Are digital natives really just digital labourers?

Are digital natives really just digital labourers? Teens turning off social media

The pressure to be a slave to social media is becoming too much for an increasing number of young people, writes Kathy Evans.

By Kathy Evans

21 April 2016 — 5:59pm

digital labourers.png

Travelling to university on a train, Sofia Stojic looks like any other student; head bent over her phone, scrolling through her newsfeed. All around her are other teenagers doing the same; twiddling their thumbs as they hashtag, like and emoji their way to their destination.

It's easy to assume that this latest crop of digital natives – those fluent in the language of computers, online video games and social media – are entirely at home in a cyber landscape where major aspects of their lives such as friendships, civic activities and social groups are mediated by technology. Judging by the amount of time they spend on it they must love it, right? But what if they don't?

Sofia Stojic and Sara Cooper (front) who are ambivalent about social media.

Photo: Simon Schluter

"I find it really stressful, actually," admits Stojic, 19. "It's not even about using it, it's just the knowledge that it is there in the background. It's very hard these days to switch it off and be with your thoughts." As well as Facebook, Stojic uses messenger apps, such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Viber, sometimes spending up to three hours a day on the various networks but not always by choice; as the world becomes increasingly igitalised, she, like millions of other students, finds her life orbiting around her phone.

It's the go-to place when she wants to find out her rostered shifts at the afe where she works, or join a chat club for her linguistics degree at Monash University; it's the fulcrum where invitations to parties are found, gigs announced, events arranged. And yet it is a demanding beast, always hungry for attention. "When I go to Facebook to get my shifts I get caught up in a newsfeed. I will look for minute but find myself there an hour later."

Many teens are starting to feel social media overload.

Stojic is not alone in her growing resentment of a life that's become increasingly igitalised. Student Sara Cooper, 20, is equally frustrated. "I spend a lot of time complaining about it."

She dislikes the way it's altered face-to-face conversations, which she finds are often interrupted by someone suddenly checking their phone, and feels uneasy about her own desire to do so. Many of her friends hate it too.

"It's Pavlovian. There's something about that little inbox sign that satisfies you on the most basic level."

Like Stojic, she relies on social media to keep up with events but hates the intrusiveness of it. "I can be reading a book on the train and the phone interrupts the book. It's distracting." She has tried switching off notifications and even switching off her phone, but like most people her age, has a fear of missing out.

Sofia Stojic and Sara Cooper (in blue) who are both less than excited about the world of social media.

Photo: Simon Schluter

In an era where the ability to digitally network has become a sought-after career skill, Cooper might not like feeling controlled by a set of algorithms and be concerned about those little dopamine squirts that the red notification icon gives her brain, but like millions of others, she needs it.

And yet, according to Dr Peggy Kern from the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne, the question of whether teenagers actually want to be on social media is one we haven't yet explored. "There is almost the assumption that they do, but actually it's a really good question and one we haven't asked enough."

Dr Andy Ruddock, senior lecturer in communication and media studies at Monash University, feels the term digital labourer is a more accurate reflection of a teenager's relationship with social media than digital native, which suggests they are totally at ease in this shifting landscape.

"There's been a tendency to construct a bipolar view of young social media users as either victim or vanguard; they are either being corrupted or created by it. We talk about social media as either something that they've got no problem with, or something that is doing terrible things to them, whereas the reality for a lot of them is that they are making the best of a bad deal," Ruddock says.

As Karl Marx observed, humans make their own history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Teenagers never asked for the world they have inherited from Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo, and are beginning to question its ability to transcend anomie and create social solidarity.

"Perhaps they are just exhausted by the intensity of it and that's a problem," Ruddock says.

No wonder. According to Katina Michael, Associate Professor at the School of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong, many teenagers have more than 40 social media apps.

"It's information overload. The technology savvy people will keep pushing and creating new apps and new social media capacities but individuals are not machines, we are not digital. So I think more people will say goodbye to this kind of environment," Michael says.

Amy Bismire, 19, a nursing and midwifery student at Deakin University, has recently deleted her Instagram account and wishes she could do the same for Facebook.

"You spend so much time looking at other people you forget to look at your own life. On social media everyone shows their best side – how they want to be seen – not how they really are. It's a fake environment."

