For teenagers these days, social media is real life, with its own arcane rules and etiquette. Writer Mary H. K. Choi embedded with five high schoolers to chronicle their digital experiences. There’s twin sisters Lara and Sofia in Atherton, California; Ahmad in New Haven, Connecticut; Mira in San Francisco; and Ubakum in Houston. As with most teens, they’re elusive creatures. But when Choi asked them targeted questions, they were able to deconstruct their own behavior in exhaustive detail. You’ll what Choi discovered.
Lara and Sofia
Lara has just updated her Instagram with a picture. It’s of her and her twin sister, Sofia, in bathing suits, doing the backstroke in crystalline water. It’s shot from afar, from a height, and the girls look like synchronized swimmers or else mermaids. They’ve taken dance classes since they were three–jazz, hip hop, and ballet–and the grace and confidence with which they move their long limbs in tandem is hypnotizing. The likes are immediate. The first comment is a classic–emoji with the heart eyes–the second, “cuties.” The third features three emoji with heart eyes.
Lara and Sofia are shy, almost painfully so, with people they don’t know. They move around in the world with heads close, chatting conspiratorially. This belies how substantial their Instagram reach is. Each 16-year-old has more than 1,000 followers, especially surprising when you realize that their feeds are locked, and the girls say they at least vaguely know every single person that follows them. Perhaps more impressive, though: Each post on their feeds has at least 300 likes–meaning that roughly a third of their followers have signaled their approval. Just to give you an idea, only a fraction of Kim Kardashian’s 78 million followers actually like her photos, about 2 percent.
Lara and Sofia are sophomores at Menlo-Atherton, a public high school with 2,200 kids in a tree-lined residential neighborhood in Silicon Valley. The air smells different in Atherton. Clean and expensive. Menlo-Atherton has been ranked as a California Distinguished School by the state board of education. Mark Zuckerberg donated VR equipment to the school. Sheryl Sandberg lives nearby. So does Charles Schwab. But the school, which is large enough that Lara and Sofia see kids they’ve never noticed before all the time, also serves East Palo Alto–a city of predominantly black and Latino families with some of the last remaining affordable housing options in the area–which creates some integration issues.
When Lara and Sofia are thinking, they twirl their hair. It’s like watching an Apple rainbow pinwheel spin. It’s pretty hair. Dark and curly. It matches their strong brows–brows an actress would kill for, and which lend an air of gravitas to their faces. Rather, their face, since they are identical.
Between them the sisters have one wallet. One room. They share friends and are surprised when you can tell them apart. They say things like, “I guess what distinguishes us is we’re both similar.” Which makes it all the more surprising that their Instagram feeds are, in fact, different.
Of the two, Lara posts more. She has 18 photos on her account; Sofia has five. They put up lots more, but over time they delete them. In Sofia’s feed, she’s either alone or with a friend. Lara posts multiple images of herself with Sofia, where the twin effect is pronounced. I can’t help but wonder what it all signifies, and when I ask, they tell me “I don’t know” or else that it doesn’t mean anything.
Clearly both, however, know the rules. They’re bright. They get excellent grades and are wary–extremely dialed in. And while they’d never outright call them rules, they recognize guidelines that govern their social habits. For starters, as mentioned, both girls’ Instagram accounts are set to private. This is true of the great majority of high school kids. Some of the twins’ friends take further steps to ensure privacy: “They have a second Instagram under a different username,” Sofia says. “That’s where, you know, you have pictures of you doing drugs or going to parties,” Lara says. (The New York Times reported last year on the phenomenon of “finstagram,” a portmanteau of fake and Instagram, but the teens insist that nobody calls it that.)
Then there is the rule about likes and comments. According to Lara and Sofia, when your friend posts a selfie on Instagram, there’s a tacit social obligation to like it, and depending on how close you are, you may need to comment. The safest option, especially on a friend’s selfie, is the emoji with the heart eyes. Or a simple “so cute” or “so pretty.” It’s too much work to do anything else. If there’s any deviation, “you have to interpret the comment,” Sofia says. “If it’s nice, you’re like, is this really nice or are you …” “… I don’t know,” finishes Lara. Is the comment sincere? Or slyly sarcastic? Formulaic responses breed zero confusion. Instagram is not a place for tone or irony.
