This article appeared in the Palatinate here.
The Secret Life of Students follows a whole host of reality shows watching teenagers get pissed and get with each other. The twist of this show is that the audience can see what the protagonists are tweeting, texting and putting on Facebook. On the surface this looks rather gimmicky. However, this new tool does serve a purpose. We used to think of social media as separate from ‘real’ life, but now it is hard to see the distinction between our ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ social life, because social media is so integrated into things we do. People use Facebook, Twitter and so to discuss the ‘real’, non-virtual world, yet increasing we also talk about the virtual world in the real world, i.e. “Did you see that photo she uploaded?” “Did you get his snapchat?” This show reflects that.
There were three main characters in the first show. Aiden is a MASSIVE LAD and wants everyone to know it. This second part is more important than the first: his mindless behaviour, like a particularly vomit-inducing neknomination involving a fish, is actually calculated for maximum impact on social media or elsewhere. He informs us several times he doesn’t care if people don’t like him so long as they are talking about him, which proves he is always on their mind. Social media, in allowing a quicker route to campus stardom, adds a new dimension to the activities of attention seekers like Aiden.
Lauren on the other hand is anxious about university because people, especially drunk people, scare her. She gets separated from the refuge of her room on the first night by a big pre-drinking game, and resorts to texting online friend Daniel who is at the same university. Lauren saying she will see how the friendship develops is code for a possible love interest which sadly is unrealised, at least in the first episode. She does participate on another night by joining her block for a mass bar crawl, but gets angry when someone makes a Nazi salute; as Anne Frank is her biggest inspiration this is hardly a great first impression.
Josie is the third. In comparison to the obvious extremes of the other two, she stands out less by being a fairly standard fresher in comparison. However, her constant references to her need for makeup and her bad skin suggest a lack of self-esteem, which the show, appears to link to her decision to have one-night stands. One of these is with Aiden, already the #unay BNOC a few weeks in, to the amusement and horror of her flatmates and presumably to the delight of the producers who now have an interweaving of storylines.
University, as a very formative experience, has the potential to provide great coming-of-age narratives. Towards the end of term all three characters offer this to some extent. Josie learns to respect herself more: no more one-night stands. Lauren joins the Labour Party Society, one of the few societies which don’t involve loads of alcohol, and successfully runs for a position. She seems to have found her crowd there: they are a “good bunch”. Aiden decides to take responsibility for himself and others when he takes an STI test and when he subsequently finds out he has chlamydia and must phone Josie to tell her. The extent of his transformation is slightly compromised by the fact he texts all his friends and puts on Facebook that he has “chlamydia. Banter”, and by the nature of the phone call which sounds like a prank where any second him and his mates in the background will burst out laughing. Ok, so not earthshattering, but he informs us next term he will need to settle down a bit.
On the face of it, the programme reaffirms what many believe about students. Yes there is the obsession with phones, Facebook and Twitter, the promiscuity and the pressure to binge-drink to fit in. Yet more importantly, the characters confront their vulnerabilities and are honest with themselves (even Aiden). The Secret Life of Students suggests everyone should cut students some slack, because moving away from home to uni presents more challenges than just what game to play at predrinks.