An Inside Look at How Teens Use Social Media
by Leah Murphy
As Life Teen’s coordinator of digital evangelization and outreach, a large part of what I do is manage our social media and aim to communicate truth to teens through social media. Some days, when I see some of the images, comments, and narratives that permeate the digital continent so many teens live on, I can get easily discouraged and saddened. It can seem like social media is simply another distraction, causing greater problems, especially among our young people. Furthermore, the increased isolation, anxiety, and depression that this generation of teenagers are facing due to social media can add to the discouragement.
However, I don’t think that social media is to blame for all the negative realities that teens face these days. I believe that, while social media may exacerbate some issues, they’re issues that teens have been facing all along: loneliness, insecurity, self-esteem issues, anxiety, etc.
What makes this generation different, then? Well, because their desire for intimacy is often met with a false sense of infinite intimacy via social media, the isolation they experience is greater than that of previous generations. Therefore, as parents, it’s important that social media is not seen as the enemy, but is recognized as a neutral contributor to your teens’ lives that can be used either negatively or positively.
Why They’re There
Teens, like any human person, are hungry for connection, intimacy, and relationship. Therefore, growing up in a digital world leads to them using digital means for a sense of connection where older generations would have used face-to-face interaction.
Because they have always had smartphones, they and their peers have grown up knowing that their relationships are not bound by geographical limitations, so they see no problem with connecting more with one another digitally than IRL (in real life).
What They’re Doing
When they’re using social media, teens are connecting with each other, celebrities, and their favorite events, brands, and movements. Here’s a breakdown of what they are doing on respective social platforms:
Snapchat: Teens use this platform most frequently and this is where they’re connecting with one another, their peers, and the people they would see more often IRL. They’re using this to replace calling and texting. Their snap stories can be seen by all their followers. But in addition to snapping their stories, they also snap to one another. The things they’re sharing here are in-the-moment, only mildly filtered, not entirely planned, and somewhat unpolished images and videos. Snapstreaks also mean a lot to teens; these are records of how many consecutive days they’ve been snapping back and forth with any of their friends and their snapstreak numbers represent loyalty among friends. Breaking a snapstreak causes high drama and the thought of a snapstreak breaking can cause high anxiety.
Instagram: This platform is where teens (girls more than boys) are sharing the highlights of their lives. They tend to care a lot about how their profile looks and dedicate time and effort to publishing photos that fit within their personal “brand aesthetic.” It sounds bizarre, but whether they’re consciously doing this or not, a lot of teens use Instagram this way. They care a lot about the number of likes they get and oftentimes will branch out of getting organic likes and try to increase their likes by employing specific hashtags and following/engaging with accounts that might garner them more likes. Additionally, where they’d only typically connect with one another on Snapchat when it comes to Instagram, teens are more inclined to follow celebrities, personalities, and brands they like. Because of the personal nature of the platform and the fact that so many celebrities use it as if they’re personally, exclusively managing it, teens feel like they have a personal connection with these people.
YouTube: Teens are using YouTube to follow their favorite vloggers, gamers, up and coming musicians, and makeup tutorial-ers. YouTube has done a lot to foster a young community of creatives and, because of that, many young people are faithful followers of these creatives. Young creatives will have a special appreciation for the way they can use the platform. The fact that a YouTuber’s success literally depends on what the public thinks of his or her video can give a teen the sense that, if they create a video (vlog, makeup tutorial, cover of a song, etc.) and it gets noticed by a substantial amount of viewers, then they have “made it” in some sense.
Twitter: Teens that are on Twitter are using this for two main reasons: (1) news, (2) connection to celebrities. Teens are getting most of their current news (political, cultural, celebrity) and staying up to date on trending issues. That’s why hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #WhyWeMarch, and others can get young people informed on current issues. Additionally, teens are using Twitter to stay up to date on their favorite celebrities’ lives. Much like Instagram, since many celebrities give the impression that they’re personally operating their accounts (and will even engage with followers at times), this helps teens feel like they have greater access to their favorite personalities that they might never meet IRL.
Live streaming: Live streaming isn’t its own platform (it is used probably most frequently on Instagram, but also on other apps that are more public than Instagram), but young people like to stream their activities from time to time, especially when they’re spending time together. They like the idea of inviting other people (people they know or not) into the things they’re doing in their day-to-day life.
Facebook: You’re on Facebook, they’re not.
This might seem like a whole new world to you, but teens are still just teens — the layer of social media simply means there are new elements to how they’re growing and engaging with the world around them. As parents, love them enough to take the time to seek to understand how they’re doing that.