Hey all, let me introduce you to Emily, a student I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with over the past year. I asked her to give you all an updated perspective on how she (and her peers) are using the most popular apps out there, and provide some self-reflective observations that can clue you into the mindset of the userbase which continues to drive the growth of these platforms. Here we go! ~Sameer
Hello! My name is Emily, and I am a high school senior in South Florida, currently writing from behind my desk at work where my primary responsibilities include following up on leads from social media and answering questions over the phone about non-surgical cosmetic procedures. My role at work depends on and revolves around social media, and as if it is not tiring enough to interact with social media for work, I find myself checking my Snapchat, Instagram, and text messages at least a few dozen times a day between and sometimes even during phone calls and tasks with little to no effort. I would like to say that my job has made me good at multitasking, when in fact I have been practicing it for years — playing a mobile game while watching TV, listening to music in my AirPods while I complete homework, even checking my email mid-Facetime with the iPhone’s latest update allowing picture-in-picture video calls. Quickly switching from task to task, and sometimes overlapping tasks, has become second nature, and as the content I consume and the ways I interact with others has become more streamlined than ever, I’ve found that multitasking has defined my interactions through internet and social media. I’d like to share with you a bit of my favorite apps in 2022, how I’m using them, how they affect me and my peers, and any other unique observations I’ve made while on their platforms.
Instagram is the most “performative” social media platform I engage with as well as the easiest to browse, as it is one of few platforms that is able to provide me with what I like to consider as “traditional” text-on-screen posts and content. During a phone call or as I try to look busy on my phone in public, Instagram is always there for me, providing me an “explore” page with content catered to me. In my case, my explore page is evenly divided between beautiful girls showing off outfits I can’t afford and half “studygram” or “bookstagram” influencers sharing their latest book reviews and aesthetically pleasing photos of their law school notes. As previously mentioned, I have a short attention span, and despite being painfully aware of it these forms of content appeal to said vice – I don’t need headphones, I don’t need patience, I don’t even need a full minute of time, all I need is a moment to look at pretty pictures and inspiring posts.
Instagram has become aware of its performative nature however and has made attempts to appeal to the more “social” aspect of social media. Posts are easier to share than ever, one has greater control of who can see their own posts, and the platform has even granted users the abilities to use the platform like a full-on communication app, allowing videocalls and group chats. While most users can see through the fact these features are on-the-nose rip-offs from other apps, the centralization of these features is inevitably appealing, and I find myself using many of them. A relatively new feature, Instagram has allowed users to post up to ten posts at a time, this is called the “carousel” feature, an all in one centralized sequence so that it feels as if you were swiping through your friend’s photo gallery. I would argue this has diminished the stress of finding the perfect “Instagram-worthy” photo, and in turn many have pushed for and participated in making their Instagram pages more “casual”, posting photo dumps each month or with each new milestone rather than fret over editing and obsessing over a single photo.
Another feature worth mentioning as it illuminates the intricacies of privacy on social media is the creation of the “Close Friends” feature, in which you can post to a story that deletes itself in 24 hours, exclusively to those you have deemed “close friends”. This feature is not new to users however, with rival platforms such as Snapchat having “story” features and “close friends” features fully integrated for years now. As there does still exist a pressure to have a large following on Instagram, this creates a certain level of apprehension with posting, as hundreds of friends and strangers will have access. With the “close friends” feature this fear is alleviated, and one can post about the comings and goings of their day or even more controversial and personal content without fear of strangers having access. Placing your friends on your “close friends” list also indicates a level of reciprocated intimacy and comfort, as shown by a distinctive green ring around your close friends’ stories so that you know they find you close enough to share these exclusive posts with.
A multi-faceted platform, Instagram can be used by a multitude of people for a multitude of goals, and between its recent transition to pushing fast-form content, making shopping through the app more streamlined, and even allowing users the ability to use the app as a communication hub like Whatsapp, it is my go-to app for the conveniences it presents. Fast-form content is content like quick clips and short videos, usually ranging from 7 to 15 seconds that has become popular with the rise of rival social media platform Tik Tok. Nearly every social media platform has implemented tools for users to post short clips, and as they require little time to make and attention to watch, they only seem to become more and more popular.
