Why we have to protect vulnerable teens from the internet

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If my memory serves me correctly, being a teenage girl is awful. And I believe it does because, although it’s nearly 30 years since I was a teenager myself, it seems like it was just last week.

I remember feeling so out of control of my life, the confusing hormones that were rushing around my body, relentless homework and assignments, schoolyard politics and mean girls, my rapidly changing body with weird hair and puppy fat, and the relentless optimism that one day I would meet and marry Michael Hutchence, while at the same time being absolutely terrified of his overt sexuality.

I wouldn’t be a teenager again for anything.

I can’t imagine how I would have coped if I’d had to also deal with the added pressures of social media, online bullying, free-flowing pornography and out-of-this-world expectations of beauty and body image.

It’s not surprising that a quarter of 14-year-old girls have resorted to some form of self harm.

When I was a teenager I compared myself to other girls at school, and of course, the models in magazines. But now, teenage girls are comparing themselves to their peers and coming up short, purely because every story online is told through a series of filters and apps that can make everyone look like a supermodel.

These are tools that promise to cover flaws and show your best face to the world, but do nothing to show the true personality that lies beneath. Traits like perky boobs and a six pack are celebrated while being a caring friend and a good listener don’t translate so well onto Instagram.

More and more, girls are aspiring to look a certain way, to gain currency among their peers, and control their “brand”. They’re living in a competitive environment, sometimes even before they’ve left primary school.

When I look back at photos of my friends and I in high school, there are embarrassing haircuts, mouths full of braces, and some dodgy fashion choices. Now, half of my teenage daughter’s class look like professional models when they turn up to school.

Add to this the sex education teens are getting from watching online porn, and it’s no wonder they’re overwhelmed and confused. Back in the 1980s, we were lucky to see a few smutty images in a magazine someone’s older brother had picked up at a petrol station. Now, pornography is stylised and created for keyword searches, meaning unusual niche fetishes are becoming mainstream. As adults, we know this isn’t how loving relationships work, but teenagers don’t have the life experience to understand that yet.

Boys are expecting girls to perform and submit to all manner of acts – often degrading or misogynistic – and girls, having no helpful frame of reference, are going along with it.

The internet has been the best and worst thing to happen to this generation. We have all of the world’s information available to us at the touch of a keypad, and yet it is being used as a tool to overwhelm and control our children. With so much noise out there and a desperate need to fit in, they are literally killing themselves trying to find their place in the world.

It’s too late to stuff the genie back into the bottle, so it’s up to parents to spend time with their children, teaching them about the world and showing them what healthy friendships and romantic relationships look like. Because if we leave it solely up to the internet, the messages won’t be so healthy.

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