Teenagers, self-expression and social media


By Dhruvi Modi


Audio: Absolutely quiet, followed by a five-second alarm clock noise, then the sound of a phone unlocking and a five-second Instagram IGTV audio clip

Yana Patel: I’ll usually check, like, all the posts on my feed first. So, I’ll like what, like, people when I follow like, if I follow someone, if they suppose something new will just pop up on my homepage. So, I’ll go through that and see what people have posted and celebrities that I follow what they have posted. And then I’ll usually go through people’s stories and see if there’s anything interesting regarding, like, any present, like issues, whether that be like BLM or anything. And if I find it interesting, I’ll repost it on to my story, or something just motivational that can make someone’s day, I try to find things and just put that on my story. And then I’ll go check my messages on Instagram, so DMs, and see if there’s anything important there and then I’ll usually just close the app.

Dhruvi Modi: That was how Yana Patel, a 14-year-old teenager brought up in Toronto spends most of her time online. Forty-five minutes on Instagram each day to be exact. She’s not alone: most teenagers have a similar social media routine that they follow daily. Social media plays a huge role in a teenager’s life. Teenage girls like Yana Patel are using social media as a way to express themselves.

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Dhruvi Modi: Teenage girls are using social media as a way to express themselves because they feel like social media is a safe platform for self-expression, but that’s not the case. And teenagers need to be made more aware of their personal safety online. A Canadian Mental Health Association study of Ontario teens found that 16 per cent of teens are spending more than five hours per day on social media. And in 2017, the number of teens spending five hours or more increased to 20 per cent. To see what this really means, you know, pick up your phone, and then go on your phone settings app and click on screen time. For teenage girls, their social networking sites make up the most amount of screen time. So, now the question: is why are teenagers spending so much time online?

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Umair Rehman: Social media gives them the rush, that dopamine, you know, rush and that doesn’t really, that relates to the persuasive tactics that are on social media. And those persuasive tactics includes the notifications: somebody liking you, somebody commenting on your information, you know, your ability to, you know, showcase that you’ve got more followers or you got more friends.

Dhruvi Modi: That was Assistant Professor Umair Rehman from the User Experience Design program at Wilfrid Laurier University. Professor Rehman believes it’s easy to see why teens are using social media so much. Social media is built to be very user-friendly and encourages teens to express themselves online. Teens can control how others view them and can create an image of themselves any way they like. Social media normalizes self-expression and conversations on self expression. Krishna Shelat is a 15-year-old high school teenager from Brampton. She believes social media provides a unique space for her to communicate with her friends.

Krishna Shelat: My friends and I usually use it to send specific things to each other, like, posts that we connect to or, like, like, things that relate to our likings, like, specifically for me and that other person. And for conversations, we would usually just talk about that post, I don’t think we really talk as, like, normal conversations on social media specifically.

Dhruvi Modi: And Krishna, do you feel like you can easily get the message across on social media?

Krishna Shelat: Actually, I feel like through these posts, or memes, I’m getting like, not the message, but, like, the thing that I want to say across a lot more effectively, because it’s through a post, and I don’t have to actually physically say it. If I just click send, and it’s, like, my messages across to that person. It’s definitely easier.

Dhruvi Modi: Social media platforms like Instagram are aware of the needs of their users and regularly update the platform based on their users and the reactions they get from their users. They add popular features like Instagram stories. These teenagers have grown up in an environment and are continuing to grow up in an environment where it was normal to share their opinions and express themselves online. According to research from Assistant Professor Megan Moreno, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she wrote in a research paper, “A major milestone of adolescence is identity development, and social networking sites provide a technological venue for adolescents to explore their identities.” Social networking sites, they require their users to create a profile, and that’s where the self-expression journey starts.

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Dhruvi Modi: Another reasons why teenagers are using social media as a platform for their self-expression is because teens have FOMO. FOMO is the fear of missing out. Teenagers want to fit in and they connect with their peers and stay connected with their peers, so they reach out on social networking sites. When all their friends are posting, commenting, liking and sharing their opinions online in an environment that they’ve created for themselves, teenagers simply want to fit in. For Krishna, she says its all about making connections she doesn’t make in person.

Krishna Shelat: Yeah, I definitely feel like there’s a lot of people that connect to my likes on like social media and more specifically my “for you” page, and I don’t think I connect to, connect in the sense that I don’t like talk to them as much, but I do connect to them like as in our likes match.

Dhruvi Modi: A “for you” page is a section on Instagram that allows users to view popular videos and posts from other users, including the users that they don’t follow. There is a certain level of stress certain teenagers face when not knowing what happens in the lives of their peers. I asked Professor Kenneth Werbin, who is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. He does research on social media and privacy. I asked him how teenagers are using the space to not be left out from their peer groups.

