Whenever I come across news stories about Teens Using the Internet, they seem to fall into two very different camps:
1. The “Why Do Teens Sext? Probably Because They Are So Sad From Meeting All Those Craigslist Killers On Facebook” category. These are the stories that paint teens as reckless drones who are helpless in this new frontier of technology and social media.
2. The “While Other Teens Were Playing Angry Birds, This 14-Year-Old Invented an App That Cures Cancers” category. These stories are inspiring tales of ingenuity but make other teens out to be lazy for, like, just using the internet to unwind by looking at memes.
I feel like I’m always yelling, “Ugh, no, you don’t get it!” and then slamming a metaphorical bedroom door whenever I read something about young people and The Evils of Social Media. Although, yes, there are times when I find myself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and thinking to myself, Why is this picture of avocado toast that a model slash DJ ate for brunch today making me feel weird about myself? Maybe I should go read a book, social media has been an immensely positive force in my life. It’s how I met my closest friends when I felt isolated from people who shared my interests. It’s how I realized I should start writing beyond just school assignments. And it’s how my work first got published for people besides my mom to read. If I were a not a teen obsessed with the internet, you would not be sitting here today with your eyes glued to your computer screen, so deeply mesmerized by my beautiful yet haunting prose.
I know I’m not an exception. So I sent out a bat signal on Twitter:
ARE YOU A TEEN GIRL whose life has been improved by social media? Tired of the idea that you're all snapchatting yourselves to death?
— Gabby Noone (@twelveoclocke) April 9, 2015
I asked the girls who responded to tell me what they made of all this, and here’s what some of them emailed back to me.
I am a very anxious, shy person who lives in a small town and has to spend a lot of time at home because my family needs me here. Some of the friendships I have created online have blossomed into a very invaluable support system for me. [I found] people who have seen me through some of the most difficult moments of my life, when I normally would have had to go through these things alone. They’ve helped me find confidence in myself, heal my body image, and believe in what I can accomplish and create.
I always relied on my library for learning about things I was truly passionate about, but you run out of books to put on hold after a certain point! I’m able to read scans of letters from 1930s actresses, watch lessons on how to play piano on YouTube, or look at scans from an issue of Vogue from the ’70s. Having this knowledge at my fingertips has been so incredible for me, who, at 11, desperately wanted to learn piano and ballet, but couldn’t because my family could not afford to enroll me in lessons.
Without YouTube, I definitely would not be as interested in film as I am today. I minor in film now and hope to be a director one day, but there’s no way I would’ve discovered my love for filmmaking and movies in general if I hadn’t started making stop motions with American Girl dolls. I was one of the sort of founders of a community of girls who made stop-motion [movies] with dolls because I joined YouTube back when there were very few of us, in 2008. Now, there are thousands of girls who are part of it, and it’s sort of incredible in the way that it’s a zone where young girls can meet and be creative and make videos about girls, for an audience of girls. It gave us all plenty of friendships and support that we wouldn’t otherwise have had.
I was a really shy kid who had a lot of trouble expressing myself and making friends before my YouTube channel started up. It definitely helped me come out of my shell and learn to like myself a lot more and realize I was worth more than I thought. When I was younger, I never saw myself as someone who was independent of her few friends because I was never that comfortable with myself. Once I made internet friends, making friends in real life became much easier, and I’m far more outgoing than I ever was as a kid.
I met my best friend through a One Direction Facebook group, which we both joined back in 2012. She and I clicked right away, and we became fast friends. One of our first times hanging out was at a music festival in 2013, and so going to concerts together has become a regular thing for us. We visit each other regularly, despite living a few hours apart, and I trust her with all of my secrets. She has become like a sister to me, and I don’t even know what I would do without her.
