Me, My Teen Self and Instagram
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve read more about the mental health ramifications of Instagram and TikTok on teen girls, I couldn’t help but think about my own experience as a teen girl.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my early teenage years felt like the worst years of my life. Like most girls that age, my insecurities were at their peak — I was constantly worried about being pretty enough, skinny enough, cool enough, clever enough. At this point (around 2008), “social media” was fragmented. Socialization online consisted of updating my MSN status, gossiping on BBM, and tracking the rankings of my best friends’ Bebo Top 8 (a traumatizing experience for all involved). Media was still heavily in print, with magazines like Heat, Seventeen and OK! reinforcing my self-doubt with unrealistic beauty standards for a 15-year-old (or anyone). Facebook was still getting started, and Instagram was years away from becoming a hub for manicured photo journals. Algorithms had not yet insinuated anything about my appearance.
As a woman in her late twenties, I can now say my teenage years felt so awful because I lacked perspective. Which makes sense! You need experience to gain perspective, a thing that only comes with age, and a strengthened ability to ignore the things that don’t matter as your world grows bigger.
But the rollercoaster of self-doubt that I experienced every day as a teen girl sometimes feels like an open wound. Even as an adult, I still care a little bit, as much as I hate to admit that. The desire to still be cool enough, clever enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, has a way of creeping in. With that in mind, it’s painful to imagine what growing up in a world of filters, comments, notifications, likes, and follows would have done to my brain as a teenage girl—when I had yet to develop the perspective and confidence to shake off my insecurities.
As we know, women have always been especially conditioned to care about what other people think of us—whether it be our appearance, how funny we are, how loud we are, how submissive we are, how dominant we are, etc. That’s why it’s not surprising that the largest social media platforms are impacting the mental health of girls, specifically. But if you’ve actually been a teen girl at some point in your life, the emerging reports that Instagram makes girls suicidal, and TikTok causes girls to have tics are horrifying.
It’s worth noting that the founders of the biggest social media platforms—Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter—do lack this perspective. None of them have ever been a teen girl.
Admittedly, I spend a lot of time thinking about creating safe (in every sense of the word) digital spaces for women and non-binary people to authentically connect and share knowledge. But the recent news on social media’s impact on the health of teen girls has reinforced that there’s certain features that you just do not build based on your lived experience. It’s fair to say that my experience as a teen girl and the collective experiences of our entire team at Diem (which is 90% female) mean we consider building technology and features through a certain lens.
The following is a list of features and technology you would never build if you’ve been a teen girl:
1. Create a liking system that conditions people to seek instant gratification as a symbol of their value.
In the leaked Facebook documents, the company itself states that “social comparison is worse on Instagram.” Social comparison makes most people believe they have nothing to offer, or what they share is not inherently valuable. For example, there are about 40,000 people who “follow” me on Instagram, and if I post a photo that doesn’t include my face or body, that post receives about 60% less engagement than a post that does include my physical form. To me, that indicates that my “power” within Instagram is centred on my appearance, versus what’s below the surface. If the content celebrated on Instagram was the conversations behind those images—the milestones, achievements, and struggles—I imagine teen girls wouldn’t be impacted half as much as they currently are.
2. Develop filters that can drastically alter your appearance.
If you had even an inkling of the insecurities that plagued teen girls, you would never dream of creating filters that morph their faces in even the slightest way. Facebook also surfaced, they noted, “Sharing or viewing filtered selfies in stories made people feel worse.” While editing women’s faces and bodies is not new (we have seen this behaviour in print media for decades), algorithms that place value on our appearance and aesthetic (versus the words we’re saying) add an entirely new dimension to the harm that editing can do.
3. Incentivize vulnerability, but provide no safeguards.
There is a genuine desire for authenticity on social platforms, which is something humans inherently crave. We get this desire to play out on Instagram in response to vulnerable content—when users bare all, they often show spikes in engagement and followers with each “authentic” post. Since Instagram’s primary monetization strategy is advertising, there is a clear incentive for users to share content that grows their like counts and follows, as it directly correlates to higher rates on sponsored posts. But despite this direct incentive to share, there are no safeguards to protect those sharing vulnerable content. In fact, vulnerability often shows an increase in hateful messages and predatory inbounds.
4. Build features that lack mutual consent.
Even when you opt to not receive Direct Messages from people you don't follow on Instagram, strangers can still message you. There is nothing that guards you from that. I receive 10+ direct messages from strangers (mainly men) trying to get my attention every day. It's not uncommon, as a woman, to be sent dick pics or death threats, and have no way of blocking them until you open the message. Unfortunately, my experience is also nothing compared to the inappropriate and unsolicited content that some of my peers receive. If you have ever experienced harassment or violence, you would consider this feature set entirely differently. Of course, abuse and harassment are not limited to Instagram. Amnesty International, among other organizations, has also explored how women experience the most violence and harassment on Twitter. Simply put, dominant platforms have not prioritized safety features from the beginning because their leaders have never needed it themselves. This forces victims of harassment to develop their own moderation solutions, or in many cases, silence themselves to avoid harassment. I think we can all agree that women do not need yet another medium that silences them.
I believe social platforms can deliver positive connections, utility and opportunity to humans. However, it is undeniable that dominant platforms have failed to create space for women’s experiences, or rather, the experiences outside the confines of the male gaze. I believe that the more diversity among leaders building the technology that increasingly shapes how we live, work, and communicate on a human level, the less harm will be inflicted on that technology’s user base. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, put it best—“the web needs to work for women and girls.” As we dive head first into web3 and this new Meta era, we must ensure that diversity of thought from those who have once been teen girls is put at the forefront of shaping these new spaces.
Emma is the co-founder and CEO of Diem – the new social knowledge-sharing platform designed for women & non-binary folks. A marketer by trade, Emma joined Away in 2016 to lead Brand Partnerships, and prior to this was Head of Community at the early creator network, Whalar. She’s passionate about building empathetic technology, creating genuine connections between humans, and pushing gender equality in the right direction.
Emma, this is an amazing and eye-opening piece. I realize that so many of these features we take as the “standard” and forget about what they imply. I’ve also been thinking about the harm that social media brings, even to women in their late 20s. The anxiety that we feel probably doubles or triples in teens who do not have that sense of IDGAF that we’ve developed.
In addition to these points, I wonder if there is a limit to how many genuine connections we can develop until we feel FOMO or burn ourselves out from trying to please everyone and juggling too many conversations. Also, adding onto #3, what are some ways to prevent cyberbullying and trolling? Can this be done during onboarding? Can we do this more intentionally?
@emma, do you have any examples of positive social media/communication for minors? Peer communication is a feature my company has been thinking of building, but we have not because of some of the things you mentioned in your article. It would be great to have examples of someone doing it right.