Have you seen what kids are up to online today? I’m sure you’ve seen headlines such as this, introducing genuine horror stories of kids falling down holes that lead to sensitive matters like eating disorders and suicide at far too young an age. While I think stories like these could be standalone reasons to advocate for this Hot Take, I was curious to look at the beast below the surface. For the past few weeks, I’ve spent intentional time observing what I see teenagers doing on social media. Instead of looking at a case study or report of what teenagers are doing on apps like Instagram and TikTok, I’ve let the algorithms (which duly noted are still biased) bring content to me on their own. From this, I’ve come to understand the notion that today’s internet has melded the reality between life and online content, leading vulnerable populations like teenagers to take the branding tactics of social media marketing and apply them to themselves and their sense of self.
Understand, this is not to say I am anti-social media.
Hell, it’s my job. And when I sit and reflect, I do see value in teen social media use to a certain degree. I think the internet is such a valuable tool, especially in situations where a child may be in danger. Social media can be useful to those in abusive households or situations, helping them not only understand what they are experiencing is abuse but also giving them resources to escape it. Social media can provide teenagers with information about other cultures and ways of life that they might not otherwise learn about in their homes or schooling. It provides them a connection with their peers and puts the thing we all crave the most directly in their hands — relationships with each other.
Not to mention, I, myself, was a teenager with social media not that long ago. I had Instagram and Twitter at 15, and I turned out just fine, right? What gives me the right to sit here and proclaim that social media is potentially dangerous when I was on it at that age and had fun?
But this is not the same internet as 10, 5, or even 1 year ago.
Just as Bo Burham points out in a panel discussion with the Child Mind Institute, the digital landscape changes and then changes again. He articulates how teenagers are so inundated with social media that they now see the world as the foundation upon which to build content — not to live in. And the thing is I get it. Teenagers right now are living in a really scary time. Most of them were still kids when the pandemic hit. They see news stories every day about school shootings and climate change — even a fully developed frontal lobe doesn’t know what to do with this much intensity. If I were a teenager today, I too would probably want to do anything I could to dive headfirst into the digital world. In that way, social media maybe feels more real than anything else in their lives. Eventually, this intertwined nature between self and the internet begins to reveal itself.
Here’s just a small example. There’s a fascinating pattern I’ve witnessed. It centers on the creation of labels of “aesthetic” and presents itself in “what-type-of-xyz-are-you” videos and posts. And, of course, the majority of these posts are directed toward young women. Are you a downtown girl? Y2k? Coquette? We were given a tool that was talked about as a place to express ourselves, but now it seems like that tool will give us about 100 little boxes, and we have to pick which ones to tick. And it goes beyond style, looks, or anything else under the umbrella of aesthetics; it has become interlinked with hobbies, music taste, and even how you talk.
But the thing is…this isn’t how you develop as an individual and create a personality. That’s a branding tactic.
In the world of social media marketing, it is important for a brand or creator to find a “niche.” This helps keep your messaging consistent and aligned. It helps attract and keep the audience’s eyes on you as they know what they like from you and know they can expect it. It makes you and your brand search engine optimized and aids in the development of a strong brand voice. We can easily understand this as a marketing strategy, but I worry teenagers have picked up on this and begun to use it as a means of developing their personalities.
This is just a drop in the pool of why social media may not be appropriate for teenagers to use. I think there are bigger, badder beasts that will continue to reveal themselves as we flow down this ever-changing stream of content. So now I hand this to you…what do you think about teenagers having access to social media? Is there even a way to regulate their use? Are you concerned about the current patterns unfolding? Leave a comment and let me know!