Reprinted from the Growing Up In a Digital World issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (1), pp. 18-19
I often wonder how my life would be different if the emergence and popularization of social media platforms had happened 10 years later. What if, when I was 10 years old, I hadn’t been editing silly filters on my face? What would I have been doing instead? Who would I have spent my time with in high school if I hadn’t made a group chat with my friends? What would my life look like now if I hadn’t grown up in the new digital world?
When I first started using social media, my understanding of it was that it allowed people to maintain and make new relationships. Through social media, you could keep updated on the daily lives of loved ones, whether they lived next door or across the country. Instead of waiting to see a friend at school to tell them what you ate for dinner last night, you could post a picture of your plate on Instagram for them to see right away.
I remember one of my first posts on Instagram being a photo of my guinea pigs. I had crafted a mini cardboard stage for them to sit on, with colourful ribbon hats for them to wear, all framed by a red felt curtain. After posting it for my 30 or so followers (all friends I either knew from school and sports, plus family members) I stared at the screen until the first few “likes” rolled in.
I began checking Instagram more often, looking at everything on my feed. When I ran out of new posts from the people I followed, I would go to my Explore page. There, an endless stream of content selected for me appeared based on what kept my demographic on Instagram the longest. As a tween girl, this included fashion ideas, makeup tips and models telling me about their diets and what I could do to look like them. Most of that stuff didn’t interest me, so I focused on the funny text posts that were thrown in from time to time.
Although I was one of the first people in my grade to join social media, it did not take long for others to follow. Selfies and vacation pics filled my feed. With the constant stream of “self-improvement” content and my own comparisons to friends' photos, my self-esteem definitely took a hit. Suddenly, the silly, filtered photos I was sharing seemed childish. I deleted everything I’d shared and limited my Instagram use to liking other people’s posts and commenting if I could think of anything funny to say. Eventually, if I felt I looked good in a picture, I would post it on Instagram, hoping to get as many likes as possible. To get more likes, I needed more people to see my posts. I started accepting anyone who requested to follow me.
At 15 years old, I was willing to give anyone with an Instagram account access to photos of me and my friends, as well as personal information, like the city I lived in. I was also allowing anyone to message me anything they wanted. Like most teenagers, I was insecure and desperate for reassurance. Acceptance seemed like the most important thing in the world. As much as my parents had explained the dangers of trusting random people on the internet, a stranger messaging me and telling me they thought I was cool or pretty was very exciting. Back then, these messages seemed novel, even flattering. Any attention, no matter the type, felt positive.
I knew that others around me felt this way too when a close friend posted an edited photo of herself. She had smoothed the shape of her nose, removed the blemishes from her skin and pinched her waist to look smaller. When we were hanging out, friends would ask me to take hundreds of pictures of them in an attempt to have a single one that was “good enough” for Instagram. Spending time with friends devolved into taking pictures at pretty murals or aesthetic coffee shops. Friends would even message me immediately after posting, asking me to go like and comment.
My time spent on Instagram skyrocketed to upwards of four hours a day. Friends would come over and we would talk a while before sitting on our phones in silence. I spent less time reading and writing. How could I dedicate an hour of my time to practising the same song on the guitar when I could scroll on Instagram and see a thousand different things? I felt seen and overwhelmed, but also lonely and empty. The social connections I was promised when first joining Instagram had transformed into an endless loop of performance and consumption. I stopped posting on Instagram completely and told myself I had to get off the app. Every time I closed it though, I found myself reaching for it, or a similar app, a few minutes later. As much as I wanted to delete it, there was always something holding me back. It was an addiction.
Social media has been so fundamental in my adolescence. I am emotionally attached to these apps like I am to the town I grew up in. All my friends are there. Memories are stored there. Criticisms I see of social media from people who did not grow up with it can register as insulting. These are especially harsh when young people get the blame for a lack of responsibility, rather than the companies that manipulate us on these platforms.
Even so, I am very critical of my social media use these days. I am slowly lowering how much time I spend on Instagram and other platforms. I make sure what I’m looking at and my interactions online serve a purpose outside of mindless consumption. As social media continues to grow, I’m not sure what the future of these platforms will look like. I do know, however, that when the sole purpose of an app is to tempt you to scroll for hours and deplete your confidence, people suffer. In the end, we are driven to beg for instant moments of gratification before the relief fades and we are left wanting again.
About the author
Justine is a second-year student at SFU, where she studies cognitive science, with minors in French and creative writing. She hopes to pursue a career in artificial intelligence and analyze the impact of new technologies on mental health