There is a subset of digital natives who do not know life without social media and journalist Nancy Jo Sales has found them.
Sales’s Vanity Fair article “Friends Without Benefits” provides an in-depth look into how America’s youth are representing themselves on social media. In particular, she finds that social network sites (SNSs) and dating apps act as conduits for users to express themselves sexually. While this can be interpreted as liberating — as young people can now celebrate their bodies more freely online — in lived practice it only further endorses socially constructed definitions of gender. Namely, through Sales’s viewpoint, the ease in forming ties afforded by social media only increases the expectation for young girls to give sexual favors to any boy who asks and at the same time, are publicly shamed for doing so.
The effects of social media on youth is particularly crucial because the creation of social media accounts typically intersects at a time where identity development is most sensitive. Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell describe youth identities on social media as “identities-in-action” in which “who we are” is constantly tested, developed, and modified. In this sense, users are able to look back at their development and reflect on their identities, improving them based on the feedback of their peers. However, this notion of feedback also creates an emphasis on which posts garnered the most response. In Sales’s article, she lists the various posts that her interviewees attributed as popular: “Kendall Jenner’s [Instagram] bikini shots ”, “[Facebook] pictures of partying in nightclubs, posing, hand on hip, Paris-Hilton style, surrounded by Euro-looking men”, “beautiful girls with beautiful everything [on Tumblr],” and “sluts” to name a few. Thus, the “feedback for further modification of self-representations” that Weber and Mitchell praise for allowing reflexivity, simultaneously encourages more sexually explicit photos.
The desire for increased feedback also invites a group of ties that goes beyond the social, financial, emotional, and intellectual capital that Nicole Ellison, Rebecca Gray, Cliff Lampe, and Jessica Vitak discuss. In the case of American youths, Sales demonstrates that, what Nancy Baym coins as the ability to “lurk” on social media, causes young girls to craft their profiles based on what is deemed attractive by the opposite sex:
‘I think everyone does it,’ Greta said. ‘Everyone looks through other people’s profiles, but especially being teenage girls, we look at the profiles of the males we find attractive and we stalk the females the males find attractive.’
Therefore, in creating an environment where identity is largely based on “physical capital,” the ties that are formed tend to be sexual and ephemeral. Dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr support this type of “hook-up culture,” enabling young users to “swip[e] through pictures,” hearting or liking one another’s profiles to show interest. Ultimately, social media allows for young girls and boys to access a web of latent ties which promises sexual favors:
“A disembodied coupling that takes place solely on a screen [..] guys you know from just, like, having one class together will be like, ‘Do you like to suck dick?’ [..] And if you say no, they just move on to the next person.”
Arguably, the “reduced-cue” environment of social media should not be a place where adolescence is explored simply because the lack of face-to-face interaction prevents us from developing emotional intimacy and empathy. For instance, the cases of sexting, as well as slut-shaming, explored by Sales, are all done online because we are “definitely more forward online than in person.” As comedian Louis C.K. states “kids are mean because they are trying it out — they look at a kid and go ‘you’re fat’ see the kid’s face scrunch up and that doesn’t feel so good but when they write you’re fat they’re just like mm that was fun I like that.”
However, while the concern of social media usage by American youth is a real one, it is important to question: Exactly, whose lives is social media destroying? While particular stories in Sales’s article are able to resonate with me it is because I can identify with aspects of the narrow demographic of American youth that she identifies: the children of densely populated cities such as Los Angeles and New York. With the sample size of Sales’s research being neither large enough nor fully revealed, she omits those who are affected by the digital divide, as well as those who do not fit Steven McClaine‘s “digital default user”: white, heterosexual, affluent. It is important to acknowledge that if this article were to truly encapsulate the use of social media by young American users, it must delve into the various sub-communities that make up this category. Stories of online social media would look drastically different when framed in a different demographic of young users, such as the young black users that constitute Black Twitter or the Facebook usage of the Singaporean Gang Members interviewed by Sun Sun Lim.
Moreover, we have always been uncomfortable in terms of talking openly about young people’s sexuality because it is so unkempt and raw. What social media does is make their interactions increasingly more visible, bringing up questions and debates about the role social media plays in facilitating such interactions — questions like, “Is social media really the one to blame“? Whether or not we deem duck-facing or selfies as appropriate, social networks undoubtedly provide a space to discuss such matters, allowing us to negotiate the meanings and implications of the diverse communities that exist online.