I was walking near the creek behind my house with my 14-year-old daughter and her friend. Walking ahead of me they suddenly huddled together so I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Giggling, they pointed to the trees, then the creek, then turned back to me to say “here dad, take our picture.” As my daughter handed me her iPhone I could see she had Instagram (or “Insta” as she calls it) open on the screen. So I knew this would be no ordinary photo.
Every single picture, and I do mean every single picture, my 14- and 12-year-old daughters put on Instagram is heavily produced. It is never random. They spend a lot of time planning the pose, the content of the picture, and how it is all laid out. Every little thing is planned out. There are no accidents in Insta shots. I’ve observed this pattern so many times now that I groan inside when they ask me to take a shot. I know it’s going to take a while since the picture has to be “perfect.”
So here I am behind our house for 20 minutes trying to get the perfect shot while they stand together with their hands carefully woven together in the shape of a heart, and placed in just the right spot so you can see a design in the tree in the background.
It’s All About The Likes
Professional Instagrammers, professional photographers, artists, models, upstart brands, and large companies understand the like button is valuable social currency. Over the years YouTube videos and blog post how-to’s have shown up explaining the right way and wrong way to take an Instagram picture to maximize that currency.
But for my daughters, this form of social currency impacts the social dynamic in the real world of junior high school. As much as I hate the sound of it, Likes really do play a role in kids’ social status and popularity at school.
To put some science behind this view, our firm spoke to a dozen teens across the U.S. We continually heard how they frequently post a picture on Instagram, then go onto Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media outlets to ask their friends to like their photo on Instagram.
We also heard frequently in our interviews about teens deleting their photos from Instagram if they don’t get enough likes in a short amount of time. Apparently, it’s embarrassing to kids to have a photo on Instagram with just a few likes, so better to just delete. It made me remember all the stuff I did in junior high and high school that I wish I could have just deleted from the social consciousness of the school. Apparently, in the digital age, this is now possible.
The dynamic of social currency on Instagram, and how it translates into real-world social standing in junior high and high school, is unavoidable for kids. They either ignore the service entirely (to their social peril), or play the game and chase the likes. I thought I had it tough when I was a teenager in the ’90s.
Snapchat Is Different
Despite all the criticism Snapchat takes, I appreciate its whimsical and fun nature. While teens do curate the content they put up for all their followers to see on Snapchat, there’s less social pressure and stress around the levels of engagement the content gets. And teens often choose to use Snapchat’s messaging/chat feature to share things with much smaller groups, instead of with all their followers.
So it’s easier for my daughters to express their creative and playful sides in their Snapchat posts, compared to the more serious and produced content they put on Instagram.
Teens, and everybody else, must know the social implications of the content they post on this social site or that. Millennials are well aware of the social horror stories in which their older peers lost a job after posting something embarrassing on Facebook. But they’re learning their own lessons, too. And the stakes can be high. Online bullying and shaming have become real problems.
So the good news is that teens are becoming more responsible for the content they post to the public. The bad news is that they have to think about it. School life is already a high-pressure social situation for teens, and keeping up their image on social networks only adds to the stress.
Ultimately as parents raising this generation we need to help our kids navigate these uncharted waters. Parents should help their kids avoid getting caught in the trap of associating their value as human beings with their social media account.
Rather, my hope is that my girls will found their identities as women in their character, skills, quality relationships, and in their ability to accomplish their goals.
Ben Bajarin leads the behavioral analysis and research center at the analyst and consulting group Creative Strategies.