The girls do use Facebook, but it’s their most public-facing social account and their most impersonal, relegated to dance-related posts from school and extracurricular updates like participation in charitable events. With their friends, they’re most active on Instagram and Snapchat. They don’t bother with Twitter, WeChat, Yik Yak, or Kik.
On any platform, however, oversharing is considered taboo. Or else “awkward.” Awkward is a ubiquitous teen word to denote socially unsanctioned behavior. It usually implies first- or secondhand embarrassment when you or a friend step outside the rules. Awkward doesn’t sound overtly judgmental or negative; it’s deliberately vague.
One example of awkward plays on Instagram: the “deep like.” This is where you lurk on someone’s account, going way back into the archives, and accidentally double-tap on an old picture. Many of us can relate to the horror of the deep like, the inadvertent signal that betrays your lack of indifference when you’re hate-following an ex’s ex at 3 am or crushing on someone you only peripherally know.
But for girls like Lara and Sofia, it’s just as cringe-inducing when you do this to a friend. Showing too much interest in anyone is mortifying. It lacks chill. “Maybe it’s a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and you’re like, ‘OK, what have you been up to?’ And then you like it–and then you unlike it, and that makes it worse,” Sofia says. They’ll get the notification that you liked it, and if your name is missing from their list of likes, they’ll know you tried to undo the damage. When you have tools with which to stalk everyone all the time, the most seemingly aloof person wins.
Teens are strange and magical. To us they seem a little like Precogs from Minority Report–soothsayers of a mysterious, social-media-powered hyperdrive future, because this is the realm they’re already living in. Who saw Facebook coming? Teens. Same with Twitter, Vine, and now Snapchat. This puts them in a curious position. It makes them one of the most inscrutable generations in history–to people who desperately want to scrutinize them.
Let’s start with their purchasing power: an estimated $11 trillion by 2025. Money that will get directed to movie franchises adapted from YA books, rising new YouTube heartthrobs, and emerging smartphone apps you’ve never heard of. There is gobs of money to be made from prospecting teen taste.
But to parents, there is also something much more immediate and visceral. Because if you search “teen” and “Internet,” you’ll mostly find data about social media usage rates. Or else headlines where the anonymous, location-based text app Yik Yak was used for cyberbullying, or Kik, another anonymous texting app, was being used by statutory rapists to stalk high school kids.
And that’s just the terrifying, alarmist edge of the worry. For those of us old enough to recall the scandalous social impact of malicious three-way calling, the prospect of constant social media connection seems potentially explosive. As much as our lives have been irrevocably altered by the advent of the Internet, teens today–or else “screenagers” (another term they would make fun of)–have only known a world where a 10-year-old would not only need a smartphone but could win a Minecraft National Championship scholarship. How do we help them when according to them–and us–we just don’t get it?
Even still, we want them to tell us what’s coming. As #olds we’ve witnessed enough disruption to know we might get left behind–or at the very least do it way wrong. Many of us are stumped by Snapchat and Pokemon Go–why can’t we just stay at level Facebook? We need our kids to be seeing-eye teens. It’s an ass-backwards plan, but it may be the only one we’ve got.
Teens, though, are remarkably elusive. You could follow one on Twitter (although the majority avoid the platform) or chat with them during gameplay on Xbox Live, but for the most part it’s very weird for everyone. Besides, ask any teen how to use social media–what those rules are–and they won’t be able to tell you a thing. But ask them targeted questions and they’ll break down a palimpsest of etiquette in rote, exhaustive detail: the moon emoji (indicates awkwardness), screengrabbing Snapchat messages (don’t do it), and Instagram selfie saturation points (no back-to-backs). To them the rules are a birthright. To most of us adults, they’re as mysterious as the flight patterns of bees.
So I set out to study the enigmatic habits of teens, particularly on social media. As much as they’d allow me to, anyway. I wanted to try to understand how high-school-age socializing is different today, when they don’t need three-hour phone conversations to catch up. I realize that it’s anecdotal to focus on a handful of young people across the country, and even then only those teens who have access to the Internet and the means to own phones, which in itself presents a sampling error, but ?_(?)_/?
