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Beheadings, porn, abuse and anxiety A teacher talks to his students about their smartphone use

Eoghan Cleary and his students discuss their experiences with smartphone use, addressing the traumatic content they’ve witnessed online.


Children… Beheadings, Porn, Anxiety and Abuse… These are five words that only exist in the same sentence because of the internet; so why are we still not doing anything about it?

IN MY 5TH-YEAR English class, we had just finished reading Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’.

It explores the difficulty of doing what was right in the Irish cultural context of the 1980s which continued to facilitate the existence of the Magdalene Laundries and the atrocities that occurred within them; for this group of 17-year-old students who previously did not know what a Magdalene Laundry was, it was educational in more ways than one.

In the class discussion after the final pages, I casually ask, “So, is there anything you can think of now, in your lives, in your cultural context, that’s similar to this?” They think. I continue: “You know, where everyone knows harm is being done but no one is standing up and saying anything about it?”

Many of the faces look back at me with incredulity. “What?” I ask.

A number of them call out at once: “Smartphones!”

“Go on,” I say.

“Everyone knows the damage they’re doing,” one says.

“And no one’s doing anything about it,” says another.

There is a moment of silence and lots of heads in the room are nodding.

Someone pipes up, “Do you think in 40 years we’ll be able to sue the government?”

“For allowing global giant social media companies to monetise your childhoods and ruin your mental health? Why don’t you just sue them now?” I ask.

They laugh but I’m not sure it’s that funny.

Damaging content online

Later, the same day, I have a 2nd-year SPHE class. SPHE is Social, Personal and Health Education. It is a brand-new curriculum and we are exploring social media and how it impacts the students’ lives. They are 14. Phrases like “I couldn’t live without it”, “It’s part of who I am”, and “How did you grow up without it?” ring out around the room.

“Ok let me ask you this,” I say, “One in four six-year-olds in Ireland currently own their own smartphone, how do you feel about that?”

“That’s not true, is it?” “A quarter of six-year-olds?” “Oh, that’s wrong.” “No, that’s bad.”

“Why?” I ask. “Why should a six-year-old not own their own smartphone?”

“Because of what they’ll see, obviously!”

The students are engaged and want to educate me.

I oblige. “Why? What will they see?”

Beheadings are the first thing they talk about. I ask how many of my 24 2nd-year students have seen someone killed in real life on social media. Almost every hand in the room goes up.

I remember the first time I saw someone killed online. I was 16. He was an Afghani soldier lying on the ground, tied up and being shot with a machine gun. I did not want to see it. I would never have gone looking for it. I had not asked to be sent it. I can still see it now 23 years later as I type this and can still accurately recall every moment of it. I can see the colour of the man’s scarf, the badge he has sewn into his unform and the bullet, the one that ends his life, enter his cheek and come out the back of his head.

I have seen beheadings too, twice, around 20 years ago when I was 19. Ken Bigley was the name of the first one I saw; I can’t remember the name of the second.

My 2nd-year SPHE students tell me they see killings and beheadings on a regular basis.

“I know this is a stupid question,” I say, “but I want to hear your answer: why should a six-year-old not see these things?”

“Because if I get nightmares about it at 13,” one boy says, “imagine what it’s going to do to a six-year-old.”

“Sometimes I see stuff online,” another one says, “and all day in school the next day, I can’t think about anything else. A six-year-old shouldn’t have to deal with that; they’re only kids.”

“You’re only 14,” I point out.

He knows what I mean but he says nothing and just shrugs.

One boy who is normally a main contributor to class has stayed silent. I check in with him after class and he says he’s fine but he emails me that night explaining that he didn’t want to bring it up in the room in case others hadn’t seen it, but he wanted to let me know that he had seen a real man’s skin pulled off his face while he was still alive and who had remained alive throughout the subsequent extended torture. I looked up the video to see if it was real; it was. It is the first thing I have been directed to on the internet by a student that I choose not to watch. I support the student as best I can the next day and, with his consent, link in with his parents but the following week I do not ask the rest of the class about it; hopefully they haven’t seen it.


Porn also comes up pretty quickly. I ask the same questions: “How many have seen it?” They’re slower to admit to this than to the beheadings until one girl asks, “Is a dick-pic porn?” There’s laughter, then we discuss (in a very generic age-appropriate way) what constitutes porn and I ask the question again. Again, almost all the hands go up in the room.

This time I rephrase the question slightly: “You don’t need to tell me what you’ve seen but can you explain to me why a six-year-old shouldn’t see these things?”

“Because of expectations.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because of the things you might think you’re expected to do.”

“Do you want to explain?”

He pauses. There is a clear sense that we’re approaching the limit of their level of comfort and maturity in terms of what they’re willing to discuss. We’ve had regular discussions in this class about how to know when to share and when not to share; they’re well-versed in it.

“The way you see women being treated,” another boy tries to help him out.

“What about it?” I ask.

“Well, what you see being done to women in porn, if you did it in real life, you’d go to prison.”

“Really?” I ask. “How do the rest of you feel about that?” There is a lot of nodding but no one really wants to speak.