Sometimes it feels like I learn more through social media than I do in school. The public education system rarely touches on concepts such as feminism, cultural appropriation, and racial discrimination. Also, because I live in a town that is predominantly white Jews/Christians, I never had much exposure to other races/cultures/religions. Through social media, I have learned so much about other cultures, lifestyles, and people. There are people at my school who make the best marks, ace every test they take, but yet they know nothing about feminism, or even what happened in Ferguson. They only know what the school system and the people who’ve raised them think they need to know. Because of the internet, I can easily read about important, pressing issues which are not discussed in the classroom, and see what other people have to say about them.
It honestly baffles me that people don’t understand how having a computer in the palm of your hand is amazing, and I want to look at it a lot! I can fact-check things as I learn them, communicate, and document my life. None of those things are bad! It makes me laugh when adults say that teens are losing social skills. Sure, a lot of us hate talking on the phone, but why does that matter? Every time an old person asks me for computer help, they prove that being “dependent” on technology is not a bad thing.
I had a One Direction/Taylor Swift fan account (so many Haylor arguments. so many. sooooo many) during my freshman and sophomore years of high school. I had a lot of girls’ phone numbers, and we would facetime or have big video chats with multiple people. It was really freeing to not be judged for a “silly” passion, and in the turmoil of puberty it also served as a great way to escape the hell that was my first two years of high school. Also, even my mom has Snapchat.
Regardless of social media, as terrifying is it is, my life could turn out in 50,000 different ways. That being said, it will look incredibly different from the lives of my parents or grandparents. Social media helps keep me connected to the people around me (and even the people nowhere near me), it keeps me up to date with the goings-on of the world, and it can be really fun. Conversely, social media is very addictive. It can cause me to waste precious time on things that have no value, it detracts from other important things in my life such as reading real books, playing outside, and spending time with family, and there’s no break from what’s going on outside of myself. I don’t always need to know what my friends are eating for dinner, what the most recent news is from Washington D.C., or what Taylor Swift does on her days off. I think that this is very dangerous.
Before I used social media, I wrote occasionally, but then I used the internet to start a website/zine called Pop Culture Puke exclusively with people whom I know online. Without the people I met through Twitter and Instagram, I wouldn’t have been able to find contributors for the zine, or people to read the website. I am really grateful for social media because it has connected me with people who are working towards similar goals and hobbies.
Before using social media, I wouldn’t have imagined having a group of friends that would start a zine with me or being able to visit different cities and stay with friends. I wasn’t really involved with extracurricular activities at school or anything, so my zine has given me a place to be creative and do something outside of school and my part-time job. I feel really lucky to have a group of friends that I feel understood by, and who can help me create something better than I would be able to by myself. Social media and blogs also made feminism more approachable to me, because I could see other girls my age who identified as feminists and who were dialoguing about feminism.
Sometimes I feel bad about how much time I spend on my phone, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing! It’s not like I can’t enjoy time without my phone by reading a book or going on a bike ride. Ultimately, I’ve benefited more from the friendships I’ve made and opportunities I’ve found on social media than if I was completely free from technology.
When all is said and done, the internet is really just a medium (also: the internet is a physical thing—a NETWORK OF UNDERSEA CABLES, even). I agree with this tweet by the writer Ayesha Siddiqi:
if you're mad at 'the internet' you've failed yourself as a filter
— Ayesha A. Siddiqi (@pushinghoops) January 29, 2014
Bearing that in mind: You can use the internet to research and make friends and start social movements. But you can also depend on it as a distraction from responsibilities. It’s a tool to be used (and abused) a million different ways, like telephones or telegrams or hieroglyphics or fire. Do you think Caveparents freaked out when the Caveteens figured out how to make fire for the first time? Probably! But then the caveteens were probably like, “Hey, wild idea, but what if we cracked these weird orbs coming out from under the chickens over the fire and then tried eating them?” thus marking the invention of cooking. It is scary that the internet is this newfangled thing that lots of kids understand better than their own parents. But you know what I think is even scarier? The idea of living in a world where my parents can’t think of the name of an actor and I can’t google it for them. ♦