Social Media is the Back Channel for Teen Angst

back channel

First I want to quote a paragraph from the abstract of a 2011 paper by danah boyd, a renowned expert on teen culture and social media at Microsoft Research. The paper is titled, The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics. Here’s the quote:

“Drama is a gendered process that perpetrates conventional gender norms. It also reflects discourses of celebrity, particularly the mundane interpersonal conflict found on soap operas and reality television. For teens, sites like Facebook allow for similar performances in front of engaged audiences. Understanding how “drama” operates is necessary to recognize teens’ own defenses against the realities of aggression, gossip, and bullying in networked publics.”

Now for the back story. For some time now I have been reading the tweets and Instagram posts of my children and the kids I coach. Initially I thought it was amusing to see how middle school and high school students use Twitter and Instagram. Upon further reflection, it in no way really resembles the way I use it both platforms either personally and professionally. It’s different, to put it mildly. I could say it’s hopeful and idealistic on their part, but that’s not really revealing the whole story. It is, on the one hand, nakedly transparent and on the other, completely narcissistic.

Per danah’s paragraph above, and I’m paraphrasing, Twitter and Instagram for teens can be like the equivalent of passing notes in class, spreading gossip at the tables in the cafeteria at lunch and or stopping for a quick chat in the hallways between classes all rolled up into 140 characters or words and hashtags with pictures… Both platforms are now very public digital platforms for high school drama, love, hate, desire, trends, trouble, music, coolness, drug use, alcohol abuse, sex and above all, angst.

How do you react to what you read? How should you process it?

After reviewing thousands of tweets, I can easily say that for a lot of teens, they say things, they would never say IRL (In Real Life) and they do things and post things that are just not thought out too well. Not much different than what adults and companies do, but what one has to question though, is the impact. The ripple effect.

For girls in particular danah nails it:

“Drama is the language that teens—most notably girls—use to describe a host of activities and practices ranging from gossip, flirting, arguing, and joking to more serious issues of jealousy, ostracization, and name-calling.”

My concerns with the wild west mentality of middle school and high school social media usage are fivefold.

  1. The impact that  comments and tweets have on those involved or affected; as well as those that are indirectly involved, is more precarious than first thought. What happens in school is now being played out on Twitter and a myriad of other social sites. Picture concentric rings of influence like a dart board and you get the idea of impact and influence. It resonates. Social media extends the drama for students involved.
  2. There are conversations we don’t see that sit behind social chat apps like Kik, WhatsApp and WeChat and Ask.fm that are 10 times worse than the conversations that we see or hear about.
  3. The lack of parental guidance and or knowledge as well as sub-par levels of teacher engagement and intervention might be more pervasive than first realized.
  4. The perpetuating or perpetuation of a lifestyle that is neither real nor realistic or is in fact very real.
  5. A fealessness of posting anything coupled with a complete disregard consequences.

Transparency is Opaque


Concerns aside for a minute. I think what’s interesting is that the levels of attack and angst ebb and flow fairly regularly amongst teens. To the degree that most are descentized to the point that they either don’t care that their tweets/posts are being read, or are just not aware that the public can read them. Though they do erase from time to time, most don’t care.

Either way, the view into their social digital lives reveals a dystopian society where:

  1. It’s cool to post that you do lots of cool things, even if it’s not true.
  2. Your last “selfie”, Instagram or Vine is all that really matters.
  3. The more inspirational yet vaguely aspirational your tweet or pic is, the better.
  4. Their devices are always on and always with them.
  5. They are always one step ahead of what’s hot in digital and social apps and platforms, which is in direct contradiction to what they’re parents know and school administrators think they know.
  6. Everyone and everything is fair game to be digitally documented.

So what do we do about this? Do we do anything?

In my profession as a digital and social strategist,the first things we tell large organizations is that if you are not listening and monitoring the conversations, you will never know what is being said about you and your org. The same holds true here as well. Am I qualified to say that? Absolutely. With over 13 years in the digital space and nearly 7 of those spent in social media, I can without hesitation say that the more you listen, the more you learn.

Taking the first steps

The bottom line for parents is, if you’re not listening, then you’ll never know. Some parents either prefer not to know what their children are doing on their devices or don’t know what they don’t know. Either way, that’s unacceptable. I get that sometimes parents may feel like asking too many questions about just what it is their children are doing on their devices is prying, but remember who bought the device and who pays the bill. That might be trivializing a more appropriate response, but at the end of the day, that might be what resonates.

The days of being informed via other parents, teachers, administrators, students and traditional news outlets on what is happening at school and with your children, their friends and their circle of friends might have worked before the age of digital, but it doesn’t and can’t fly in 2015.

By the time you find out, it’s old news. How do I know? I’m a digital native and I am still surprised daily by what I read, what I hear, and what I observe. Truly, the digital dynamic has changed peer and parental relationships forever. At its core, it has created a whole new layer of responsibility and outcomes for better or worse. Expectations in this new digital realm need to be level-set.

Maybe then the question for parents isn’t so much how do you stop it, as much it might be how can you learn how to listen to the conversation?

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The Deets

Marc Meyer is a Digital and Social Media Strategist at DRMG. This is my personal blog where I share observations, thoughts and opinions that are all my own.

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