It's this lack of authenticity that unsettles her. "It doesn't make you feel good. It doesn't make you feel bad either, but it just doesn't make you feel better."

Bismire also feels worn down by the relentless nature of it and the way it seeps into her home life. "It's not like you can ever get away from it. You can switch off your phone but it's still there."

Like Stojic, Bismire relies on Facebook to connect to homework groups, but finds herself distracted by her newsfeed. "It draws you in. You don't want to but you start scrolling; it's a habit that's hard to break."

Why is it so hard to give up? While the jury is out on whether social media is addictive (it is not classified as such by the psychiatric bible DSM – 5, experts agree there are similar patterns of tolerance and withdrawal that are associated with gambling. Clearly young people are worried about the thin line between habit and addiction.

Claudia Howlett, 15, closed down her Instagram account two months after opening it. She signed up to Facebook after succumbing to peer pressure but ironically, doesn't feel more connected to them.

"Some of my friends would stay up all night and then be too tired to talk to me in school. Instead of talking to people they could see in person they were too busy chatting to people they'd never met. It put me off. I didn't want to be like that."

She quickly learnt that spending hours on Facebook made her feel quite sick, "as if I'm wasting my life," so she sets herself time limits and refuses to use any other platform: "It has made me the outsider in some ways but the positives outweigh the negatives."

It is a brave choice in a world driven by a primitive need to connect. Ruddock points out that when people started going to the cinema, it wasn't so much about watching a film as being with others. Magazines in the '70s – particularly girls' ones – gave teenagers plenty to talk about in the school yard.

Similarly, soap operas and television programmes have provided a wealth of social capital. But it is the sheer volume and intensity of social media interactions, all requiring some sort of immediate response if one is to remain likeable, that can weigh teenagers down. If psychological health relies on balance, the amplitude brought on by social networking is the thing that concerns them most.

Anxiety will always play a huge role, partly because technology has developed faster than our capacity to process it, but also because fear has long been a by-product of media usage (the parents of today's teenagers were probably told in the '80s that watching too much telly would make them square-eyed.)

Meanwhile Stojic, like Bismire, Cooper and Howlett, may dream of living a life unplugged but knows it is not very feasible.

"It's the way the world is. People like to push the positives – and there are a lot of positives – but they ignore the negative effects," Stojic says.

Kern sees this emerging ambivalence among teenagers as encouraging: "Perhaps technology is coming to a point of balance. Young people are starting to make a stand and change things amongst their peers and that's where it needs to go. They have misgivings and are starting to ask questions. I think that is very promising."

Citation: Kathy Evans, April 21, 2016, "Are digital natives really just digital labourers? Teens turning off social media", The Age

Teensafe spy app forces parents to choose between trust and online safety spy app forces parents to choose between trust and online safety

The internet can be a dangerous place for kids but respect and trust are vital to healthy family relationships.

To spy or not to spy on our children, that is the question posed by new monitoring app Teensafe.

The $14.95 a month snoop service, which lets a parent monitor their children's online activity, was developed in 2011 by a group of Californian parents who were concerned that the number of children using smartphones in the US had grown from 10 to 80 per cent in just five years.

"Devices are becoming more prevalent in kids' lives – often they're with them the whole time," says Teensafe chief executive Rawdon Messenger. "A 10 year old with a phone, in some ways they're not ready for it."

With more than a million signups in three years, Teensafe has doubled its number of subscribers in the past six months. "The growth is coming from parents who are saying, 'I really need to check out what's going on'," says Messenger, who has a seven year old daughter.

"Privacy and respecting boundaries is very important," he says, "but in certain cases safety and protection trumps privacy, especially when it comes to sexting, bullying and depression."

Teensafe users can log into an account and see a child's messages, including deleted texts, and view their social media feeds, but the service doesn't allow you to listen to phone conversations.

"We also won't store or download any of the child's images from the device," Messenger says.

"That's a feature that could make our service more attractive, but we don't feel that's necessary."

Not everyone agrees with the Teensafe approach. Dr Joe Tucci, head of the Australian Childhood Foundation, believes there are inherent problems with such monitoring apps.