Luckily for me, I’m in a place where I am interacting with truly fulfilling and inspirational content, and so as the app promotes more and more of this content it leaves me feeling satisfied. Seeing young people, especially young women such as myself sharing stories of the schools they were accepted into or even daily routines of what life in law school is like encourages me that my goals are indeed attainable. By interacting with content such as booklovers sharing recommendations or law school students giving LSAT tips I feel part of a like-minded and successful community rather than on a path alone. The opposite could be said for me a few months back as I struggled with self-image and found myself falling down rabbit-holes of unrealistic body expectations, or even a few weeks ago as I found myself interacting with mindless and time-sucking comedy content that would increasingly eat away chunks of my day. Instagram is quite inclusive in that virtually anyone can find content that appeals to them across age, geographic location, and culture, however if used at the wrong time in one’s life it could also most certainly push one deeper down a negative path.
Snapchat, the go-to app for sending photos to your friends, posting the parts of your day that aren’t worth a permanent post on Instagram, and of course giving out to people you just met and want to keep talking to, without necessarily giving out your phone number. Snapchat is widely considered a more “personal” social media app, as statistics like how many people view your posts or the comments left on posts are only visible to the poster rather than the entire public. While everyone uses the platform in unique ways, most of the people I know are only really “friends” with people on the app they have met in real life, influencers don’t have much room to thrive on the app since there is no conventional “explore” or “Discover” page catered to one’s interests. The only “Discover” page is for commercial content put out by corporations and brands, and I have yet to interact with this part of the app very much, and I have yet to see my friends interacting with this content at all. The “Spotlight” feature is Snapchat’s latest attempt at trying to show users new content outside of their friends’ posts but I personally haven’t interacted with it much and only really see influencers on this part of the app. I see why this feature may appeal to some, but considering most people my age don’t make their stories available to the public, and only hold on to the app for the purpose of keeping in touch with their friends, the “Spotlight” feature is one my friends and I largely ignore.
At its heart Snapchat is a communication app, its “Snap” feature which has since been copied by rival apps (hi Instagram!) is convenient for when you just have to send a photo or video to your friend but you don’t want to go through the hassle of finding it in your photo gallery, or better yet when you want to send a photo or video but don’t intend on letting your friends keep the photo. This is the defining advantage of communicating through Snapchat rather than iMessage, and to a certain extent I am glad that iMessage has yet to copy this feature as texting someone directly carries a certain sense of urgency or seriousness that oftentimes goofy snaps don’t. The app also has video and audio call functions built in, and despite the few times I had my phone taken away and was communicating with my friends through my school iPad, these features are largely ignored by my friends and I as well. Not only are the video and audio call features underdeveloped and glitchy compared to competitors, but due to the lack of their popularity it’s also inherently strange to call or video call someone through the app.
Personally, I send snaps when I see something funny in real life or am having a particularly tough hair day and want to show my friends. The app has a built-in feature that even allows you to see when someone has screenshotted or screen-recorded your conversation or snap, and while this isn’t foolproof (you can always get around it by taking a photo or video with another device) it means that most people feel “safer” sharing riskier or more private photos, videos, and messages. Snapchat also makes it so that you know whether someone has seen your snaps and messages, this feature is more robust as there are very few ways around someone finding out you ignored their message or opened it without responding. Beyond snaps and messages, one can also track their friends’ locations on the app, a feature I don’t personally participate in as I keep myself in “ghost mode” so that my location is hidden to all, but that many of my Snapchat friends do utilize. The “snap maps” feature makes it so that whenever you open the app your location is updated on a virtual map to those friends you have selected to have access, often when I go to a festival or the mall I will open “Snap Maps” so that I can get an idea of who I could bump into or maybe even reach out to them to meet up. If I were to screenshot the “Snap Map,” none of the people whose locations I have now recorded would know, thus opening up windows for invasions of privacy as one could share your almost exact location with whoever they want without your knowledge, even if you only made your location visible to some.