I focused on five teens in particular: Lara and Sofia in Atherton, Ahmad in New Haven, Mira in San Francisco, and Ubakum in Houston. I followed that up with additional interviews with other teens over email and Skype. They taught me a lot; if for some reason (like the implausible plot of a comedy) I had to return to high school, I’d be all right. Which is surprising, given that teens themselves can’t readily acknowledge the ways in which they’re different from the teens who came before them. But why would they? This is their first time as teens.
“I’m a young finesser,” says Ahmad, 18, a senior at Hill Regional Career High School, a predominantly black and Latino public school in New Haven, Connecticut, with just under 700 students. Ahmad’s got a mustache and a hint of scruff on his chin, and he needs a haircut, though he insists it’s part of his strategy to look extra-amazing for prom, which is in two days. He’s the class clown who runs with the popular kids, despite proudly not participating in any extracurriculars. Still, he says, he may have peaked early: “I was the shit in middle school. I dated every girl.” The last week of senior year is hectic, and he’s looking forward to being done. For Ahmad, social media is all about talking to girls. Right now he’s juggling six separate correspondences.
His M.O. when he’s crushing on someone is to like a few Instagram pictures and see if she likes anything back. Ahmad, who has 965 followers and 16 posts, scrupulously edits his feed just like Lara and Sofia do. “If I’m not touching 40 likes, I’m probably going to delete it,” he says. The window to reach 40 is about two hours. Sometimes he’ll delete a post, save it, and put it up at a better time. Dead zone for likes is 9 am to 3 pm (before school works, but rushed mornings make for dicey like counts). Ahmad primarily posts selfies (guys can get away with this more easily than girls), and he’s most inclined to post when he’s particularly pleased with his outfit: a prom photo, just him in a dark suit, ultramarine shirt with matching pocket square, and sunglasses is a perfect example. A Flashback Friday photo of him as a middle school kid goofing with a friend is a post that will be deleted by the following Monday.
When he puts up what he feels to be a particularly strong post, he’ll hit up his friends via group text to tell them to like it. The appropriate comment for male friends to leave? “No hearts, no kiss faces, no wink faces, just the gas tank.” The gas tank emoji means “gang”–it indicates fealty, like #squad. “Gang-gang, it’s like your group. Not like ‘a gang.’ It’s not that serious.”
But back to the ladies. After a few mutual photo likes, the flirtation often escalates to emoji. If an emoji with the heart eyes gets another one in return, he says, you’re good. Other positive responses: an ellipsis thought-bubble to convey that she’s thinking about you; the bashful see-no-evil monkey. “‘Oh, thank you! I appreciate it’ is what I get from that emoji,” he says. Any of these responses means he’ll take it to DM (as in direct message). Other emoji are suboptimal. “The thinky face is like, ‘What are you doing commenting on my pictures?'” He says this isn’t a hard no, but it’s not great. The worst emoji–easily–is one you may not expect. “The smiley face,” says Ahmad with a pained expression. “Yeah, that’s the ‘Thank you, but I’m not interested.'”
For teens, ghosting (where you completely disappear and stop communicating, with zero announcement or explanation) is common and not considered particularly impolite. Ask Ahmad how many girls he routinely ghosts on and he’s unequivocal: “Tons,” he says. “Just boop, delete. If I’m not interested anymore, our conversations will get dry, like ‘Hey, what you doing? Nothing. You? Nothing.’ Boom, end of conversation.” He says it’s usually a mutual, conscious uncoupling. Interest begets interest: “If you start losing juice, they’ll start losing juice.”
For as cavalier as Ahmad sounds, he’s not actually a cad. His social media liaisons rarely result in actual hookups. In fact, he often doesn’t meet the girls in real life. It’s like how 19-year-old Sidney Royel Selby III from Brooklyn, better known by his stage name “Desiigner,” boasts in his platinum-selling track “Panda” that he’s “got broads in Atlanta.” Later, in an interview with Billboard, he clarified that he’d talked to the girl in question on Facebook. “I’ve never been to Atlanta,” he said. “She just said she was from ATL, so I was like, ‘All right–I got broads in Atlanta.’ It’s real life, you feel me?”
For teens, texts and snaps and video calls are real life, the equivalent of walking around in the mall for hours in the olden times, trying to catch the eye of a hottie in the food court. As much as technology has changed the way we talk, think, and do things, some key teen problems are as they’ve always been. “I would trade my phone right now for a car,” Ahmad says. “In a heartbeat.”
