For older generations, trying to understand the way teens use social media can be like trying to learn a new language.
Teens these days were born into the ever-growing club of cool kids who grew up in a world full of technology. The rest of us are stuck trying to get a peek inside.
A recent Washington Post article chronicled the way one teen uses social media and revealed the importance of Instagram in the life of social teens today. One of the most interesting moments in the article was learning that teens are now curating their Instagrams and deleting photos that don’t get enough likes. The teen profiled in the Washington Post article had 604 followers and only 25 posts on her account.
To try to understand this, I turned to my little brother Dan for guidance. He’s a 15-year-old freshman in high school, abundantly cooler than I am, and has over 900 followers on Instagram. I figured he and his friends must have the inside scoop on the app.
Turns out for teens, Instagram is much more than a medium to share photos on — it’s an extension of their identities.
Dan’s been sharing pictures on the photo-sharing app since he was 13 years old, and says he posts roughly two to three times per week. Yet if you look at his account, he only has 15 posts.
Two years is 104 weeks. Multiply that by two posts per week and you get over 200 posts, but Dan only has a fraction of that.
“I’ve deleted some,” he tells Tech Insider. “Usually if someone has over 500 followers and posts a picture, they expect it to bring in at least 60 likes, anything less usually means the picture will be deleted.”
Another teen Instagram user, Catherine, tells TI via text message that she too deletes photos when she doesn’t get a lot of likes. She says she has over 500 followers and most of her posts have around 100 likes.
Mastering the art of Instagram sounds a lot like fishing: The photo is bait and the engaged followers are the fish. If one type of bait isn’t working, you toss it and try another.
In early adolescence, between the ages of 13 and 15, teens are still fairly self-centered and are more likely to worry about a “perceived other,” according to Drew Cingle, a researcher at Northwestern University.
“They know that people have thoughts and feelings that are different from their own, but they misattribute them,” he tells TI. That is, teens view opinions that are different than their own as disapproval. This explains why teens will sometimes delete a post that doesn’t garner enough likes — if your friends don’t like your photo virtually on Instagram, that may mean they don’t like it at all.
Photos that do best are those that people genuinely like in real life, not just on the app, like a team photo or something a little “artsy,” Catherine tells TI. She says an “artsy” post can be a landscape picture or something with nature, and filters never fail to add that extra touch. Posts that everyone can relate to and will approve of are the most successful.
“I’ve had friends who have posted pictures they love, but when they only have 50 likes in the first hour within posting it, they delete it and say ‘just wasn’t getting the likes I thought it would,'” Dan tells TI.
How many “likes” a post gets depends on a number of factors. Timing is an important one: Prime posting hours are usually weeknights between 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. when the most people are checking the app, according to Dan. Teens also know who to expect to like their posts. Catherine tells TI she knows what people will or won’t like because she knows who goes on Instagram most often.
So Instagram isn’t just about posting things you like, it’s about posting things that are relevant to you and your followers. A lack of likes, or the realisation that maybe your post isn’t relevant, means it should be removed.
Dan’s motivation for posting — or deleting — Instagrams has to do with the self image that he projects to the world, he explains. All of the photos that have earned a permanent spot on his account have to do with family, school, sports, friends, and sometimes relationships.
“Even though it’s decades old, the work of Erving Goffman is still super relevant here,” Northeastern University professor Meryl Alper tells TI. Goffman’s work explores human behaviour as a theatrical performance, with a front and back stage. A person acts differently depending on the audience, which Goffman refers to as “impression management.”
And on Instagram, teens are always front and center.
“People can look at what I’ve posted in the future, whether I’m applying for a job or trying to get into a school,” Dan tells TI. Curating his Instagram is a way for him to control his image in an age where precious little is private.
Still, this digital curation can become stressful. All of these rules around what to post, what not to post, when to post it, and how many likes is enough likes come from the teens themselves. They have created a world where they rely on others to determine their self confidence and many feel the pressure to keep up and fit in.
Former Instagram model Essena O’Neill famously quit social media — including Instagram — last November, opting for a life full of real experiences instead. “I realised I didn’t know myself without social media and without my physical appearance,” she said in a video about why she wanted to delete her accounts. Her story highlights the effect social media can have on teens.
As for Dan, he says he wonders what it would be like to grow up without social media, but thinks the key to staying sane is not to take it too seriously.
“People tend to focus on [social media] as though it’s just as important as their real lives and I think that could be dangerous,” he says.