Since its inception, social media—and particularly how it shapes and is used by digital natives—has been a topic of interest for academics, parents, and educators alike. As a member of the selfie-taking, Snapchat-sending, and Facebook-consuming generation, however, I often find myself disagreeing with the conclusions drawn by these outsiders: they rarely understand social media from the native perspective, and are far too often unfamiliar with the inner technical workings of the platforms. While not all of these misunderstandings are directly related to privacy—in fact, most of the misconceptions addressed below aren’t—they often build on top of one another and can lead to perceptions of social media which are far removed from truth. Before tackling the question of how social media affects the privacy of teens, it is necessary to address many of the most common misconceptions of social media and teens.
Perhaps the most popular misunderstanding is the unqualified argument that social media promotes narcissism. While certainly possible among some social media users and platforms, my personal experience and interviews with other digital natives has shown that by-and-large on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, the opposite is in fact true: ‘standard’ social media creates an environment which discourages narcissism. By flooding the user mostly with photos, videos, links, and statements about other people’s achievements and experiences (which does, after all, constitute the bulk of the material on the platforms), platforms impose a stream of information which—with the exception of ‘likes’ and comments on one’s own photos—does not focus around the oneself. As a result, social media forces engagement with the experiences and achievements of others, drawing the attention away from oneself and creating an inherently ego-deflating environment.
“Social media is a way to connect with other people that I may not be close with but still know what they’re doing. For example, if I’m not close someone but follow them on social media, I can see what they’re doing over the summer without having to ask. I’m thinking about them. Social media can also invoke some jealousy, though, because it shows you the best parts of other people's lives and can cause body image issues.
Personally, I consume social media much more than I produce it. I am a particularly extreme case—my last post was eleven months ago and the post before that was over two years ago—but in many ways I am representative of my generation: on platforms like Instagram, most users post infrequently and instead consume other’s content. For every selfie or graduation photo, there is a median of 194 people who engage with it. While certainly ego-inflating to the poster of the selfie, when looking at the selfie all 194 consumers find themselves in a situation in which attention is explicitly directed away from themselves and instead at someone else—hardly conducive to narcissism.
When I collected Instagram data on more than 5,000 digital natives, I found that the vast majority of users posted infrequently and instead primarily consumed the content of other more active users. This usage disproves the theory that by-and-large social media promotes narcissism: while perhaps even plausible among the most avid social media users, natives who post infrequently lack the self-centered environment necessary to feed their egos and develop narcissistic tendencies.
This conclusion is not applicable to all social media platforms, however, because not all social media platforms employ the standard model of a feed of posts from one’s followers. Snapchat, for example, consists mostly of direct photo-based disappearing messages (‘snaps’) between the user and their friends. A typical snap has an audience of only one person (the most notable exception is Snapchat ‘stories,’ which are a series of snaps made accessible to all of a user’s friends, but I’ve found that stories tend to receive little feedback from those who consume them), and thus the conclusions drawn about narcissism previously are not applicable.
With selfies abundant on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, it is easy to understand how an outsider—or perhaps even an insider who only interacts with a small, isolated sample of the native generation—could come to this conclusion and neglect to realize that for every ego-inflating selfie, there are 194 consumers who undergo the opposite effect.
It’s Not Broadcasting
There is an idea that social media nowadays—particularly Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—is simply a broadcast medium by which digital natives transmit information to their followers without much in terms of conversation. The notion that social media is merely a broadcast is a logical conclusion for an observer to make: most social media platforms don’t emphasize the conversations unfolding on their platforms at a glance to anyone other than those involved in the conversation, leading passive observers to believe that there is no conversation at all.
For example, Instagram only shows around three comments before requiring the user to tap ‘load more comments’, and the number of likes a photo has received is hardly emphasized in comparison to the large photo above it. Twitter hides conversations even more than Instagram: instead of showing replies, the standard Twitter top-level feed only shows Tweets that are not replies. While Twitter also includes ‘retweets with comments’ (shown in Ian Bremmer’s tweet in Figure X), Twitter doesn’t display Tweets that are themselves only replies. Furthermore, when visiting a particular user’s profile, their replies are hidden by default—they are only visible if the ‘Tweets with Replies’ tab is selected. As a result, Twitter conversations are hidden in a manner similar to Instagram.
“A lot of tweets are just for general people. They’re not directed at anyone in particular… like, the tweets with the most likes, retweets, shares are obviously going to show up more frequently throughout the feed, so the responses, unless retweeted shared and liked a lot (which is not usually the case)—they’re all going to be buried in the feed.”
Conversations are emphasized only to the users participating in them. On Instagram and Twitter, a user will receive a notification every time someone comments on or likes their post (unless, of course, they disable notifications). While Instagram offers an ‘activity feed’ of the recent actions of the followed accounts (such as liking, commenting, following, etc), this feature is not very popular. To anyone other than the photo’s poster, who usually receives a phone notification each time anyone likes or comments on their photo, viewing the conversation behind any particular post requires extra effort.
