It’s a difficult world for today’s teenagers, at least according to the Internet. A slew of recent articles have hammered home a single narrative: that the pressure to curate their social media feeds is creating a culture of perfection that’s isolating teens from their friends and sending the generation into a downward spiral.
But teens themselves are telling a different story.
A new report released Tuesday as part of the Pew Research Center’s Teen Relationship Study presents a more complicated vision of the role technology plays in building and maintaining relationships. Teens (13 - 17 years old) who participated described Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and texting as important ways to build intimacy with peers. These mediums form a crucial part of their interactions with one another -- a way of communicating that's inextricable from the friendships themselves. Friendships now are born and bred digitally, and maybe, the study delicately hints, that's not unconditionally a terrible thing.
For example, 83 percent of the 1,060 teens Pew surveyed online and in-person last fall told researchers that social media "makes them feel more connected to information about their friends' lives," while 70 percent said it also connects them to their friends' feelings. Overall, participants were likely to characterize social media as a positive force in their life.
“More than three-quarters (78%) of teens say they do not feel worse about their own lives based on what others post to social media,” wrote the studies’ authors. Only 21 percent of teens said social media makes them feel worse. And, a full 68 percent told researchers they’d used social media during difficult times to receive support from friends and peers.
Pew also found that texting and social media were woven into this fabric of the participants' constant communications. Indeed, while more than 55 percent said they text every day, a much smaller group (19 percent) said they call their friends on the phone daily. For 49 percent, texting was the most common way they were in touch with their best friend.
The teens described using social media to communicate different things than they would during a phone call or text. Texting, for instance, is best for coordinating schedules: inviting someone for a coffee or making plans to meet up. But social media allows for a baseline of connection with friends. As one high school girl described, “If you’re just trying to be like, ‘you exist,’ then you’d Snapchat [your friend] and be like, ‘Hi! I love you!’”
The study also confirms some of our stereotypes about the damaging things that happen online. Most teens said they felt pressure to post well-curated content; they also said that they believed their peers were “less authentic” on social media. Almost all the teens said that they’d experienced someone “stirring up drama” on social media, and 53 percent told researchers they’d seen photos and posts documenting parties they hadn’t been invited too.
A full 19 percent described sharing passwords, not for cyberbullying, but as a way of building trust and intimacy. “I know they have this game on Instagram where you’d be like, ‘do you trust me? Give me your password and I’ll post a picture and then log back off,’” one high school girl is quoted in the study.
Many described the alternative reality of social media as a way of expressing different aspects of their personality. Some things are easier to text than to say in person. As one high school girl described, you might joke in person, but in a text message “you can talk about serious things and politics and stuff, and it shows a different side of yourself that you might not talk about ... in person."
Similarly, even though an Instagram picture or a Snapchat post are an offering of a small, curated version of life, that doesn’t mean they aren't valuable expressions of identity. Or ways of building friendships.
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