Aside from communication, Snapchat allows users to post to a “story” that is available for 24 hours, oftentimes users do not post at all, and when they do, they are quick photos or videos they don’t want posted permanently, either because they aren’t important enough, serious enough, or are to convey time-sensitive material. For example, let’s say I had a pair of sneakers to sell, Snapchat would be a platform I may post the shoes on, that way it wouldn’t litter my feed with a photo of sneakers I may not even have anymore. Address details on an upcoming house party may be posted on Snap, that way only a limited number of people learn how to arrive within a short frame of the event, allowing for quick changes and no “permanent” record of the event even being thrown.
Users can “slide up” and interact with posts without anyone else having to see other than the recipient and sender. Unlike Instagram, where comments are made visible to anyone who sees the original post, Snapchat comments get sent directly to the sender in a private conversation. This feature of “sliding up” on posts has its pros and cons though, as users are more comfortable making comments they may not otherwise feel comfortable making on a public comment section such as on YouTube or Instagram. People who may not have given you the light of day in public all of a sudden leave flirty comments, mean comments about the people in the post are left with greater ease than if the comment was made public, and even homework answers can be shared at the drop of a hat without worrying about public perception. An interesting facet of the “disappearing story” feature is that users, myself included, feel more comfortable “showing off”. Whether it was the new car you received on your birthday or your progress at the gym one can share the updates with all their friends with little to no fear of being seen as pompous or braggy since the story post isn’t permanently archived like an Instagram post. Now of course there are limits, and daily photos of your shiny new car are sure to irritate at least some of the story’s consistent viewers, but in general it is viewed as more socially acceptable to show off on a 24-hour story than permanently post it to your feed so every stranger who stumbles across it can see what you own and brag about.
A couple of the less glamorous social media platforms of the bunch, WhatsApp and GroupMe are messaging apps useful for making group-chats as large as one’s imagination can conjure regardless of the type of cellphone one owns and even the country one is in. When you are mixing and matching Androing and iOS phones for sending text messages, it makes for clunky and inconvenient messaging where pictures don’t load properly and even emojis can’t be sent seamlessly. WhatsApp and GroupMe even the playing field, making one common platform where users don’t even need cell tower reception to communicate, only wi-fi reception and a device, making it so that one can even text someone in another country while avoiding international fees your cell carrier might charge you.
While I don’t use these platforms for communicating with my friends, these platforms are convenient for work group-chats or group-chats or with classmates I otherwise wouldn’t interact with online. Often, at the beginning of each semester a student or two will take it upon themselves to make a class group chat, sending the link through the virtual classroom platform (e.g., Canvas) and before you know it at least half the class is in connection with one another far from the eyes of professors and teacher assistants. This percentage of active participants increases with the difficulty of the course and the professor’s lack of ability to provide resources or assistance easily. Despite the inherently problematic nature of an entire classroom having a secret group chat dedicated to the course I have found that these often become launching-off points for smaller, more helpful study groups and even friendships. Textbooks boasting three-digit price tags are shared for free, study guides citing points you may have missed in your notes are shared, and clarity on questions you couldn’t ask in class are answered. Cheating and academic dishonesty however do thrive in these groupchats, and in order to avoid this, many users in these chats will use fake name and photos so that any leaked screenshots are harder to tie to them. The prevalence of these group-chats where test answers and homework answers are shared has become such a problem that I have had professors go so far as to offer extra credit to students who inform the professor a group-chat has been made.
