If you haven’t read Andrew Watts’ article, A Teenager’s View on Social Media Written by an Actual Teen, you should. As a parent, I found it helpful to read a teen’s take on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, and how teens – or at least older teens – use them for different purposes. (The best part of this piece, for me, was the section where he gives a timeline of a party and explains the different pictures you’d take, where you would post them, and why). I also learned about other sites I haven’t encountered yet with my middle schooler (Yik Yak, Tumblr), and was grateful to discover that it’s not just because I’m old that I don’t understand the point of Twitter. I have to say, seeing it all broken down like that made it slightly less scary for me.
But what struck me the most was the generational divide that I felt while reading this. In Andrew’s piece, posting pictures of every stage of an evening is not an if. It’s a given. According to him, you’ll post pictures of yourself “getting ready for the party, going to the party, having fun at the party, leaving at the end of the party, and waking up the morning after the party.” As someone who didn’t grow up with a camera phone, it just doesn’t occur to me to take pictures of myself getting ready for a party, or driving in the car going to a party. I might take a picture or two with my friends at a party, but I certainly wouldn’t think to take a picture of myself waking up the next morning after the party. I mean, I’m sorry, but that is just not something that I feel the need to put out into the world.
The idea that teens document every waking moment of their lives is nothing new, of course. It’s been written about ad nauseum; we know it about this generation. But what disturbs me about this particular habit is the meta-ness of it all. I just can’t help wondering: do these kids even want to go to the party, or is it just about posting the pictures? In other words, if you go to a party but you don’t post pictures of yourself at every stage of it, did the party even exist?
I’ve been seeing this lately with my own daughter and her Instagram account. Recently, she really, really wanted to go to a trendy, organic restaurant that “everyone goes to” (I’ll save the “everyone has/goes there/is doing it” discussion for a different post), despite the fact that she doesn’t even like trendy or organic food and mostly consumes pasta with butter. But she begged me for weeks to take her there, so we made plans with some of her friends and we went. She and her friends then spent the entire lunch taking artsy photographs of their drinks to post on Instagram, strategically placing a napkin with the name of the restaurant on it into the shot so that everyone would know where the pictures had been taken. I finally asked them – are you guys more excited to be eating at this restaurant or to be taking pictures of yourselves eating at the restaurant? The sheepish answer: number 2. The food, they said, was really pretty average.
It’s a weird phenomenon, this. Where’s the joy in going somewhere just to prove to people that you went? I would so much rather have taken them to an “uncool” restaurant with food they would have loved, but instead, we tolerated a meal so that other people could judge them in a positive light. It’s like they’re trying to curate their own lives; picking out contrived bits and pieces to put on display, while storing all of the real stuff down in the basement and out of view, all in an effort to get a lot of likes. Andrew Watts admitted as much in his article: “if I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it.”
I won’t argue this need for likes; middle schoolers, and, I suppose, nineteen year-old college guys, just want affirmation from their peers. It’s nothing new, and it’s not unique to this generation. I’m not opposed to Instagram or to social media – it’s here to stay, so what good would that do? But I am opposed to this idea of doing things just for the photo op. And as a parent, I feel like it’s my job to at least point it out. Are you really enjoying this? Isn’t there something else you could be posting that would be more true to who you are? The next time my daughter eats a bowl of pasta with butter, I’m going to try to convince her to post a picture of that.