I recently read an interesting chapter this past week from the book It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd, called “Is Social Media Amplifying Meanness and Cruelty?”. It predominantly focused on the role social media plays in how girls and adults perceive ‘bullying’, although it also had several other undertones of differences between generations, the heightened culture of ‘drama’ among young girls, and the blame that adults often place on modern technology for their children’s social problems.
I particularly enjoyed this chapter; the author had a very authentic voice that was different from other authors who seem to think social media is the sole driving issue of our generation today. Instead, Boyd mindfully compared and contrasted the opinions of a teenage girl who seems to think that platforms like Instagram do not particularly help her friendships with others but don’t necessarily hurt them, and a mother who sees her teenage daughter suffering socially and believes that a world without a phone glued to her daughter’s face would be a better one. Why is it that so many adults seem to believe that it’s technology that’s the problem? Perhaps it could be the fear of the unknown: they may be picturing their daughter sitting alone in her room, scrolling through dozens of anonymous comments posted on her page, throwing around hurtful phrases like ‘slut’, ‘you’re ugly’, or even ‘kill yourself’. Rightfully so, these adults didn’t get this extremely negative perception of social media from nowhere; media itself (movies such as Cyberbully and Unfriended) purposely depicts very extreme situations of bullying online in order to more strongly convey an anti-bullying message, or solely just to entertain a wide audience.
However, speaking from the perspective of a teenage girl who uses social media quite frequently, social media is not constantly exploding with hateful messages and death threats. If used correctly and maturely, social media can be used very positively and can help young girls find a voice. If cyberbullying does occur, it is often so much more discreet. Just like the social media platforms themselves, girls have adapted over the years to learn how to most subtly criticize others, in such a quiet way that most observers will think nothing of it. Most often, it consists of short captions on Instagram or stories on Snapchat of girls using the ploy of sarcasm or ‘venting’ to criticize another person or group of people. It might often begin with the words “It just bothers me when someone…” or “Can people just stop when…”. Hiding underneath general terms like ‘people’, or ‘someone’, they’re strategically dodging the act of what others might be able to call cyberbullying. And what might possibly be the worst part: no one is willing to speak up, so we just double tap, drop a quick ‘haha’ comment, and keep scrolling.
Social media is an extremely complex concept, and it’s not adults that are the masters of it, but teenagers themselves. We know all the unspoken rules, and that is undoubtably extremely difficult to grasp to anyone who hadn’t grown up thinking that every emotion and activity had to be documented and posted. Thus, how can we expect young people to be taught proper behavior on technology if adults aren’t even sure themselves?
My late elementary and early middle school years consisted of a heightened sense of excitement for the freedom that social media gave us. It was almost like the equivalent of getting your first car: you can go anywhere and do anything without your parents breathing down your neck about it. Kids are now being exposed to that feeling of independence earlier and earlier, and this undoubtably sets them up to make mistakes and misuse it. Imagine: a kid in middle school gets her homework done early, so she picks up her phone and scrolls aimlessly through Instagram. She sees a photo of her best friend and other girl, and immediately feels overrun by jealously and anger. She doesn’t yet have the skills to handle these feelings in a productive way, so she begins typing a nasty comment to feel some sense of satisfaction. This type of rapid reaction-to-response is so new in our society. Although one could argue that it offers young people a feeling of empowerment and a voice, which is most often a positive thing, it’s walking a very thin line with almost giving them too much voice, allowing for self-destructive actions.
I don’t want to sound like a majority of adults when I say that social media should be used less, or not at all. Instead of entertaining the idea of an alternate world in which teenagers live in the moment and find joy through face-to-face interactions, we should instead be informing the younger generation of how social media can be used to make you feel confident with yourself in a healthy manner. Instead of blaming Instagram, let’s observe it, and accept it as the monumental new aspect of life that it is. As soon as we are able to use its influence over the younger generations for good, we will have an extremely powerful force on our hands. Let’s continue to use it for social change, for more #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements, for more happiness and support for one another.
learn more about Danah Boyd’s work- http://www.danah.org/itscomplicated/learn-more/
“Is Social Media Amplifying Meanness and Cruelty?” It’s Complicated, by Danah Boyd, Yale University Press, 2014, pp. 128–152.
image- Communications, United Methodist. “Finding Teenagers on Social Media … Again.” United Methodist Communications, 15 Apr. 2014, http://www.umcom.org/learn/finding-teenagers-on-social-media-again.