This masking is done in an attempt to make a user’s feed feel more relevant—it’s unlikely that a user is interested to see every comment or reply of their followers on posts of users they may not necessarily be following—but this thin layer of protection from the greater ‘feed’ creates an insulating effect in conversations which leads to false senses of privacy, an effect which will be discussed later in this chapter.
While the conversations of other users are often hidden from direct view, conversations are among the distinguishing features of an engaging social platform. Indeed, these dialogues are among the most powerful aspects of social media, and are often integral in keeping users engaged. Likes and comments may not be emphasized to consumers of the photo, but they provide valuable feedback to the post’s creator. The small adrenaline boost of seeing ‘your tweet received 334 favorites’ when logging into Twitter is one of the primary incentives of social media. In this way, the notion that social media is simply broadcasting is in conflict with what to me is the primary draw of social media: the conversations themselves.
Unlike Instagram and Twitter, however, Facebook makes no attempt at concealing these conversations. A typical Facebook feed consists mostly of top-level posts, but these posts are not necessarily created by the friends of the user. While Instagram and Twitter only include posts created or reshared by followed accounts on top-level feeds, Facebook also includes posts that a user’s friends engaged with. This may mean that a post from an unknown account that a user’s friend liked or commented on may show up on the user’s feed. This has interesting privacy implications: replies on other social networks are usually either not shown on other’s feeds or resemble direct messages (like on Instagram and Twitter)—but Facebook inserts them into the main feeds of other users, which can sometimes catch users by surprise (an effect that will be discussed later in this chapter).
To many, however, the primary draw of social media is not conversations but instead keeping track of the whereabouts and activities of others. To these users (sometimes referred to as ‘lurkers’), social media platforms are in many ways simply a broadcast medium. By not commenting, liking, reposting, or responding in any way to the posts they encounter online, then they remove the engagement from social media and transform it into a broadcast medium. To the vast majority of users, however, social media resembles much more a conversation than a transmission.
It’s Not Meaningless
The suggestion that what digital natives post on social media is shallow, meaningless, or insignificant is imperceptive. While it may be true that much of what is posted on platforms such as Instagram or Facebook holds little meaning to someone without interest in the poster, these posts often hold great importance to the poster, those who are close with the poster, and those who take interest in finding out more about the poster. Indeed, while a heavily-edited selfie (frequently cited as a pinnacle of the native shallowness) may seem insignificant to the unacquainted observer, such a photo may hold great meaning to others. Indeed, the ‘performance’ of the photo may have a great impact on the poster’s self esteem, the photo may be of great social significance to those acquainted with the poster, and the photo may affect the privacy, security, and opportunity of those included in it.
In 2013, Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan conducted a study into the effects of Facebook on the general subjective well-being of its users. Kross found that over time, those who used Facebook were less satisfied and happy than those who didn’t. Kross found that the dissatisfaction of Facebook users was directly proportional to the amount of time they spent on the platform—in short, the more time the participants in Kross’ study spent on social media, the more unhappy they became. This hardly comes as a surprise: social media has long been perceived as having a negative effect on the overall well being of its users.
While I am neither qualified nor interested in drawing conclusions to the cause of this unhappiness, my own personal experience leads me to believe that it stems from the importance which natives assign to the engagement with our posts online (i.e. the number of likes, comments, retweets, etc.) and the jealousy—often subconscious—which natives feel when scrolling through their feeds. If the posts were meaningless, they would not carry the same magnitude of emotional weight.
What digital natives post online is an extension of their own identities. A selfie, for all it’s worth, is a form of self-expression. A 2015 study at Pennsylvania State University found that digital natives were more likely to consider their Instagram posts a form of self-expression than adults, meaning that the natives viewed their posts online to be direct manifestations of their identity. By consequence, natives consider the performance of these posts—in terms of likes, comments, views, etc—to be indirectly representative of their own identity.
“I see Instagram as like an ongoing story. My account is parts of my life and my story that I wanted to share because they have meaning to me in some way. [...] I care about what they comment.”
It follows, then, that the posts carry great meaning to their poster. The post is, after all, a manifestation of the poster’s identity—if the post performs poorly, the poster may take that to be reflective of their own personality. If a friend comments something rude or dismissive, the comment is often considered to be much more than merely a snide remark at the particular photo. Instead, it is taken to be a jab at the character of the poster themselves. While a simple selfie may be meaningless to an unacquainted onlooker, to the selfie’s poster, it is an important form of self-expression. The post can hardly be considered meaningless.
While not all directly related to privacy, my point in making these counterarguments is to both disprove these incorrect assumptions but moreso to illustrate that often, these sorts of seemingly-intuitive ideas are misleading without qualification (i.e. it’s true that social media may cause narcissism among some people but certainly not all people) or without specifying the platform for which the argument is being made (i.e. a qualified version of the argument may hold true on Instagram and Facebook but maybe not Snapchat). While social media platforms themselves tend to be quite simple—often distillable to “post, like, and comment”—how they shape and are used by digital natives is incredibly complex. Be weary when you come across an unqualified statement about how teens use social media: because of the vast differences among social media platforms and users, there are almost as many exceptions as there are rules.