"I think it undermines the trust that parents and kids need to have in order to have a positive relationship," Tucci says. "As kids get older, parents need to be like a lighthouse for their children. When things are going rough, parents are the people you need to be able to go to, and talk to. That trust is critical as a foundation for that open, honest communication. These sorts of apps undermine that. They basically say we can't trust our young people ... we have
to intrude into their world."

Primary school teacher Nikki Howard says she would not use Teensafe to see what her 12 year old daughter Abby was doing on Instagram. She feels their relationship is open enough, and not worth jeopardising with a spy app.

"I can see why people would use it, but it's not for us," Howard says. "You don't want to be too involved in their lives and too controlling. You wonder if people who are doing it let their kids do more because they know exactly where they are. But what would stop a child from leaving their phone somewhere and nicking off and doing something else?"

In her first year of high school, Abby says she wouldn't be happy for her parents to be able to read all of her text messages and social media posts.

"They'd be invading my privacy. I don't go reading mum's messages so why does she have to read mine? I don't think it's necessary because I tell mum everything anyway."

One Melbourne family with a techobsessed 11 year old discovered she had downloaded free messaging app Kikwithout their permission and was corresponding with a "boy from California".

Her mother worries about perverts and paedophiles using these platforms as stalking grounds.

"It would enter my mind to use [Teensafe] but I'd have to really think about it. I do think it's important to tell your child. My daughter is already hiding things from me, and sneaking into her room with the phone. If I want the open conversation, I'm going to play the honesty card first."

The 39 year old mother of two tween girls admits this is new ground for parents of digital natives and is difficult to negotiate, given the pace of emerging technologies.

"We're new to this. We weren't part of this culture when we were kids. She's connecting with somebody she doesn't know, she's using her own name and her own picture, and these are all the 'nono's that they've learnt in cyber safety at school but they're not making the connection."

Messenger says Teensafe advises its users to divulge the use of the app, rather than using it covertly, but admits in some cases going behind your child's back may be the only way to get to the truth.

"If you're concerned about your child and you have no other way of finding out what's going on, as a parent it's a no brainer. People have found out their children are dealing drugs, or are truant from school, and if that's going on what's more important to you – growing trust with your child or checking that everything is OK?"

Tucci warns getting access to a child's digital life can open up a Pandora's box of dilemmas. "It can be insidious. It's tempting for parents to use it not only for safety but potentially for other reasons, and inadvertently you get access to information about friends that you shouldn't have. And that's going to be disastrous."

The child psychologist suggests ongoing communication with a child is the best way to navigate the turbulent teenage years. "If you're worried about your child, the best thing you can do is talk to them. But that shouldn't be the only time that you're trying to talk to them. This kind of app gives the impression that you don't need to be there."

Katina Michael, associate professor of the School of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong, worries that spy apps encourage disengagement. "My fear is that technology becomes a replacement for good parenting or a replacement for a teen thinking freely about what they should or shouldn't do."

She says research suggests this type of surveillance could be dangerous in the wrong hands. "Police have already cautioned against the use of spy apps because they are well aware of how more covert software is being used to track someone's whereabouts. In the most heinous crimes, third parties have gained access to handsets, downloaded spy apps, and then recovered coordinates and location information and committed terrible things," she says.

Messenger acknowledges the safety debate is heated, but that all Teensafe does is allow parents to do what they're already doing in a more comprehensive way.

"You can spy on your child's email, have the passwords to their social media, grab their phone and go through it – there are lots of different ways of doing this, we just facilitate it and make it easier to do remotely."

The Australian Federal Police offers online cyber safety advice.

Citation: Katie Cincotta, May 6, 2015, "Teensafe spy app forces parents to choose between trust and online safety" The Age

Government cracks down on identity fraud

Key Link


Jane LeeThe Age
Katina MichaelUniversity of Wollongong

Article comments

Read more:


Australian Privacy Foundation board member, Dr Katina Michael, said that while the changes may help prevent businesses ''data mining'' people's personal information online, it could also cause problems for the majority of people who legally use different names in different forms of identification on and offline.

Suggested Citation

Jane Lee and Katina Michael. "Government cracks down on identity fraud" The Age Nov. 2012.