Twenty teenagers are gathered in a circle. In the centre stands one girl, her face getting redder by the second. Stood opposite her is the most popular boy in school, and they’re about to kiss for the first time. Everyone is watching, waiting, jeering. The boy leans in, and she hesitantly follows his lead, closing her eyes as she purses her lips. The crowd goes quiet and suddenly, she feels a wave of force hit the side of her cheek. Opening her eyes wide, she looks around at the crowd, who are now screaming with laughter. The boy has slapped her across the face.
That moment is seared into my brain. Not because I was the girl who expected to be kissed and was instead assaulted, and not because I was one of the many kids who snorted and pointed at her as she stood humiliated, but because I saw the moment again and again, playing on the phones of kids across my school. The protagonists of the video were in my sisters year at our school, and as quickly as it landed on her phone she was showing me it on the way home. It was my first experience of a ‘viral video.' I was 13, and smart phones were only just becoming the norm.
Back then, everyone seemed to have Blackberry phones, and we had gone from sitting and holding our devices together to transfer files via Bluetooth to sharing videos, music and status updates on BBM in just seconds - socialising through technology was taking off.
Kids had been planning to kiss each other in the back field of our school after classes for years, but now, there would be crowds of other kids with their phones out, ready to film every second of that awkward moment of adolescence. It didn’t matter that the camera quality was grainy, everyone would want to watch it so everyone would film it. Videos of those precious and cringe-worthy moments - that feel like you’re entire world at that age - were our cultural currency.
In my school, pictures and videos of girls half-naked, sometimes performing sex acts, spread like wildfire. It didn’t matter how popular you were – everyone could be anonymous online, so no one was safe. There was pressure to get involved everywhere, to send nudes, to slip off an item of clothing on webcam. And yet, if you succumbed, the risk of being humiliated online was monumental.
This was 2008. Before Snapchat made sending nudes easier than ever, before Instagram Stories and disappearing messages made sexting seem harmless, and before WhatsApp groups took lad culture outside of the locker room and onto all our phones. More than a decade on, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be 13 now.
According to a study by University College London, 1 in 3 British teenagers have never engaged in ‘partnered intimate activity’, with just 3.2% of 14-year-olds engaging in ‘heavy’ activity – ranging from oral sex to intercourse. [By comparison](https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(13)), 30% of people born in the 80s and 90s had already had sex before the age of 16.
It’s been reported before that teens are tamer than ever, not just when it comes to sex but also drinking alcohol and taking drugs. Some blame the rise of social media limiting their social skills, others point to binge-watching TV subscriptions like Netflix. And while yes, surely these factors are relevant, I can’t help but feel that they’re missing the mark.
Because for me, aged 13-years-old, insecure and completely naïve when it came to sex, the way we were now socialising through technology media made the thought of developing any sort of romantic relationship with a boy terrifying. Like many teens, I had one wish back then that consumed my daily thoughts: avoid all embarrassment.
Becoming sexually active had so much potential to be humiliating, and now it wouldn’t just be your crush who saw it. So easily could a rumour about your terrible kissing technique be backed up with proof. And when you’re entire life purpose is to make sure you fly under the radar at school, doing anything sexual – with all of its gossip-value at that age – at a time when it could be tweeted, pictured or filmed felt like a huge risk. Ultimately, it's one of the main reasons I didn't become sexually active into well into university.
These days, school boys have points systems for getting nudes and social media makes anonymous trolling and internet bullying an everyday occurrence. So, when you hear that teens are nowhere near as sexually active as generations before them, is it really any surprise?
Assuming teenage hormones now are are still what they were ten years ago, is the allure of a new Netflix series, or the need to keep scrolling through Instagram, really strong enough to prevent kids from experimenting with burgeoning sexual feelings?
Surely, we have to consider that teens are viewing sex in a completely different way to generations previous, because the risk of being sexually active - when your whole world is your school and that whole school is constantly connected to each other via technology - is now huge.
Because, if I was terrified back then, before revenge porn and internet bullying was as prevalent as it is now, when social media networks were still in their infancy, how scared must so many be now? When one tweet can be seen by the whole world, when viral videos aren’t just viral in your school, and when something posted online can haunt your future forever.
I still think about how that young girl who was assaulted by her classmate coped after her first kiss was broadcast to schools across my city. The boy who slapped her, and who subsequently sent the video around, is in prison now, you’ll be happy to know. Not for that particular offence, but still – justice was served in some sense. I just wonder whether she was able to shake the humiliation of that moment, and how many girls just like her are suffering the same experience on a mass level now.
Your first nerve-wracking kiss, your first terror-inducing sexual experience is meant to be awkward, yes, but with the risk of that cringe-worthy moment being captured on film forever and shared with the world, it’s no wonder teens aren’t exploring their sexuality in the same way we were. One viral video could feel like it’s ruined your life at that age, kissing is just too dangerous for teens these days.
Collage: Ben Neale