d been speaking. At the time, her daughter, Faezeh, was 14. Faezeh’s mother, a doctor who was attending the conference, described to me how her daughter had been groomed online by a sexual predator.
A “friend of a friend” had contacted her and they began an exchange on social media. This lasted a couple of months. He was kind, generous, and always responsive. He seemed to really care … until one late-night conversation turned horrible. After several pressure-filled demands from the “boy”, Faezeh sent him a topless image.
There was an immediate demand for more images. Faezeh was seized with guilt, shame, and remorse. She panicked. She begged him to delete the image and leave her alone. His response: he threatened to tell her family that she was sending nudes, and promised he would send the one image he possessed to her family unless she sent more. He then sent her a list of names (via images from her Facebook profile) to prove he would do it. The list included her traditional and religiously conservative extended family members in the Middle East.
Faezeh did not believe him. She blocked him and prayed the entire episode would go away. It didn’t. Within hours, Faezeh’s mother, uncles, aunts, cousins and several friends had received the image, with a note describing Faezeh’s sexual indiscretions. (Her father did not have a Facebook account.)
Having received a copy of the image, Faezeh’s mother immediately found her daughter. She sat with her and talked. They determined that the only way out of the situation was to tell their family that someone had photoshopped the images, that none of it was real, and that someone was attempting to extort their family. Their story was believed and the wider family was pacified.
I wish this was a unique story. While it is awful and most girls will not experience challenges this significant, it is also not unusual. Our daughters are so eager to be kind, to have friends, and to stay connected to their phones that they are too often victims in these unacceptable situations.
I share the following story with permission from my daughter. It highlights that everyone can have these horrible experiences – because our girls are not the problem in such situations. None of these experiences is ever asked for or acceptable at all.
“I was giving a presentation away from home. I had just finished speaking about how we can all be great parents when the phone rang. It was one of my daughters, sobbing.
Daughter: Dad, something really bad has happened.
Me: You sound really upset. I’m here. Take your time. I can listen as long as you want.
Through her tears, my daughter (a Year 9 student) told me that a boy she had known since her first year of school had propositioned her on the phone for explicit images. They had been texting. She was in the living room because our rules – developed with and agreed to by her – didn’t allow devices in her bedroom. They had been messaging for a while.
Then he sent an unexpected question.
Him: What are you wearing?
Her: My pyjamas.
Him: What are you wearing under your pyjamas?
Her (feeling very uncomfortable): My undies.
Him: Will you send me a picture?
At that point, my daughter ended the conversation (and blocked him).
But she was badly shaken. Her trust has been violated. He was a “friend” in the true sense of the word. They had known each other for a decade.
There had never been any indication of sexual motives before. This experience changed my daughter’s view of the males in her life. She began to wonder about their motives. Innocence was lost. The fact that no explicit images were exchanged did not negate her hurt and feelings of being dishonoured. She felt violated, as if she was nothing more than an object. In her eyes, their friendship was a sham.
Subsequent conversations with her friends led to some important revelations. When my daughter began to share her experience, it became clear the boy had made the same request of several other girls in their friendship circle, although none of them had told anyone, and he had succeeded in “scoring” images from some of them.
(To finish the story, I contacted his parents, who were aghast. I sent them screenshots of his requests and passed on other information. I reassured them that we wanted to help and held no ill-will. They were wonderful in responding to our concerns and in developing strategies to help their son make better choices and develop a respectful approach to communicating with his peers, both boys and girls.)
Abbey is 14 and uses most social media platforms. Her parents have guides and limits to protect her and they talk openly and honestly about the issues that come with apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Her mum shared the following with me in a conversation:
Recently Abbey and I were driving home (we live about an hour out of town) and she seemed irritated. She started to tell me about one of her friends’ Snapchat posts and how people were writing horrible things about this girl. This was literally happening as we were speaking and driving. She explained to me that her friend had posted a YOLO TBH on her story.
(YOLO is short for “you only live once” and a yolo is an opportunity to write on someone’s story anonymously. TBH means “to be honest”.)
So basically this young girl was allowing people to be honest about what they thought of her. It had started off pretty tame with nice comments, but then progressed into: “your a bit of a hoe,” “your a f**king whore,” “go kill urself,” “if you died no one would miss you.”
And it went on and on.
I couldn’t believe what these kids were saying. Abbey was upset by it. I started to go over the dangers of allowing anonymous authors to write on your social media, and she cut me off and said, “Mum I know, I hate it”.
I was rattled by it for days, until Abbey came back to me with this: “Mum, I know you said never contribute to a yolo, but I did. I went back to my friend’s attack the other day and posted on it.”
My heart sank and anxiety began to rise … But then Abbey continued, “Mum, I jumped on and wrote that yolo are stupid and it opens up bullying and nastiness – maybe if we didn’t all do these stupid things there would be fewer kids feeling like crap.”
And instead of being anonymous, she signed it “from Abbey”.
She told me she went on to put sunflowers and nice comments on the worst yolos she has seen, and that she hasn’t always left her name because some of the people don’t like her.
But regardless she wanted to say something nice.
My heart exploded. She didn’t know, but I cried like a baby that night with pride that she is this amazing creature. And I cried knowing that she will most likely endure an attack down the track. I cried for all the parents who don’t know their children are being assaulted while we drive them home from school. And I cried for the day she might stop telling me what’s happening in her world.
Miss-connection: Why Your Teenage Daughter “Hates” You, Expects the World and Needs to Talk
By Dr Justin Coulson
Published by HarperCollins