In a suburban Toronto Starbucks, three teenage girls huddle around a table, fingers flying over their mobile screens as they break down the daily work of promoting their brands. Between sips of iced green-tea lemonades and java-chip frappuccinos, they tell me how they run new content through vetting teams before releasing it to the world. They describe how that content is distributed and tailored according to platform, and how it’s carefully calibrated to suit different audiences. They show me analytics tools that tell them, in real time, how their messages are being received, and what impact they’re having on their brands, in terms of both reach and loyalty.
If it sounds like a full-time job, that’s because it pretty much is—a gig they’ve aged into by virtue of becoming teenagers in the era of the smartphone. As the three friends laugh and chat with one another, their eyes are nearly always cast downward, glued to the devices held between their manicured fingers. The brands they are managing are their own. They post carefully curated updates and stylized pictures of themselves on various apps and platforms. They swipe left and right, opening and closing apps, gasping about the daily drama playing out on the glowing screen, and planning their next moves. They don’t consider it work—it’s more of a necessary pastime that’s become so routine, “it’s like breathing,” says Elina, who is 17. Often, they won’t even let sleep get in the way.
“I wake up every two hours [in the night] to check my phone,” says 16-year-old Negar.
“Especially if you have someone specific you’re talking to,” says Yasmin, also 16, from across the table. “Like, let’s say, a boyfriend. There’s so much anxiety.”
“Yeah, you don’t go to sleep because you’re waiting for them to reply. I’ve done that,” says Elina, who also cops to taking her phone into the bathroom, just in case there’s an important development while she showers.
And if they don’t message back? “Your whole day is ruined, completely,” Yasmin says.
Much about their social experience is familiar to anyone who even faintly remembers being an adolescent girl: waiting by the phone (the one attached to a wall), trying out different looks in the mirror, obsessing about whether a crush is mutual, panicking about missing out or being rejected. The difference is that for this generation, the bulk of these experiences are filtered through whatever tools are on their phones. It’s time-consuming and taxing in a way that’s nothing like what previous generations contended with—because of the strategic positioning involved, the relentless commitment required, and the impossibility of opting out without fearing you might cease to exist among your peers altogether. These girls all got their first phones for the same reason: Their parents wanted to be able to reach them when they were walking home from school by themselves. Now, the phone is an essential part of their existence. Elina puts it bluntly: Her phone, she says, “is the fabric of my life.”
All this labour is unpaid, of course, but it allows them to maintain a social currency—one highly dependent on constant maintenance and avoiding missteps. The investment is building an “audience” of friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends and total strangers. The payoff, supposedly, is belonging. Ironically, recent research suggests it may come at the expense of other, more meaningful interactions. When you spend so much time building a brand, do you end up sacrificing the product?
As the girls lead me on a magical mystery tour through their phones, it quickly becomes clear how intricate and complex their online lives are—which helps to explain the near-constant monitoring. One Instagram account, for instance, is insufficient. Try two—or five. Each girl has a highly curated main public account, which typically has the largest audience, and where only the very best photos are posted (and only a select few remain posted at a time, for image control). Each also has a “spam” private account, which is like a photo album of their lives and experiences (you’d never post, say, a drawing you’d done on your main account “because it won’t get likes,” Elina says). There’s a “group spam” to document the life of a group of friends. There’s an account just for parents and family (who are blocked from all other accounts) and a fake account meant for invisibly keeping track of ex-friends and ex-boyfriends.
They describe the rules of Instagram etiquette, which establish cliques, relationships and social hierarchies in coded terms that would likely be inscrutable to snooping parents. Elina opens a photo of herself sitting on her bed. A quick tap on the image reveals dozens of tags with the Instagram user names, or handles, of friends and acquaintances. The tags seem to be scattered randomly all over the photo, but their placement is not random at all—they communicate Elina’s vision of her social universe, including allegiances and alliances. “The tags are very important,” says Elina. “The [names] on me are my best friends, off to the side are my friends, then people over there I wouldn’t count as friends, but they look at my pictures.” Been tagged? It means you’re expected to like and comment on the photo—and if you don’t, there can be drama. Not tagged? Ouch. “I had close friends, we were a group of three, and then those two stopped being friends because this tag ‘thing’ happened,” Elina says. “One of the girls wasn’t tagged, so it was like, ‘I guess we’re not friends anymore.’”
Seventeen-year-old Nashra from Mississauga, Ont., has decided on one Instagram account. To make sure she maximizes each post, she’ll sometimes consult her friends via group chat before clicking “share.” “Every so often we’ll say, ‘I’m about to post it—do you think I should? Do you think this is Instagram-worthy?’ ” Nashra says.
