by Melissa W. ’19
I received my first device - an iPod 3 - when I was in fourth grade. Other than running games such as Temple Run, Clash of Clans, and Doodle Jump and playing a music library with Taylor Swift’s entire discography, my iPod had no other functions. In contrast, my younger sister, by third grade, has had an iPad, her own laptop, and her own phone. It’s evident that technology is quite literally taking over new generations of youth. The majority of Tatler poll respondents say they regard devices at about a 6-8 importance level out of 10 in their lives. With this technological proliferation, we have also seen a correlating rise in angry adults. “Screenagers.” “Get off your phone!” “Millennials can’t even hold a conversation face to face without checking their devices.” Our parents lecture us, our educators gently remind us, and the professional world rebukes us - apparently, to let social media take over our lives to this extent is a catastrophe. To be truly and extremely honest, I don’t buy into that idea at all.
In general, the rise of technology promotes accessibility to the world as a whole. With a phone and charger, any person has the entire web at their fingertips just by sitting in a Starbucks and connecting to Wi-Fi. Our devices are our lifeline and our connection to the rest of the globe. Social media is the number one way people can connect over long distances (without paying service fees), and online platforms for communication are open and free to all. It’s also interesting to think about how many more people and voices we get to hear from now that historically oppressed people have access to mainstream forms of public expression. Hearing from those voices directly fights false narratives, power structures in the media, and the suppressive rewriting of history.
Virginia Woolf wrote about the necessity for women to have “a room of one’s own” in order to become prolific writers. Audre Lorde wrote about the economy of poetry as the art of the underprivileged because prose requires more materials, more money, and more resources. In this new generation of activism, social media allows people who normally can’t access or easily find publishers, sponsors, or mainstream success to spread their work. Not limited to just artists and poets, social justice activists around the globe are able to better the world by connecting with each other. Thanks to Instagram, for example, several of my favorite writers, artists, and speakers connected, started a podcast, and have reached tens of thousands of listeners (although it’s important to remember to compensate their work and emotional labor with money and resources). I learn so much more from these inspiring people, lined up on my feed, than I ever could have from Google and my own biased mind. Furthermore, any person with social media who wants to learn from others about social justice, environmental justice, or other global issues can do so! Outside of the digital world, many people don’t have financial access or everyday exposure to these specific types of education. I’ve also grasped at more diversity online than at any point in my material life.
People claim that social media detracts from not only the real world but also from our real interpersonal relationships. I’m not always on my phone because I hate talking to people. I love talking to people! Sure, sometimes I use my phone and social media because I feel anxious about sitting alone and want to look like less of a loser, but I also want to catch up on what the online community thinks about stuff I love; I wonder what my friends are doing; or I’m trying to figure out what other people are passionate about and what issues matter to them. Those relationships are just as real to me.
Others think that social media is eating away at our brain cells with useless gossip. In reality, however, there’s a lot more to social media than pop culture. Half of my saved posts on Instagram are new perspectives and takes on social justice that provoke thought battles in my head, leading me to stare intensely at my phone for long periods of time. I’m not just obsessing over Ariana Grande’s new album, I’m thinking about her constant appropriation of POC culture, her failure to own up to it, and how her music isn’t even good anyway. (Plus, even if I was just browsing celeb pages to hear the latest gossip, who cares? Let kids have fun. Aren’t we allowed to be shallow for half a second? Why is this considered shallow? Why are we even associating “good” and “bad” with our self-constructed notions of intelligence versus frivolity anyway?)
I won’t deny that social media can be quite toxic. The anonymity gives some people multiple platforms to nefariously cyberbully without ever having to show their face. We’ve become numb to the passing of time due to how quickly we receive information, news reports, and gossip. Social media promotes performative activism which implies that some brief tweeting, posting, or exposure represents actual social justice work. It’s a forum for theft and reposting of creative and original work. Social media influencers promote unrealistic standards of body image, wealth, and materialism endlessly, which can make people feel ‘less than’ through subliminal messaging. It’s easy to curate our feeds so thoroughly that we construct online bubbles devoid of diversity, believing that they represent the real world.
Ultimately, social media is a fast-paced way to present ourselves. It is a tool, with both positive and negative functions. How do we control the negative parts? We teach people to be responsible social media users. Of course, I have no perfect solution, but a good place to start is by recognizing how multifaceted social media can be. For example, is this screenager bullying people online, or are they leaving nice comments on their friends’ photos? There’s a difference, and the way to getting rid of toxicity isn’t restricting social media altogether.
For every con that social media has, there are multiple pros. Social media can be toxic, sure, but we’re also growing up in a world that is learning to navigate this toxicity. To an extent, we’re redefining our social etiquette to include internet behavior. The integration of technology into society is inescapable: hosting Skype-interviews and using Periscope to share concert experiences are only two examples of how new generations are already changing common culture using technology. Social media strikes a strange balance between inclusion and exclusion, and there’s definitely a way to do it right. I’m thankful for the intentions of adults who think they’re doing the right thing by constantly blaming all of our problems on social media, but that shtick is getting old. I’m on social media because I care. I care about the world. I care about my friends and what they’re doing, even the ones that live too far to meet in person. And the rest of my family, living eleven hours away by plane halfway across the world. Last month, I sent my grandparents videos of me kowtowing and wishing them a happy new year on a social media app. I only get to see them and my extended family on average once every two years, so in this way, social media has been something of a blessing.
I write this article in response to the overwhelming amount of adult campaigning to get kids off their phones and off social media. They push the narrative that social media is toxic and hurts us and is one of the main causes behind student stress, fractured relationships, and mental health problems. I’d like to invite them to look beyond the studies, reports, and articles -- to also consider what social media has brought and taken from them and the teens around them. There does need to be campaigning and movement to change the way social media impacts our lives and to help us use social media more responsibly. The toxicity does exist, and nothing we’ve been told about how social media can be a negative force is inherently false. But there’s more to social media than that, and restricting social media as a whole won’t work. And significantly, there’s more to student mental health and stress than social media, and it’s almost surprising how little adult attention is paid to other sources of stress in comparison to this constant attack on technology. I can list a few sources off the top of my head: emotional manipulation and victim reversal by parents and adults, the competition and pressure to overperform at school, and lack of awareness about real, diagnosed mental illnesses like depression. All in all, I’m grateful for the presence that social media has in my life, and I wish movements against it were less superficial and more generationally adaptive.
So we’ve come to the end of this love letter. Now, I’ll go back to playing Candy Crush. I’m on level 1100, and when I finally beat it, I’ll post it on social media for everyone to see.