My colleague Mike Huber recently told me about a "This American Life" story he heard. The episode was called "Status Update" and the first act, he suggested, would likely be interesting to me. As many of you know I work with adolescents at our Quaker meeting. This particular story on "This American Life" covers the complicated social dynamics associated with the social media platform Instagram. If you have time, I'd highly suggest listening to the first 15 minutes of the episode. I will embed it at the end of this blog post.
If you don't have time to listen, here is a brief summary. Ira Glass, the host of TLA, interviews three teenage girls who have just started their freshmen year of high school. Ira wants to know about how their social lives are shaped by Instagram. What follows is a dizzying 15 minutes of detailed and confusing descriptions of every element of Instagram can be interpreted into a creating a picture of their social lives. If you are anything like me, there are moments while listening that I found myself both shaking my head (in disbelief/confusion) and realizing my mouth was wide open (out of shock).
I decided to play this piece for both my high school and middle school youth groups. A week ago I played it for my high schoolers. What was fascinating was that for the majority of teens in this group, the experience shared by the teens in TLA was also confusing and foreign to them. Most of my high schoolers are sophomores and juniors.
Tonight I played it for my middle schoolers, and it was a COMPLETELY different story. As the story played I would look around the room. Of the twelve teens there tonight, about half would nod their head when they recognized something the three teenager girls were saying about Instagram in the TLA piece. I could tell that this story was their story, and that it was really resonating with their experience.
I could barely pause the episode before the room was about to explode into reaction. Thankfully I prepared three specific questions to guide our discussion...this prevented the chaos of twelve teenagers trying to talk over one another. The three questions were:
1. What has been your experience (even if you aren’t on social media) of understanding the complexity of social interactions with your peers?
2. During the interview one of the girls said, “I am a brand.” This is nothing new. People from the dawn of humanity have been trying to be favorable/popular in the eyes of the people around them. As a teenager in 2016, how much pressure is there to uphold your “brand”?
3. What thoughts do you have about how social media is influencing your generation for the good and the bad?
We went around the circle and allowed each of them to answer one question at a time. I wish you could have been there for this. As I heard each of them speak I felt more and more sympathetic for each and every one of them. I heard about all of the unspoken implications of commenting (or not commenting), of liking or not liking, of who comments on what, of checking in to see who is commenting on your friends posts, of monitoring followers, staying up with trends on IG, keeping up an image (or brand), etc. I also heard from a couple teens who don't have social media, and who feel like their ability to connect with their own friends is inhibited by not being involved, and who feel like authentic connection isn't happening with their friends who are on their phones constantly. I also hear about how what happens on social media often creates awkward situations in real life, how people say things they'd never actually say to someone in person.
At one point in the interview Ira mentions that this whole thing seems extremely exhausting, like maintaining an Instagram account for an adolescent actually seems like a job. I too experienced this exhaustion when I realized what it took to be a "successful" instagrammer, let alone a Instagram user who had their social lives hanging in the balance.
I tend to avoid criticizing social media. I think it stinks of a fear that all of us experience as we get older, "things aren't like they used to be....things were simpler when I was growing up..." I also avoid making judgements about generational experiences of hardship. We all struggled, in our own way, to be social beings in adolescence. We may not have had handheld devices with social media platforms at the ready, but we did have peers who were playing the games of popularity and status...that hasn't changed.
Yet, I get the sense that the pressures faced by those twelve teens sitting in our youth room tonight seemed unfair. It seemed heavy. It seemed like too much. I couldn't help but long for something different for them.
Since I started pursuing youth ministry as my life calling, I've been attracted to the possibilities of contemplation for adolescents. In 2006 I disconnected from the internet, TV, phone, etc. for what ended up being the best four months of my life. I lived in a remote part of the Cascades with thirty other students. We read books. We wrote papers. We practiced contemplation. I still haven't unpacked all that this semester meant to me, but I knew it changed my life.
I'm interested in creating opportunities for our teenagers to experience this kind of freedom. As if it would create the space for them to play, to wonder, to explore, and to simply BE. I'm not entirely sure how this might happen, but after tonight, I feel like it is more important than it has ever been.