Grace Dent on TV: After watching Teens, thank goodness there was no social media when I was that age

Twitter was the sort of thing that Judith Hann alluded to on BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World

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The Independent Culture

Channel 4’s new documentary series Teens dragged many painful feelings up this week. Primarily, that I wouldn’t be 15 again for the moon on a stick.

Sat in my room, under a thatch of crimped hair, down-wind of a joss-stick, listening to The Pixies’ 'Surfer Rosa' on repeat and crying because Paul Gilmer has dumped me for Joolz Robins. Her with the Sun In highlights and the riding lessons. Not even dumped me properly either. Just mumbled, “I don’t want noffin’ heavy no more” and then, next up, is spotted in Hammonds Park sitting with her on the Witches Hat sharing a packet of Hubba Bubba.

The one thing being a teenager in the Eighties did have in its favour, however, was that it predated social media. Twitter was the sort of thing Judith Hann alluded to on BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World – the world chatting electronically! – that we all wrote off as far-fetched sci-fi gubbins. Why would we all chit-chat to friends and strangers via computers? When I was given the boot for Joolz, it’s not as if the lack of iPhones and Facebook accounts meant that it remained a secret. No, everybody at school found out.

Poor Jess – on the first episode of Teens – was a lovely, clever lower-sixth-former who had got a bit emotional during a school debate. News of Jess’s tears spread through the school in a volley of bleeps and bings and arse-y sub-tweets and secret direct messages like crap-scented forest fire. I’d love to tell Jess that people eventually grow out of their joy at joining an electronic lynch-mob – the baiting and the bitching – but they don’t. It is a national pastime.

The cast of Channel 4's Teens (Channel 4)

Jess sat at home reading a news ticker of vile nonsense deriding her sanity, her uppity manner, her weight, her prettiness, her popularity and so on. Teenagers at Jess’s school – and the surrounding schools – retweeted and favourited the abuse. Was a favourite, Jess’s friend Harry wondered, less severe than a retweet? Well Harry was Jess’s friend, yet somewhere in the melee he began favouriting tweets from one pupil who called Jess fat and ugly.

All she’d wanted to do was open up a debate on Page Three and fight for women’s equality. It was rather heartbreaking to watch her realise for the first time that, when making a feminist stand, it is, as often as not, other women who begin the kicking. The team behind Teens tried, rather mutedly, to recreate the ambience of a Twitterstorm, cluttering the screens with print and usernames.

I’m yet to see any television show – or film – do justice to the modern way we communicate. A problem, I feel, is that much of what we text or tweet is actually mundanely boring. Sample – Suzie to Jenny: “I am excited about today’s debate!” Jenny to Suzie: “Yeah, gonna get down the front! Exciting!”

Teens re-reminded me that once upon a time we coped with vast parts of our day remaining uncatalogued. Bus journeys dragged by, livened up only by a long stare out of the window. School bags were packed without the event being uploaded to YouTube and a period of frantic waiting for electronic affirmation.

Maybe yesterday’s teenagers were more in touch with their own banality? We were certainly more comfortable to be alone with our boring, angsty thoughts. A young Morrissey could never write “You’ve Got Everything Now” in a time of social media. That amount of woe takes a good, long eight or nine years of staring furiously at Salford drizzle, being misunderstood and rejected by one’s peer group. Harry on Teens, it seemed, struggled to spend 10 minutes on his own without filling a syringe with water, soaking his father and broadcasting it on YouTube.


One reassuring thing about Teens is that, despite the differences between the 1980s and now, it’s mainly business as usual. Parents go on holiday and sixth-formers pile over with bottles of bad booze. Things get smashed. Fags are smoked moodily. A vast amount of time is devoted to hair back-combing and spot-covering. Mini-skirts are worn at micro-lengths which make teachers irate. Love affairs feel big, serious and forever, as does friendship, which is spoken of as earnestly as an Arthurian pact.

“I am being oppressed by my own parents!” one girl tweeted, her human rights violated by a request to revise for her mock A-levels. Harry’s parents were around my age, so to me, their reactions to his YouTube antics and smartphone dependency were fascinating. “If he won’t do his work,” Harry’s mum said, her eyes smouldering with passive-aggressive devilment, “well, that’s his business.” She wasn’t angry, Harry. She was just disappointed. It worked: by the end of episode one Harry was revising for eight hours a day. It was a difficult hour of television, but the kids are alright.