Teenagers have a bad reputation for being moody, lazy, ungrateful and spoiled. The teenage era is remembered by many of us Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers or early Gen Y-ers as a hazy period of self-doubt, experimentation, rebellion, bad haircuts and truly cringe-worthy fashion experiments. Puberty, bullying and confrontation with peers and parents are just some of the dramatic side effects of entering the 13 to 19-year-old bracket, with societal pressures after high school only exacerbating the whole concept of ‘growing up’ for young people.
But since the advent of social media, things have changed in a dramatic way for teenagers – in both good and bad ways. With the internet in their pocket, a litany of ‘followers’, unmanageable numbers of virtual friends and with access to pretty much every platform, resource and community in the world, a millennium teenager is subject an entirely different host of influences than a child of the 80s was.
The statistics surrounding contemporary social media use are scary, though not surprising. A recent survey by Facebook revealed there are 15 million active Australian Facebook users, equating to a whopping 60% of the population. This is more than the percentage of Americans who showed up to vote in the 2012 presidential elections, or just under the percentage of citizens who typically show up to vote in the UK elections.
A social media use survey by Deloitte showed that, predictably, millennials are more prolific consumers of social media, with 77% of young Australians aged 14 to26 and 84% of the 27 to 32-year-old bracket using social media daily. For Aussie teenagers, the favoured networks are those that are newer, more mobile and image focused, such as Instagram and Snapchat. A 2017 Sensis Social Media Report revealed that young Australians’ love affair with social media (alongside smashed avocado and almond lattes, of course) had grown to such proportions that the vast majority of the 18 – 29 demographic confessed to checking their social media accounts while on the toilet, with a third admitting they would happily ignore friends and family in order to ‘check in’.
And this doesn’t even take into account unconventional social media use such as online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, league of Legends and The Sims, which are becoming increasingly popular ways of connecting with other young gamers and like-minded individuals.
So, what are the impacts? How has social media changed the Australian youth culture?
For a start, there is homogenization occurring on a grander scale than ever before. It makes sense, since kids get their culture, gossip and attitudes from platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. The number of ‘likes’ one attracts correlates to popular vote, and in order to gain the popular vote young people must often compromise their unique identity in some way, shape or form. Even social media platforms themselves are becoming homogenized; blending into one penultimate platform. Facebook and Twitter are coming to rely heavily on multimedia given the tendency for videos, GIFs and images to attract higher rates of engagement than text-based posts, and the optional add-ons or services available across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are seeming replicas of one another. If you can’t beat the competition, join em, right?
But let’s talk fashion. Fashion has played an integral role in the essence of youth culture emerging from a post-war world, with the never-before-experienced liberties of self-expression dominating in a society no longer constrained by religion. Fashion certainly has had its moments – from the swinging 60s where freedom, rebellion and liberalization in the wake of the Vietnam War saw the advent of bright colours and psychedelic prints, to the retro 80s era, to the minimalist influence of the grungy 90s to the now – where jelly sandals and chokers are no longer (thank goodness) and instead, Australian teens are looking to Victoria’s Secret models and other influencers on social media to seek fashion inspiration. Social media platforms are also becoming increasingly popular among companies as a means of attracting young buyers to online stores, with 52% of people purchasing an item online after clicking a follow-through link from social media.
The result is that today’s youth is beginning to exhibit signs of one dominant cultural aesthetic, and he or she who denies or fails to adopt that aesthetic might as well be committing social suicide. Have you noticed the tendency in recent years for young girls to be sporting almost identical outfits to every other girl in their group? It’s a pattern being seen nationwide, and globally too. Be it the horrific ugg boot trend or the even more horrific inclination to wear denim shorts revealing half of one’s buttocks, fashion trends in the age of social media don’t just impact a school or friendship circle – they go viral.
Bringing us to the next impact of social media on young Aussies: vanity in quantities never before seen and a crisis of self-esteem. Social media has been linked to higher levels of loneliness, envy, anxiety, depression, narcissism and decreased social skills, mostly due to the psychological effects of having one’s everyday affairs publically judged by hundreds, if not thousands, of followers. It’s no wonder children are checking into counselling clinics country-wide. The recent case of young Australian social media icon, model Essena O’Neill, going public about her mental health issues stirred much debate about the blurred line between authentic happiness and happiness as depicted via social media – and it’s about time. The constant ‘vanity validation’ experienced by so many young Australians today as a result of having access to platforms where such validation is possible, is becoming increasingly problematic. Psychologists refer to the ‘rewarding feeling’ experienced when we receive positive responses to our posts or social media activities as ‘intermittent reinforcement’. It is this reward that keeps young kids going back for continued validation of posts, keeping them digitally connected wherever possible.
Then there is the claim that social media is making young Australians apathetic, less interested in politics and lazier than ever – a result of their uninhibited access to endless entertainment options without any real-life repercussions. A tempting option for anyone, right? It is said social media is desensitizing them, disconnecting them from reality and fostering within them a sick fascination with ‘violence gone viral’, evidenced by the ‘King Hit’ trend that went rampant in communities across Australia as well as online from late 2012 until 2015.
Social media has changed Australian youth culture. For the worse, it seems. There is no denying it. But it has also helped young people find a voice and a platform for advocating for social change. It has opened up the eyes of young people who previously might not have paid attention to issues outside of their local community. It has provided a space for young influencers to make their mark in the world. Young Australians simply need to come to grips with the remarkable possibilities social media provides – and soon.