Elina and her friends do this as well. They consider at least 500 likes within 48 hours to be the benchmark for a successful post, and they see anything less as an indication that the content is not tracking well with their audience. Using analytics apps that look a lot like stock market tickers, they monitor wavy lines that chart audience engagement in real time. Yasmin opens the one connected to her Instagram account: There are 110 new followers to report, and a “lost followers” tab shows she’s shed seven people in the same period of time.
When they’re not Instagramming, they are likely Snap-chatting (not, for the record, Facebooking or tweeting—two platforms that are passé to them). The photo-sharing, instant-messaging and video-chat app lets users send a “snap” to a whole group or a specific person, then deletes that content a moment after it’s seen (unless one of your followers is quick enough to snap a screenshot). It does, however, show who has seen a user’s stories, so the girls are well aware of whether their crush or friend is watching every snap sent out to their followers.
“I like it because you can snap at people, and when someone pisses you off, you can post stuff to show that you’re having fun with your life,” says Negar. “Let’s say you have your ex on Snapchat,” Yasmin adds. “You always make sure you look your best or that you’re doing something really fun.” With one intentionally blurry photo, what’s really a pretty tame night can come off as something intriguing.
These teens are massively aware of their audience—and of exactly how tenuous their connection to their friends, on social media, can be. If you don’t comment when summoned, if you don’t click that heart when it’s expected of you, are you really being the best friend you can be? And if you’re not living up to the task, how can you expect your friends to be there for you the next time you take a chance and post something? It could mean getting publicly shut down or shut out. “FOMO, I think, for our generation, is a really big deal,” Yasmin says, using the acronym for “fear of missing out.” “Missing out for me, specifically, that’s just like the worst thing,” she says. “I’d rather sacrifice everything than not [be in the know]. . . . With family, they’re always there. With friends, it doesn’t feel that way.”
“Someone could take your place,” Negar adds. “Someone’s always going to take your place.”
Fifteen-year-old Lexi can definitely relate to that pressure. The Burnaby, B.C., teenager has her notifications on all the time so she can know if friends are trying to make plans with her on Snapchat, their primary form of communication. “Streaks”—long chains of snaps and the snaps your friends send in response—are seen as a measure of popularity. “The more streaks you have, the cooler you are,” Elina says. Snapchat starts and records streaks after two consecutive days of snapping back and forth with a friend. It doesn’t matter if the messages are well-crafted or simply a blank screen—they’re sent just to keep the streak going. The longer the chain, the higher it ranks on the list of streaks. And having a long list of streaks is proof that you’re tight with certain people. (The Toronto teens tell me about a time one of their friends, who had grown tired of managing her social accounts, sent out a message saying, “Don’t snap me unless it’s for streaks.”)
It does, at times, become too much. Lexi says she sometimes takes breaks from streaks because they are “sort of like a chore.” At the Starbucks, Elina tells me she broke all her streaks one day because she felt they had become meaningless. When I catch up with her a few months later, she is on a social media cleanse. “A lot of people got mad and kept confronting me, thinking I unfollowed them,” she texts me, with the tearful-laughter emoji. “So I reactivated my account, I just don’t have the app.” It’s been going well, she says, but she still hasn’t been able to put down her phone—she’s just devoting her attention to games instead. “They’re just as addictive,” she says.
Of course, it’s no secret that smartphones and social apps are designed to be addictive. Tristan Harris, a former Facebook employee who famously invented the “like” button, describes the smartphone as a “slot machine in your pocket.” Now, just a decade after Apple unveiled its first iPhone, scientists are busy quantifying the unintended effects these devices are having on our brains and our sense of self.
A survey conducted by Microsoft in Canada found that between 2000 and 2015, human attention spans shrank from 12 seconds to 8.25—just short of a goldfish’s level of focus. Research has also linked social media with increased feelings of perceived social isolation in adults, so there’s an understandable amount of hand-wringing about the impact smartphone technology is having on a younger generation so focused on cultivating online identities. Does it compromise their real-world development? A lot of the signs point to yes as the answer.
Kids born in 1995 and later are smartphone natives, fluent in all things touchscreen—which is no surprise, since their childhoods dovetail exactly with the point at which most people acquired a smartphone, says San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, who has closely studied teenagers and their formative experiences. The book Twenge released last year, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, draws on decades of research, which she bases on massive national and longitudinal self-reported surveys from teens at that time in their lives. It charts teenage behaviour and emotions across generations—alternating waves that demarcate the ups and downs of how they spend their time, until the smartphone saturation point hits. Then, behaviours like sexual experimentation, socializing at parties and getting driver’s licences fall off a cliff. Today’s teens are spending more time at home, often engrossed in their phones.