For now Ahmad will have to keep most of his flirtations digital. And one method of conversation that ensures no one loses juice is to flirt by way of a Snapchat streak.
Snapchat, the social media platform that launched in 2011 and is valued at $20 billion, has become a line in the sand for many adults, the wildly popular app they refuse to adopt. For the uninitiated, in very broad strokes, this is how Snapchat works: You snap pictures or videos of yourself and your friends and update them to your “story.” Or you can send private texts, pictures, and videos to your list of friends individually.
On Snapchat there are “lenses,” which are a little like Instagram filters but way more elaborate. There’s a bug-eyed one where you barf rainbows. One makes you look like a golden cheetah; another surgically augments you to be just slightly prettier. If you harbor the suspicion that you’d look better with rhinoplasty or a chin implant, this filter will confirm it. But the feature that sets Snapchat apart is that 24 hours after you post it to your story, it disappears. This significantly lessens the pressure for everyone. For kids who are taught about digital footprints from grade school on and are regaled with cautionary tales of exemplary students who lost scholarships or college entrance because of party pictures posted to Facebook, Snapchat is easy fun. Silly, even. A quality that all other social media apps apparently lack. There’s no editing, and the backdrops for the most part are pedestrian. “I’ll just send a picture of a shoe,” says one teen I talked with. “They’ll send their ceiling back, just to keep the streak going.” The point is that everyone’s Snapchats all kind of suck.
For a streak, you send a friend a direct snap. It’s got to be a picture or a video; texts don’t count. They have to respond within 24 hours with their own picture or video. After two consecutive days you get a flame emoji by your friend’s username. Continue the volley of private messaging and the flame emoji shows a number denoting the length of the streak. If you’re about to lose the streak from inactivity, a sand timer appears to add pressure. Ahmad currently has three streaks going.
“Streaks are a big deal,” says Sofia, though the twins don’t use them for romantic pursuits. “For someone you’re really close with, you can have a 50-day streak,” she says. “But someone you’re friends with but don’t hang out with every weekend–maybe you know each other from past schools–it’s a 10-day streak.”
All the teens agree that people rarely bother with each other’s “stories.” It all goes down in the DMs, because that’s where streaks happen. The teens I talk to have anywhere from two to 12 streaks going at the same time. They all say it feels a bit like a chore but that it’s the perfect level of communication with someone you might not feel close enough to for texting. Most of the dispatches are unflattering images of close-up faces that require about as much effort as an emoji but feel infinitely less generic. If texts are for pressing logistics, snaps are to let someone know you’re thinking of them but perhaps not that hard. It’s OK to send the same snap to a few friends, but it’s considered rude to send someone a snap privately that you’ve put on your story. “That’s the worst,” they all agree.
Snaps are made for light flirtations. “It’s normal for a guy to Snapchat a girl first,” Sofia says. “You wait for the guy,” confirms Lara. Neither girl is looking to date right now, but a senior in their magazine class, Brooke, jumps in.
“After 10 minutes, if he’s not replying, I think he’s busy,” says Brooke. “It depends if he opens it or not. If he doesn’t open it, I don’t care.” This, however, is the point at which you check to see if he’s updated his public-facing story. If he’s ignoring your snap but otherwise active, it’s a huge blow to future prospects.
“I didn’t really start having friends until high school,” says Mira, in her bedroom. She reminds me of Linda Cardellini’s character from the TV show Freaks and Geeks. She’s smart–charming–with peaches-and-cream skin and bright, watchful eyes. “Now I trust them with all my heart. I can’t tell the future, but right now I’m in this. I’m set with them.”
Mira is a junior studying theater at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. It’s a public arts high school of just 600 in San Francisco, one of the smallest in the district. The bathrooms are marked gender-fluid, and the campus is so open that the school computers have been stolen. Three times.
Last year Mira’s hair was silvery lavender, but everything about her “aesthetic”–a word that you could play a drinking game with when it comes to teen girls–is ’90s themed. It’s a decade in which she was born, but just barely. She’s half Asian, half white, with a yen for yin-yang jewelry, chokers, and light-wash mom jeans. She wears a vintage plastic Sexwax watch. She’s the type of confident kid who would wear a thrifted black catsuit to school, and her last boyfriend was a senior.