The most time-sucking app on my phone, TikTok allows users to post short clips ranging in topics from makeup tips to true crime coverage. Recently, the platform has allowed users to post videos up to ten minutes long, but most still fall within the 15-60 second range. Similar to Instagram, TikTok very quickly picks up on your interests based on which videos you interact with combined with a bit of collected information from other apps, so within even a couple of days of using the app, your “For You” page will most likely be “for you”, showing video after video that you enjoy or are interested in, making it so that you stay on the app longer and longer as well as with more frequency. Personally, I find it sometimes creepy the accuracy with which my “For You” page knows me. At this point most of the women on my page look vaguely like me, sharing hairstyling tips specific for curly hair and even store recommendations for fashion trends I actively participate in. My “For You” page has also seemed to pick up on my background, showing me videos about what it’s like growing up with Brazilian parents or the primary differences between the United States and Brazil. As of late, the app has also been catering to my search for the perfect prom dress and even workout recommendations since I started going to the gym this last December.
The app is never-ending, and by the time you scroll up to the next video there have already been ten more videos added to the queue that will keep you interested. Herein lies the time-sucking nature of the app, endless scrolling leads many, myself included, to go so far as to delete app completely when a task calls for my undivided attention over the course of a few hours.
The time-sucking nature of the app isn’t the only reason I find myself deleting it off my phone completely, as sufferers of poor body image will most likely find themselves struggling on the platform. It’s one thing to open an Instagram feed dotted with professional models in ultra-poised lighting and makeup, but it’s another to scroll through the endless void of TikTok only to see girl after girl roughly the same age as you, wearing barely any makeup at all, and responding in comments that they “don’t even work out”, nonetheless appearing to be the most attractive and flawless people you’ve never seen. Between strategic angles, clothing, lighting, and filter usage, one can find themselves “improving” their appearance without anyone in the audience knowing the wiser, and the worst part is the attainability of it all, as the common write-offs that “she’s a professional model” or “that’s most likely plastic surgery” don’t hold up as well when you’re seeing girls barely out of high school that look like professional bathing suit models.
Since TikTok hasn’t developed its communication platform very much, and its less commonly used as a “personal” or “social” platform with more than a handful of people you may know in real life, that also means I feel less guilt when I delete the app. The DM, or direct messaging feature, on the app remains largely untouched by my friends and I save for the very close friends I have allowed to follow me on TikTok and that I will on occasion send TikToks to directly from the app. Do I find myself on the app scrolling mindlessly whenever I get a couple of minutes of silent downtime? Sure. But do I feel that I’m missing out on the more social components that other apps have like group-chats or watching friends’ posts? Not really.
Social media is often scapegoated as the root of virtually every issue facing modern youth, from causing poor body image issues to dragging young gamers to the brinks of video game addictions. While social media no doubt has parts to play in the critical issues facing teens and pre-teens, I believe the most accurate view of social media and technology is one in which we accept that these have become extensions of daily life, and thus will reflect the successes and failures we face in our daily lives. That toxic high-school romance will extend into the couple’s text messages, in the same measure that that excellent group partnership in class will thrive over a virtual server or group-chat. Social media and the technology we access it on is merely another avenue for communication, collaboration, interest-indulgence, and information access. While there are certainly attributes of social media that can feed into pre-existing issues one may be facing, we must recognize that they are not the cause for said issues.
One of the largest criticisms for social media is the lack of the ability to read the reception of your interactions, without seeing the recipient’s face we feel incline to say things we otherwise wouldn’t have felt confident enough to say in person. This criticism is fair; however, I personally question why the sender of that message had access to me in the first place, or at the very least why they should continue to have access. Social media has undoubtedly affected my mental health, but I would never go so far as to pin it as the underlying mental health issues I may have been facing, merely augment some of them, or distract me from taking the proper steps I should have taken. We’ve all laid victim to listening to sad music after a breakup or watching a sappy movie after receiving bad news to indulge our negative emotions rather than quickly recover from them, and social media can be used in a prolonged way, to feed into depression, poor self-image, and procrastination. When we deviate blame away from social media and towards the actual issues we face, we can avoid demonizing platforms that could otherwise be used in constructive and healthy ways, and we retain attention on the issues that matter.