It was the end of eighth grade which finally prompted me to get a Facebook. I was coming into my own: learning to stand up for myself and befriending the girls I had always admired from afar. Creating a Facebook profile felt like I was finally establishing myself in my social circles. I was drawn to the agency Facebook afforded me over my own life. The people I befriended, the pages I liked, and the posts I shared were all decisions I agonized over.
Flash forward four years, and I now have Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, and of course, my Facebook account, joining the ranks of 3.196 billion social media users around the world. Of those users, 16-24 year olds are among the top percentage of consumers on almost all platforms. Given that this demographic represents the future, I have collected stories from around the globe to capture the relationship teenagers have with social media today, hoping to gain insight into what these platforms might look like in the future.
From a statistical standpoint, within the U.S., Snapchat (79%), Facebook (76%), and Instagram (73%) are most popular platforms among 13-24 year olds. Andrew Watts, a former University of Texas at Austin student, explains this data in a blog post on Medium, saying that the appeal of Instagram and Snapchat lies in the intimacy of each: their focus on pictures and interpersonal communication. Additionally, neither platform prominently features the articles and advertisements which are prevalent on Facebook.
That being said, many teenagers still have a Facebook, which Watts says serves to keep them up to date with their circles via the media’s messenger and event planning tools. Within the global framework, the U.S. teenage media presence is comparable to that of other countries, save for a few outliers in Asia and Africa. Across all of these countries, Facebook is the most commonly used form of social media. However, many countries also have their own platforms. For example, many people in China use the locally-developed forums Wechat, QQ, and QZone; in Russia, most people use VKontakte.
So what does activity online look like for teenagers around the world? Within the U.S., Californian twins Lara and Sofia’s descriptions of Instagram etiquette highlighted the transference of the adolescent social norms online. As sophomores in high school, both girls stress the importance of maintaining a calm demeanor on social media. They explain that while liking and commenting on someone’s post is obligatory depending on your social proximity to them, any comment that is too long prompts a fixation and dissection of its tone, prompting social tension.
Similarly, Lara and Sofia live in fear of the “Deep-Like:” an accidental double tap on a photo embedded within someone’s profile, which immediately notifies them that you have been stalking their profile. After all, likes are something that teenagers pay particular attention to.
Ahmad is a former student at Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven, Connecticut, who also spoke about his internet habits with Wired. He said of his photos:
“If I’m not touching 40 likes, I’m probably going to delete it.”
Ahmad said that he will regularly ask a group of his friends to like and comment on some of his photos, adding that there are strict rules for what their comments may entail, particularly which emojis they may use. The medium may be fairly new; however, these social regulations do not feel foreign. They reflect the daily strain of in-person interactions which many teenagers, in particular, feel. It seems that social media, rather than revolutionizing social interactions, has created more platforms for them to play out on.
Indeed, the rise of social media has had that effect on bullying, with cyberbullying being an ever-present concern among online safety advocates. Nicole, a 16-year old from Thailand, experienced the translation of bullying onto the internet firsthand. Nicole was bullied at school from the age of 10, prompting her, at age 12, to create a Facebook profile in the hopes that the bullying would stop. Instead, the attacks continued online. Nicole now works as a child protection advocate, specifically targeting issues around online safety to help prevent others from living her experience.
This brings me to the point that while social media usage has been escalating among young people worldwide, some teenagers have chosen to, instead, unplug from those networks. A recent article by The Guardian interviewed teenagers in England who, for a variety of reasons, do not participate in any sort of social media. Jeremiah Johnson of Luton is one such teenager. He deleted Instagram after six months, saying:
“It’s a competition for who can appear the happiest…and if you’re not happy and want to vent about it on social media, you’re attention-seeking.”
Again, it seems that in many ways, social media has taken the already established anxieties surrounding adolescence, and magnified them.
And yet, if we look beyond day-to-day social media habits, some teenagers have found ways to harness online platforms for purposes outside of their personal lives. Once such example is 13-year-old Shibby de Guzman from the Philippines, who spoke out against President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs in 2016. While de Guzman and her peers mainly took to the streets to protest, social media played a large part in their activism as well. It was, as de Guzman puts it, “a platform for spreading the word.”
Another example of a young, online activist is Zhan Haite, a 15-year-old living in Shanghai, who took to the internet to protest the lack of educational resources for migrant families such as her own. Or Rene Silva, a Brazilian teenager, who in 2010 began to use Twitter to cover police standoffs with drug traffickers. His live streams proved particularly vital in reaching neighborhoods which the media could not. Both Haite and Silva helped to draw attention to issues that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
In a similar vein, Calliope Wong, a transgender woman from Amity Regional South High School in Connecticut, took to the internet in 2013 after being rejected by Smith College on the basis that her financial aid document registered her as male; Smith College is an all-girls school. Wong posted her official rejection letter on Tumblr, sparking the Facebook group “Smith Q&A” to start a photo project in support of Wong.
A member of the group spoke to The Huffington Post about the importance of the project, saying “I see my work with Q&A as an attempt to make Smith a space where transwomen can be supported as students and as people—both administratively and by the student body.” Indeed, Wong’s openness about the experience had that same effect: bringing more attention to the transgender community.
Recently, I have noticed a shift in my social media habits as well. Last week, I went through my Facebook profile for the first time in a long time, cleaning out old pictures and posting new ones. As I was doing so, I realized that what I once saw as a means of self-promotion, I have come to recognize as a tool for so much more.
Indeed, examining these stories of activism have highlighted, for me, the potential social media has to move public discourse beyond the personal and towards the political. So while the specific effects social media will have in the future remain to be seen, the recent online activism within younger generations leads me to believe that role of social media in the years to come will remain in intersection with the realm of politics.