Kenneth Werbin: Saying things that your friends will understand but your parents won’t understand what it is that you mean by that, right? Those are, that’s a strategy that, that teenagers use. There’s also these socially negotiated norms about how it is that people interact. Teenagers interact with other teenagers’ content. So, it’s not deemed socially acceptable to go in someone’s feed and go back to three years and like a photo, right? Because that means that photo is going to then become prominent on the person’s feed or go back up to the top of that person’s feed.

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Dhruvi Modi: Social media has a huge impact on a teenager’s mental health. The validation a teenager gets from the reactions of their followers helps boost their self-esteem and creates a sense of satisfaction. Ollie Bream, a student from Firbank Girls Grammar school, responds to a paper by Luci Pangrazio in which she says, “For younger female generations, there is a certain gratification surrounding the ability to dress up, take pictures and to have your friends see them.” And this is the purpose social media serves to teenage girls. Social media platforms are a place for teenage girls to share and express themselves in a way that they may not be able to otherwise. There was a study conducted by Harvard graduate Emily Weinstein on how teenagers felt after expressing themselves on social networking sites. The results of that study reveal that a majority of participants felt happy after social media usage. And based on that study more teenage girls had mentioned that they felt happy after their usage. Teenagers are able to connect with other teenagers like themselves and express common emotions. There are peer help groups on social media that can help teens share their emotions. Dr. Julie Cinamon, is a psychologist who works with people of all ages, including teenagers, and says social media has an impact on a teenager’s mental well-being.

Dr: Julie Cinamon: Basically, teens are on their phones all the time, as most people are, but especially teenagers is like their connection to the outside world, and especially now during COVID, where some of them might not be able to see their friends, they haven’t been to school. So, it really is their sometimes only connection to their friends. At the same time, social media can have both positive and negative effects, depending on the teenager, depending on their group of friends, and a bunch of different variables that come into play. So, if a teenager is posting, and they’re like something on social media, so, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, then they, or TikTok, then they might be seeking validation, right? That’s how we’re getting it nowadays by, like, how many likes how many reposts that you get on, on your post? Who paid attention, what was their reaction? And so, it is very possible that when they post something and they get adoration, they get positive feedback that it makes them feel good. And then other times, they’re not going to get positive feedback, there’s going to be those teenagers who get backlash, who get ignored, who get made fun of. And it really does impact their self-esteem, their self-efficacy and how they see themselves, also body image when you’re posting, like, that’s a big issue when it comes to teenagers.

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Dhruvi Modi: Teenagers don’t know enough about their online privacy to protect themselves. Based on conversations with Krishna and Yana, I learned that like adults, many teenagers don’t read privacy policies, and their only way of protecting themselves is by having their account on private. This is what Krishna Shelat, the teenager from Brampton, had to say when I asked her how she protected her privacy online.

Krishna Shelat: [I] keep my account private. Obviously, I don’t let random people follow me. And I try keeping it really small in the sense that I don’t let people like unknown people follow me or anything like that. So, I know the people that I’m talking to and stuff like that.

Dhruvi Modi: Yana Patel also had a similar answer and this is what most teenage girls do when they think about protecting their privacy online. I asked Professor Rehman, who works in the User Experience Design program, I asked him what teenagers need to keep in mind when they’re online.

Umair Rehman: That’s a very good question. The first thing is that the teenagers need to equip themselves with the necessary knowledge about what really is transparency? Like, how could the social media websites be transparent with us? And by transparency, I mean, for instance, if they are showing you advertisements, based on a certain data, they need to tell you that we use this data to recommend you this article or this advertisement. Right now, they’re not fully transparent. What they tell you is that you can go and read the privacy policies, which is a 10-page document that nobody reads, right? So, the first thing is that these teenagers need to be aware that the social media website needs to be transparent. The next thing is they need to be explainable. So, with explainable AI, mean that when they’re using certain amount of data, these social media websites, they need to explain how they got that data from, why are they using that data? What is the ethics of it? So, that’s the other thing. And the third thing is they need to be accountable and accountable to you because it’s your data and accountable to the laws of the different governing bodies, which need to really update them. Because there is, right now, the laws, the cyber laws, they’re pretty outdated, right? And my behaviour gets changed based on the advertisements I’m seeing.

Dhruvi Modi: This being said, teenage girls are also consulting their friends before posting or publishing anything to ensure that the content they express is good enough and safe enough to publish and to share with the entire world, according to Krishna.

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Dhruvi Modi: Social media has its benefits and negatives. It can help teens express themselves but at the same time teens need to be aware of how to protect their privacy online, while still having a space they can call their own and express themselves on. Professor Rehman what do you think the future will be like in terms of privacy and expressing ourselves online?

Umair Rehman: So, I think with time the priority is going to change. I think with time, we’re going to see that these social media websites are also going to evolve. And we’re going to move towards more transparency, more accountability, but it’s going to take time. And it’s not it’s not going to be an easy process.

Audio: Outro Music