Screen. To conceal, protect, shelter. The word signifies invisibility. I hid behind the screen. No one could see through the screen. The screen conceals itself: sensors and sheet glass and a faint glow at the edges; light, bluer than a summer day.
The screen also conceals those who use it. Our phones are like extensions of our bodies, always tempting us. Algorithms spoon-feed us pictures. We tap. We scroll. We click. We ingest. We follow. We update. We gather at traditional community hangouts only to sit at the margins, browsing Instagram. We can’t enjoy a sunset without posting the view on Snapchat. Don’t even mention no-phone policies at dinner.
Generation Z is entitled, depressed, aimless, addicted, and apathetic. Or at least that’s what adults say about us.
But teens don’t use social media just for the social connections and networks. It goes deeper. Social-media platforms are among our only chances to create and shape our sense of self. Social media makes us feel seen. In our Instagram “biographies,” we curate a line of emojis that feature our passions: skiing, art, debate, racing. We post our greatest achievements and celebrations. We create fake “finsta” accounts to share our daily moments and vulnerabilities with close friends. We find our niche communities of YouTubers.
It’s true that social media’s constant stream of idealized images takes its toll: on our mental health, our self-image, and our social lives. After all, our relationships to technology are multidimensional—they validate us just as much as they make us feel insecure.
But if adults are worried about social media, they should start by including teenagers in conversations about technology. They should listen to teenagers’ ideas and visions for positive changes in the digital space. They should point to alternative ways for teenagers to express their voices.
I’ve seen this from my own experience. When I got my first social-media account in middle school, about a year later than many of my classmates, I was primarily looking to fit in. Yet I soon discovered the sugar rush of likes and comments on my pictures. My life mattered! My captions mattered! My filters! My stories! My followers! I was looking not only for validation, but also for a way to represent myself. Who do I want to be seen as? On the internet I wasn’t screaming into the void—for the first time, I felt acutely visible.
Yet by high school, this cycle of presenting polished versions of myself grew tiring. I was tired of feeling like I was missing out. I was tired of adhering to hypervisible social codes and tokens. By 10th grade, I was using social media only sporadically. Many of my friends were going through the same shifts and changes in their ideas about social media.
For me, the largest reason was that I had found another path of self-representation: creative writing. I began writing poetry, following poets on Twitter (with poems replacing pictures and news in my feed), and spending the majority of my free time scribbling in a journal outdoors. I didn’t feel I needed Facebook as much. If I did use social media, it was more for entertaining memes.
This isn’t to say that every teenager should begin creating art. Or that art would solve all of social media’s problems. But approaching technology through a creative lens is more effective than merely “raising awareness.” Rather than reducing teenagers to statistics, we should make sure teenagers have the chance to tell their own experiences in creative ways.
Take the example of “selfies.” Selfies, as many adults see them, are nothing more than narcissistic pictures to be broadcast to the world at large. But even the selfie representing a mere “I was here” has an element of truth. Just as Frida Kahlo painted self-portraits, our selfies construct a small part of who we are. Our selfies, even as they are one-dimensional, are important to us.
At this critical moment in teenagers’ and children’s lives, we all need to feel less alone and to feel as if we matter. Teenagers are disparaged for not being “present.” Yet we find visibility in technology. Our selfies aren’t just pictures; they represent our ideas of self. Only through “reimagining” the selfie as a meaningful mode of self-representation can adults understand how and why teenagers use social media. To “reimagine” is the first step toward beginning to listen to teenagers’ voices.
Meaning—scary as it sounds—we have to start actually listening to the scruffy video-game-hoarding teenage boys stuck in their basements. Because our search for creative self isn’t so different from previous generations’. To grow up with technology, as my generation has, is to constantly question the self, to split into multiplicities, to try to contain our own contradictions. In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman famously said that he contradicted himself. The self, he said, is large, and contains multitudes. But what is contemporary technology if not a mechanism for the containment of multitudes?
So don’t tell us technology has ruined our inner lives. Tell us to write a poem. Or make a sketch. Or sew fabric together. Or talk about how social media helps us make sense of the world and those around us. Perhaps social-media selfies aren’t the fullest representations of ourselves. But we’re trying to create an integrated identity. We’re striving not only to be seen, but to see with our own eyes.
This article was originally published on 21st December 2019 at MIT Technology Review.
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