“The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever,” Twenge wrote in a widely shared essay in The Atlantic last summer, adapted from her book. “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”
“It used to be, to be cool, you had to drink or you had to smoke or you had to have sex,” Twenge told Chatelaine. “Now, to be cool, you have to be on Instagram and post the cool pictures that everybody likes, and have a lot of followers. That sounds harmless in comparison with having sex and drinking alcohol and smoking. But for mental health, it’s not harmless.” There’s been a big shift away from hanging out with friends toward interacting through social media and texting, she says, making for much less of the kind of in-person interaction that is key to well-being and the development of critical thinking skills. A new study out of the U.K. found that girls ages 10 to 15 are on social media more than other adolescents, and that those who spend more than an hour a day trawling social apps are at the highest risk of developing well-being problems later in teenhood.
The teen brain is still a developing one, says Stanley Kutcher, a professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University, and its immature prefrontal cortex (which allows us to understand, evaluate and make complicated decisions) works with the part of the brain responsible for emotion and impulse. A key part of its development is exposure to complex social interaction, being able to read social subtleties and understanding that people don’t always mean what they say. Seeing a person’s face or hearing the tone of their voice is necessary to that learning. “We’re replacing this with emojis,” he says. Even the videos teens put out via Insta Stories and Snapchat are no substitute, he says, because they are highly curated and devoid of context.
Critical thinking is learned, he says—and that kind of independent, rational decision-making requires immersion in many different types of social situations, including ones that cause negative emotional and cognitive impact. “Devices stop us from having that wide range of experiences, so it’s harder for us to learn.”
Among teenage girls in the U.S., spikes in mental health issues, including symptoms of depression, suicide risk factors and the suicide rate, are now much more pronounced, Twenge’s research found. She suspects the paranoid waiting game involved in social media might be partly to blame. The types of insecurities teenagers have always been susceptible to are exacerbated by the always-on accessibility afforded by social media. (If a friend isn’t responding to you, it’s likely not because they don’t have the opportunity, and you can even watch them interacting with others while you wait.)
“Think about being 13 and waiting for the text back from your crush or from your friend you’re not 100 percent sure likes you anymore,” says Twenge. “That’s anxiety provoking. You might spend a lot of time overthinking and reading into that silence.”
Young people who struggle to read social cues or are met with a view they don’t like often feel “unsafe,” Kutcher says. He worries that this could contribute to a generation separated into tribes, whose views are reinforced by social media tools that let you “block” other perspectives or that surface only content your friends are already interacting with.
So when Twenge describes this moment as a social media earthquake, does she foresee mass devastation? She does concede that it’s “not all good, and it’s not all bad.” Today’s teens are physically safer, they don’t fight as much with their parents and they have a stronger work ethic than the generation before them, her research found. They’re also more outspoken about issues of social justice (note the incredible youth response to the school shooting in February in Parkland, Florida, and the National School Walkout demanding stricter gun laws that followed).
Another potential upside, particularly for teenage girls, is that they’re finding community online and feeling heard, says Canadian tech expert and author Amber Mac. “I don’t think anyone listened to [previous generations of teen girls],” she says. “I think teen girls now have an equal opportunity to their male counterparts to have a voice and a platform.” (These platforms, it should be noted, also deliver a steady stream of trolling and abuse directed disproportionately at girls and women.) Mac even sees a benefit to the brand management aspect of online life. “They see it as more than a place to connect with friends. It’s a place for validation, brand building… In that sense, a lot of people don’t understand what their generation is trying to do.” They have a lot more control over their own images, in other words—and this is a form of personal power.
Maintaining that image, however, and the time it requires, may not jive with the inherent work of just being a teen, says Katie Davis, who studies digital youth and identity at the University of Washington. “Adolescence is all about trying on different versions of yourself in an effort to figure out which ones fit best,” she says. “There’s not a lot of room to do this type of experimentation in a social media culture that emphasizes personal branding.”
Back at the Starbucks, I ask the girls what else they do with their time—what music or entertainment they like, what celebrities they follow on Instagram. “I’ll follow poetry accounts and quote accounts or whatever,” Elina says, adding that she’s also a big fan of romcoms and horror films. “But [I don’t follow] celebrities. I just don’t care about celebrities. I can’t even keep up with you!” she says, nodding toward her friends.
The conversation about celebrities quickly switches to Instagram stars. The girls show me a handful of highly curated accounts that are clearly #Instagramgoals. “I have an account on Instagram where I just post photos to see how they would look on my feed,” Yasmin says. So, yes, she is cultivating a brand—but she’s also created a safe space for experimenting, as teenagers have always done.