Despite how savvy and well adjusted she is now, Mira had a tough time in middle school. “I’m a really gullible person,” she says as we sit down to sushirritos (a sushi-burrito hybrid, both gross and amazing). “This dude who I had strong feelings for claimed that I had bird shit on my head. He got everyone in the yard to scream and call me “shithead” over and over again.” Mira didn’t have the same support system that she does today. At the time, her mother was dying of cancer, and she didn’t want anyone to know. “I didn’t feel like my friends were close enough to know that about me,” she says.
Middle school is where most of the teens I spoke to first established social circles. That’s when they found their friends or figured out what type of clique they identified with. Middle school is when most enterprising teens successfully badger even the most obstinate parent for a smartphone, and when they first discover social media. “Social hierarchy was really based on likes on your Facebook profile picture, likes you got on Instagram,” Mira says. “And the people you posed with.” It’s when you figure out the rules. But it was during this intense time of bonding that Mira was most absent. “We used to go to LA for my mom to get treatment,” she says. “We would just stay in the house for weeks. I almost felt like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.” Her friends punished her for being distant by distancing themselves further.
Mira is convinced that she’ll die early like her mother. It’s why she loves paper sketchbooks and notebooks, hard-copy keepsakes. Things to leave behind. It’s why she prefers spending time with friends in person and will insist that everyone put their phones down when they’re socializing IRL. Still, she has an iPhone 6. And the quickest way to get a response from her is through Snapchat. “Snap me where you are I’ll come find you,” she snaps when I meet her for lunch at school. I swivel and send her a quick video of my surroundings–the theater building, the stairwell, a pigeon that’s taken residence in a planter–and sure enough, she finds me. Emails have, on average, a two-day lag if you want a response from Mira. Texts, a few hours.
Ubakum is an outlier among the teens I met. At 15 she’s the youngest and the least abashed about her phone habits: “About 50 percent of my day” is devoted to the phone, she says. She’s also the only kid I talked to with an Android. “A green bubble, that’s like a long-distance relationship,” says Ubakum. “At least that’s how my friends feel.”
Ubakum is smiley, pretty, with hair spun into Senegalese twists and glasses. She laughs and rolls her eyes reflexively after virtually every question I ask. She has a Samsung 6S Galaxy Edge, which means she’s on team green bubble. If you text her on an iPhone (which most kids have or at least want), you’ll get a green bubble instead of a blue iMessage one. Some kids (including Ubakum’s friends) will go so far as to move conversations to Snapchat, Kik, and Facebook Messenger to get rid of green bubbles in text. That said, teens largely don’t use Facebook to talk to each other. Like Lara and Sofia, they use it primarily to communicate with unseen adult forces like college admissions, sort of like how most adults’ LinkedIn accounts exist solely for the benefit of headhunters or HR departments. For teens, Facebook is a public curriculum vitae, and like a resume, it’s a hassle to update.
Ubakum loves her phone. Deeply. iPhones for her are too easy, a little basic. “I’m not a fan of user-friendliness.” We talk on her couch with NCIS paused in the background. She plays cello in the school orchestra, runs track, and hopes to one day be an anesthesiologist. The youngest of three girls, Ubakum refers to her phone as “him.” “My cello is a boy too,” she says. “If my phone does something, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ But if it’s a girl, I feel like I’m being sassed, and I can’t handle the sass.”
Were she to describe her high school in one word it would be “preppy.” The preferred uniform for the football team is khakis, polos, Sperrys; for girls, Vera Bradley. The school, Stratford, has 2,000 kids. They have great football and baseball teams, and their drama club wins awards. The students are predominantly affluent, white, and Christian. It’s the type of place where the parents are involved and the principal’s daughters are vaunted for that status. They all listen to Drake. OK, all teens listen to Drake, but these kids also listen to country music, though Ubakum does not. Jocks and cheerleaders rule. Ubakum qualifies as a jock, but she most identifies as a nerd.
