"Miss, do you have Instagram? Do you have Snapchat?"
"Yeah Miss, can we see your Snapchat?"
A group of 13-year-olds — all Year 9 students at the Lilian Baylis School in Kennington, south London — come buzzing to my iPhone like a swarm of bees to a briefly exposed honeypot. Before I can react, they've already got their hands on it. My Snapchat is open.
"You got bare adds though. You've got nine adds. Do you know these people?"
"Miss hasn't even added them back! Show me! Show me!"
"If you don't know them, don't add them. Unless they're friends of friends. That's OK. But never someone random," advises one girl, Kushana, solemnly.
"You've screenshotted a Snap. You screenshot Snaps?" says another student, Oumar, eyeing me with faint disdain. "Your Snap score is 500 though. That's good. Look, you've got loads of people to talk to."
When they hand my phone back, I discover Snaps they've taken of one another, with special filters and lenses: one of a strangely angelic-looking Kushana and her friend Jada-Renee, wearing crowns of pink flowers atop their plaits; another of Kylie, posing moodily with fluorescent flowers floating above her head.
"We're Snapchatting in our uniforms, but you're not gonna post it, are you Miss?" Kylie asks anxiously. This isn't a school rule, but the kids know their uniforms can be easily identified by strangers online. Then, appraising me and instantly changing her mind: "But you can if you want. It will disappear after 24 hours so don't forget to save it to your memories." She helpfully grabs my phone and shows me how.
While these 13-year-olds educate me on the perils of Snapchat, adults are worrying constantly about how screens are moulding young brains. We are all fixated on the idea that growing up in a digitally connected age is fundamentally different from childhood in previous generations, a change shaped entirely by the internet.
Researchers are busy analysing every aspect of the web's effects on kids' social behaviours, mental health and even physiological development. There are papers on new types of bullying, from revenge porn to trolling, and studies assessing the rise of cyber-savvy paedophiles and criminals. Everywhere you turn, grown-ups are volubly voicing their anxieties about the smartphone generation.
But what about the children themselves? They're the real denizens of the virtual world — the super-users of new apps, the earliest adopters of new forms of social media, the connoisseurs of online entertainment and the harshest critics when these technologies don't meet their standards. And yet the wave of parental concern often drowns their voices.
So I set out to hear their perspective directly — what they like and don't like about phones, what apps they use most and why, and how their real selves are tied to online avatars. What I discovered along the way — in classrooms, playgrounds, cafés and online — was always entertaining and often unexpected.
One of the many concerns voiced about the phone-wielding social-media generation is that children are becoming increasingly isolated — spending more and more time staring at screens in their bedrooms rather than engaging in face-to-face interactions. Back at Lilian Baylis, I'm trying to understand what friendship means at a time where most kids have hundreds of online "friends" and followers over a variety of channels.
Kylie, a second-generation Ecuadorean, lives in Brixton with her sister and parents; she is best friends with Cheydna, who is Angolan-Portuguese and lives with her mum and older sister just a few minutes away from school.
What does being best friends involve, I ask the girls. "Basically, it means we FaceTime every day after school. I don't like other people seeing me outside of school, because I look different in a school uniform than my own clothes, I look older. So I only FaceTime her," Kylie says.
"She keeps all my secrets and we speak to each other in Spanish and Portuguese, which no one else understands, so it's cool," Cheydna adds.
"We both want to be criminal lawyers. So we FaceTime and focus on our education; we do our homework together," Kylie says.
How would the students feel about life without their phones?
"Me and my phone, we are best friends, I'm closer to my phone than family. It's the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing at night," Kushana says.
"To be honest, I isolate myself when I'm at home. I'm always on my phone when I'm [there]. It's not always because I'm talking to someone, I just don't feel right without it," Kylie pipes up. "So I hang out on the couch with my phone and my headphones. I don't mind talking to real people as long as I have my phone next to me."
Social psychologist Sonia Livingstone spent a year observing the lives of 30 children aged 13-14 in London for her book The Class (2016). One thing that struck her was how social media was more than an alternative form of communication — it was an entirely new space for young people to assert their identity.
"The internet allows flexibility and experimentation, so if you're the Somali kid or the one who loves chess, or who is gender-fluid, you can meet others like you, even if you spend most of your time in a five-mile radius of school or home," says Livingstone, a professor at the London School of Economics. "Until the last decade, it was very hard to find or get recognition for any niche identity as a child, but that's a key feature of the internet. It's extraordinary."
Take George, a supremely cool 14-year-old from a private girls' school in Marylebone, London, with casually windswept, cropped black hair, checked shirt and jeans and a cracked champagne gold iPhone 6. In a few weeks, the cropped black hair will turn spiky pink. George was born a girl, and christened with an "embarrassingly female" name that isn't used any more.
"It was Year 8 and it just occurred to me, I was just like, 'OK, I think I'm bisexual — oh wait no, I'm pansexual'. Then I read more and decided I'm gender-fluid. I'll feel more masculine one day and more feminine another day. I'll generally dress neutrally and I use 'they' or 'them' pronouns, which is actually really hard at school because teachers will just call you 'she.'" Now George just goes by George online, which is what really matters.
On Instagram, a plethora of LGBTQ communities helped George figure out "their" identity as a 12-year-old, by speaking to others who were having similar thoughts, or those who had recently gone through a transition. "A lot of the LGBTQ community is on Instagram. We were on there at 12 and 13, with little butterflies, with the pansexual pride flag and that kind of thing, and Instagram was the way I found out about it."
Political discussions are mostly restricted to Tumblr and Twitter. The London teen identifies with the Liberal Democrats. "They have things like votes for 16-year-olds, they were big with the same-sex marriage bill and that's what I really cared about. Tumblr is free-range, it doesn't filter, which is interesting politically, because you'll have the furthest left people and the furthest right people and you'll be able to look through both of their blogs."