Being A Teen Girl On Social Media

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

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?

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