She reads fan fiction on Wattpad, a story-sharing app beloved predominantly by girls, about Korean shows like Boys Over Flowers (“Wattpad is 75 percent trash and 25 percent amazing writing”), and she plays phone games like Don’t Get Fired, where you manage your work-life balance and ultimately fail. “I’ve been fired from 25 jobs,” she says. She watches anime like Bleach and Reborn on her phone. She has discovered some of her diversions through friends, but she’s often the first one to hear of a new show or game, usually on Reddit.
Her phone makes for incredible company and is the central nervous system for Ubakum’s social life. Her phone and what she does with it is less a reflection of her and more the lens through which she views the world, which sets her apart from other teens I talked to. Partly that’s because she went to Stratford instead of the high school where most of her middle school friends attend. But she’s grateful for the social reset, because she likes to spend time by herself.
Ubakum is a good egg who seems impervious to peer pressure. She doesn’t see the appeal of drinking or smoking (cigarettes are out for all the kids I talked to; weed is in) and has an Instagram account with 100 followers. Her phone is also a great motivator for good behavior. “I make sure not to get my phone taken away,” she says.
She doesn’t follow the popular kids at her school that aren’t her friends. “I don’t want to request and be rejected,” she says matter-of-factly. In life, though, she’ll talk to anyone. She and her friends are the rare teens who will spell out what about your behavior is awkward. If someone posts too many selfies, she’ll confront them. “We usually give tips and teach them the way,” she says. “We don’t want to see your face that much. We want to see you in real life, chill.”
Ubakum is similarly indifferent to the voyeuristic frisson that comes with following famous people’s accounts. If you look at Kylie Jenner’s Instagram, for example, you’ll often see an “lb” in the comments. It stands for “like back.” Some kids have a date in their bio for when their heroes liked them back. Ubakum doesn’t have time for any of it. “I don’t want to make myself feel bad,” she says of following aspirational accounts. “I’m cool too, and I do cool things.”
Ubakum’s attitude is reassuring. She’s individualistic and self-reliant. But she’s a teen, and teens are in flux. She says she rarely deletes Instagram pictures and that she’ll take pictures of food regardless of what other kids do, but last I checked, in the weeks since speaking to her, she had deleted all her images but three.
It’s hardly revelatory, but it’s important to remember that teens are changing all the time. When you talk about them in groups, you’ll do it wrong. If you ask them to tell you about themselves, you’ll do it wrong. The only thing you can do is interact with them and draw loose conclusions based on their behavior. But if there’s one thing about teens that shouldn’t be ignored, it’s that their ability to use technology safely while taking advantage of all its benefits depends largely on their relationship with their parents.
Lara and Sofia’s magazine class polled a sample of their school, and despite how popularity at Menlo-Atherton can be balkanized by socioeconomic and racial divides, students unanimously prioritized family over anything else. “Family trumped friends, which surprised me,” Lara says. Other categories included money, health, beauty, and love.
Ubakum responds to her mom’s emails for her, and Mira often set-designs her father’s Instagram images. Sofia and Lara text their mom between classes just to say hi. All the kids’ parents are allowed to follow them on social media but aren’t allowed to comment or tag them in photos without prior approval.
The parents oblige the wishes of their kids, and most trust their instincts about their children’s digital social circles. Ahmad’s grandparents have Wi-Fi and he doesn’t, so he walks over to use the Internet and help around the house a few times a week. His grandmother cooks every Sunday for the extended family. “You gotta be the one to meet my family,” Ahmad says. There’s also a great deal of empathy for their parents. “Sometimes on Snapchat, we have friends that will make a story that’s embarrassing about their mom,” says Sofia. “It’s just so sad,” Lara says.
As for the rules? Well, the other thing that becomes clear after hanging out with teens for a few months is that everyone is making up the rules as they go. Teens aren’t money machines, oracles, or bellwethers of an uncertain future. They’re mercurial because they’re evolving, figuring things out for themselves. Teens, in short, are what we’ve always known them to be. They get crushes, try to study, fight with friends, fight with their parents, get grounded, and sometimes make poor choices as they try to find their place in the world. They love their parents while scaring the living daylights out of them.
Once you realize this you also realize that it’s our job to help our teens grow into the future. Not the other way around. Even if it’s all so agonizingly awkward.
Mary H.K. Choi (@choitotheworld) wrote about Instagram street photographer Daniel Arnold in issue 22.07.
This article appears in the September 2016 issue