t’s difficult to remember a time when people didn’t spend at least part of their days engaging in some form of online performance—showing off their dinners on Instagram, offering happy images of a day trip with the family on Facebook, cracking wise on Twitter. Today’s teenagers have no memory of the world before social media, so they don’t know that in the days before smartphones, opportunities to present themselves in performance were far more limited and parochial—on the stage of the high-school theater or the football field; at a bar or bat mitzvah; in home camcorder videos. This meant they could spend time cultivating their identities in the relative privacy of a small social group. That was stressful enough, as the vast literature of disaffected adolescence attests. Although their triumphs might be seen only by their closest peers, the same was true of their failures.
Today, by contrast, we’ve turned performance into a mundane act, and teenagers must daily cultivate not only their IRL identities but also their various social-media identities, each with its own implicit set of rules and status markers. As a 19-year-old student wrote in Wired: “Snapchat has a lot less social pressure attached to it compared to every other popular social-media network out there. This is what makes it so addicting and liberating. If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it. Snapchat isn’t like that at all and really focuses on creating the Story of a day in your life, not some filtered/altered/handpicked highlight. It’s the real you.”
But “the real you” these teenagers describe is different from “the real yous” of previous generations. For one thing, being yourself requires an exhausting amount of maintenance, with constant updates and likes and uploading of optimally filtered images of every activity. For another, there isn’t only one “real you,” since many teenagers have accounts both under their real names as well as ones under fake names to avoid the prying eyes of parents and to share content only with their closest friends. As Ana Homayoun, who studies teen behavior online, wrote in the New York Times recently about real Instagram accounts (“rinstas”) versus fake ones (“finstas”): “They might spend a lot of time trying to capture the perfect Instagram photo for the ‘rinsta,’ which reaches a wider general audience, while a finsta might reveal, as one high school sophomore girl declared, ‘my innermost thoughts.’” Kids these days engage in more layers of false-identity construction than Cold War counterintelligence operatives. And it’s not making them happy.
Their ambivalent feelings were on display in December at a new pop-up exhibition in Bethesda, Maryland, called the Museum of Contemporary American Teenagers. It described itself as a space created “by teenagers, about teenagers, for teenagers,” and its website promised exhibits on “gender fluidity, ride-share harassment, growing up with a fear of gun violence, and so, so, so much more.” There was an “Awkward Stage” (get it?) that hosted local speakers; a GirlPower mural (of course), as well as “body positivity” exhibits and installations exploring new understandings of masculinity.
Technology figured prominently throughout. A mural depicted a teenager taking selfies, oblivious to the fact that a shark is about to devour him. One student made a “FOMO [Fear of Missing Out] pit filled with “social media posts attached to foam pieces” that visitors are encouraged to jump into. “It’s supposed to be like you’re kind of sinking in it,” the student told the Post. “You can’t get out.” This ambivalence about social media also fuels a thriving subgenre of horror films beloved by Millennials and younger teens that use social media as their major plot device. Movies like #Horror, Unfriended, The Den, and the viral two-minute sensation Selfie from Hell offer a violent and disturbing fictional take on young users of Snapchat, Chatroulette, and other social-media sites. They are the bloody id to Instagram’s perfectly curated ego.
Such feelings aren’t limited to pop-up museums in the tony suburbs of Washington, D.C. As social psychologist Jean Twenge described in her recent book, iGen, rates of anxiety and depression and suicide have increased dramatically in recent years among teenagers, akin to the increase in narcissism Twenge documented in Generation Me, an earlier book about the Millennial generation. Based on survey data of approximately half a million American teens, Twenge found that the ones who spent the most time on social media were also more likely to agree with statements such as “I feel that I can’t do anything right.” Recent studies of Facebook use among adults have yielded similar findings, as the Economist notes, including one from 2016 that found that adults who gave up using Facebook for a week reported feeling less depressed than those who kept using the platform.
Although Twenge is careful to note that the teen mental-health crisis and technology use are only correlated, her findings make intuitive sense. Seeking approval from others didn’t used to be so rigorously quantifiable. Before social media, a teenager who might not be the most popular kid at school could still tell himself that he wasn’t an outcast and could still go hang out with kids on his cul-de-sac. But on social media, everyone is watching, every like is counted, and numbers don’t lie. If you don’t have enough followers or likes, everyone knows it. For teenagers, popularity, once described as a game, has become a matter of forensic accounting.
Even some of the creators of these tools are beginning to sound alarms about the scale of our use of them, including many former tech-company employees who are now in their thirties and were among the last generation to have grown up without smartphones (the iPhone was unveiled in 2007). According to the Guardian, one of the engineers who helped create Facebook’s “Like” button became so disenchanted with the addictive quality it cultivated that she hired a social-media manager to run her own Facebook account. She wasn’t being paranoid; last year, a leaked report from Facebook, published in the Australian, showed how the tech company is identifying teenagers by their emotional states, such as feeling “worthless” or “insecure” or “stressed,” so that they might better sell that information to advertising companies who want to target those teens with their products.
This isn’t the kind of thing we want to hear about our technologies; it sounds like the tut-tutting of a Luddite or a conservative moralist. Indeed, some critics of Twenge’s work, such as Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker, have complained that her findings reaffirm arguments long made by conservatives. (Gasp.) For example, Twenge’s research reveals that teens who are the least likely to be depressed or suicidal are also the ones who regularly attend religious services, hang out with their friends in person, and spend time with their parents.
There are other, less quantifiable risks for teenagers who view their phones as an extension of their selves. In his classic 1959 work of socio-anthropology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman distinguished between the “back stage” and the “front stage” with regard to social behavior. All of us play different roles throughout the day when we inhabit the more public front stage (parent, employee, customer). But as Goffman argued, in order to fulfill those front-stage roles, we also need a back stage where we can relax and be ourselves, free from the more rigid rules of the front stage.
Social media has effectively eliminated the back stage, and an adolescence with no back stage risks producing people with no way to cope with the stress of a never-dimming spotlight. It’s the story of The Red Shoes, about the ballerina whose premodern technology—her dancing slippers—will not allow her to stop until she dies. We have given kids access to liberating and powerful technologies with little guidance about how to handle the unintended side effects of using them. What guidance can we give them? We don’t know how to handle them ourselves.