He continues, “You see it in the news, don’t you? I’d say there’s a lot of people in prison because they were just doing what they saw being done in porn.”

What this group of 14-year-old students did not have the maturity and confidence to articulate is that children are now being exposed to porn, the likes of which, unless you are a current porn user yourself, is unimaginably different to the top-shelf magazine content many generations of Irish parents might think of when they hear the word.

Porn now is violent, misogynistic and extreme. It relies on taboos like incest, physical domination and sexual violence as the norm and our young people are bombarded with it as soon as they have access to the internet or more correctly put, as soon as everyone and everything on the internet has access to them. In 2023, the UK Commissioner for Children reported that 10% of 9-year-olds, 27% of 11-year-olds; and over half of all children before the end of primary school have seen pornography (and this study dealt with a group of young people who did not have smartphones until long after they were six years of age.)

“What else?” I ask.

‘All the predators’

One of the girls speaks this time. “All the predators and stuff.” Everyone is more comfortable talking about this. They discuss the direct messages they receive from people they don’t know (and fake AI-generated accounts they call ‘bots’) asking for sexually intimate images and videos of them. Their experiences vary. Some don’t get that many. Others (mainly the girls) get multiple requests a day.

This is not an uncommon experience for children this age.

In 2023 alone, 4,322 websites were reported to the Irish regulator for containing self-generated child sexual abuse material – that’s sexually explicit images and video content created by the children themselves; 53% of the content came from eight to 12-year-olds.

I ask about other content they think six-year-olds should be protected from. The boys talk about all the negative content they’re targeted by around what it is to be a man. They talk about “all the body image stuff” too like ‘looksmaxxing’, ‘starvemaxxing’, ‘glowing up’ and ‘mewing’ as well as the everyday expectation to have a muscular and chiselled physique even though you are still a child.

The girls talk about self-harming trends, cutting yourself and putting it up on social media, sharing nude images, the prevalence of deep fake porn and the glorification of disordered eating. “All the body image stuff” pushed on them comes up here too: products like botox, lip fillers, diet pills, fake Ozempic nasal sprays and tanning injections that you can order online.

And all of these social media influences are having a measurably negative effect. In Ireland, the rate of anxiety and depression among the teen population doubled between 2012 and 2018 (even before Covid had an impact). For years, researchers across the world have been tying similar trends to the correlated ownership of smartphones by adolescents and recently, but all too slowly, governments have finally started to act.

In 2023, 33 states in the US sued Meta for knowingly targeting young users with harmful content. The UK is considering limiting the age of smartphone ownership to 16 and above. The French authority for psychiatric and addiction services has recommended the French Government make social media an adult-only service and on the back of a $300 million study, the US surgeon general has outlined that children who spend three or more hours a day online are twice as likely to experience anxiety or depression.

‘It can’t ruin your childhood anymore’

Before the class ends I ask them to tell me, at what age they think a child should be given a smartphone. They all agree they would have needed one around the age of 13 to avoid social exclusion but not before that.

“But only because everyone else has one,” one girl says, “You still wouldn’t need one if no one else had one.”

So I reframe the question: “If you could make the law that decided the age that everyone in Ireland was allowed to have social media, what age would you choose?”

“Social media or smartphones?” they ask. It’s an important distinction for them; there are some very important benefits to accessing the internet for certain groups of adolescents.

“Social media,” I clarify.

There is a short discussion. Some say 16. Almost all agree 18.

“Why 18?” I ask.

“Because then it can’t ruin your childhood anymore.”

The weighty mix of anger and sadness in the way he says this silences the class; the words clearly veil a vast array of online experiences he does not want to have had to deal with for at least another four years, if ever, and we all feel it from him. Out of the mouth of this 14-year-old boy, normally one of the stereotypically ‘hard lads’ in the group, this kind of vulnerable honesty is profound and I find it hard not to be affected.

Thankfully another student wants to contribute: “But even when you are an adult, no one should ever see some of the stuff I’ve seen.”

Once again, there is a lot of nodding around the room.

Then the bell goes and they head off to their 2nd-year Geography class to learn about how rivers are formed and draw diagrams of exploding volcanoes, the stuff kids are meant to be doing at their age.

As my 6th-year English students arrive for the final class of the day, one of their last before the Leaving Cert, I think about the junior SPHE students who have just left. Maybe my 5th years were right about the systematic neglect this generation of young people will blame us for when they realise the various forms of harm we failed to protect them from and the damage it did, the damage it is still doing.

Eoghan Cleary is an assistant principal, English teacher and coordinator of SPHE and curricular wellbeing at Temple Carraig Secondary School in Greystones. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and is the co-author of multiple textbooks for the new Junior Cycle SPHE course. The BBC World Service interviewed him and his students on the impact smartphones and social media are having on children; the radio documentary, airs on Tuesday, 11 June for the first time. It can be accessed here:

If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can reach out for support through the following helplines. These organisations also put people in touch with long-term supports:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email
  • Text About It - text HELLO to 50808 (mental health issues)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or text HELP to 51444 – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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