Is social media turning us back into teenagers?
By Genie Carter
I try to spend as little time as I can on Facebook, but like so many people, I quickly get sucked into the ease of scrolling through stories and clicking the little red numbers when they come up. I know I’ve been on it too long when I start to feel a sort of existential nausea, a fluttering anxious insecurity that culminates in a weight on my chest. I only recently connected those feelings with ones I often felt in high school: the desire to fit in and be considered cool, the sense that everyone is leading more glamorous and colorful lives than me, the fear of public humiliation for breaking the social code. This led me to question whether social media has actually caused adults to regress into teenage behavior, caused our adolescent tendencies to reemerge. Here are a few thoughts in favor of this argument:
1.We’re obsessed with gossip and rumors.
When I was in high school, a freshman peed on a sophomore during a drunken night on an exchange trip to Ecuador. Like, in a sexual way. I wasn’t actually there, but I know that it happened, just as everyone in the school quickly knew. I would pass that girl in the hallway among whispers of “that’s her,” and wonder how she could show her face at school after such an embarrassing incident (unsurprisingly, the guy she peed on got little attention and most people forgot he was even involved, illustrating a double standard that would come to be all too familiar as I became an adult woman). You probably have a similar story about someone in high school, or maybe you were the unlucky person the story was about.
The ease with which rumors and fake news spread across the internet is akin to the ease with which that pee rumor spread across my high school. We can blame Zuckerberg all we want (and believe me, I do. Fuck that guy.), but at the end of the day, we’re the ones who can’t resist sharing articles we only read the headlines of, we’re the ones who just had to make such a big deal about Idris Elba being James Bond that it can’t possibly happen now (also, racism), we’re the ones who all have to have an opinion on the latest uninformed and/or politically incorrect thing a celebrity tweeted. The whole world has become as small as my high school. Zuckerberg opened the school, and we all registered to attend. Gossip has certainly always been a popular activity; look at any Jane Austen novel. But the combination of how easy it is to perpetuate rumors across the internet, the heavily eroded lack of social stigma for spreading them, and the dehumanizing effect of gossiping from safely behind a screen has had far more dangerous consequences than some whispers in a hallway. We literally elected a president because he and his Russian friends spread rumors about the other candidate. Ok, that’s both alleged and an oversimplification, but this is the internet, so I’m allowed to do that.
2. We’re obsessed with labels and categories
I remember very clearly a conversation I had with two of my friends when I was probably about 12. They were both Jewish, and they asked me if I was Jewish or Christian. I didn’t know how to answer. I knew I wasn’t Jewish, but I had never really heard my family talk about us being Christian either. “Well, if you’re not Jewish, you must be Christian,” my friends said. I went home and asked my mom if we were Jewish or Christian, and she said neither. I told her we had to be one or the other. She laughed and said “what about people in India?” That was perplexing to me because I did know about Hinduism; my parents had giant beautiful posters of Vishnu and Krishna on our kitchen walls to hide where the old wallpaper was peeling. I went back to school and told my friends I wasn’t Christian or Jewish, and that those weren’t the only two options. It was met with confused looks and dismissal; I think they just didn’t know how to deal with that information at the time, so they chose to ignore it. That’s how the internet feels to me now. You’re either for or against something, and if you’re a grey area in the middle, you either get forced into one of those categories or ignored.
Maybe that’s why we all get so flustered over things like Aziz Ansari. If something doesn’t fit into neat categories, it doesn’t allow people to express the opinions aligned with their carefully crafted public categories of belief. To question the stance of the category you are associated with (ie, liberal, conservative, feminist, etc) is to risk belittlement and alienation from your own group. Similarly, using the wrong word for something can be a capital offense even if the intention is not. As a writer, of course I believe in the power of words and think it’s important to use the correct ones whenever possible. But as Leslie Feinberg, LGBTQ rights activist and author of the incredible book Stone Butch Blues, once said about their preferred use of gender pronouns: “I care which pronoun is used, but people have been respectful to me with the wrong pronoun and disrespectful with the right one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.” Such nuance is often lost in the noise of opinions on social media. While social media didn’t create the concept of narrow social categorization, the format both exacerbates it and makes it acceptable. Having your thoughts expressed primarily through writing on a public forum cements them in a way that a casual debate with a friend doesn’t. It makes your thoughts into a stance, as opposed to the ever-evolving and often contradictory set of beliefs they usually are. Just like how teenagers form cliques, social media forces us to decide which camp we’re in. If you have a complex view on something… too bad, everyone’s attention span is too short to read it. And much like teenage cliques, our media bubbles only reinforce our opinions and create even stronger divides.
3. We’re confused and horrified when our idols turn out to be flawed humans.
Most of us think our parents are perfect benevolent gods when we’re children. Then we hit our teenage years, realize they aren’t, and start to rebel and criticize. This phenomenon has replicated itself time and time again as we elevate celebrities to a god-like status and then tear them down when they trespass. Even minor missteps are worthy of outrage and public humiliation across social media. While the celebrities of yesteryear certainly had their scandals and tabloid dramas, the extent to which we both idolize celebrities (ie, Beyonce) and pick apart their words and lives (ie, also Beyonce) has surely gotten more extreme. When widely shared, any positive story that circulates on social media quickly goes from look how awesome this person is to this person is my hero and I love them unconditionally to um, actually this person also did something questionable/offensive to you’re all losers for having said you liked this person and I’m better than you for pointing out their flaws. We are quick to idolize and quick to criticize. The internet thrives on our constant pendulum swing between childlike idolization and angry teenage dismissal. We constantly make fun of how people look to the point where humiliating people for their fashion trespasses has become a spectator sport. Moreover, our constant bickering about the shocking humanity of our idols both distracts from larger issues, and plays into the capitalist machine through clicks and ads.
Maybe there’s an element of nostalgia to all this. As adults, we often fantasize about the time in our lives when all we had to worry about was silly teenage preoccupations instead of boring grown-up concerns like finances, health insurance. Social media is ultimately a form of entertainment and distraction. If that’s all it was, this would be less of a problem, but unfortunately, social media has also become both a primary source of news for many people, as well as the main mode of communication. It’s doubtful that Facebook and Twitter are going to take any real steps to solve the social problems that they have caused, because they benefit from them. The more we gripe on social media, the more money they make from ad sales. That means the responsibility lies with us. Social media can be used to spark complex and productive discussions of social and political issues, but it often isn’t. It constantly amazes me how often I see people I know to be smart, rational adults engaging in pointless childish debates on Facebook, resorting to personal insults and humiliation tactics. It’s designed to be addictive, and even the best of us get sucked into its spirals of absurdity. At this point it seems unlikely it will go out of style any time soon, so all we can really do is learn to manage our relationship to it. If this is the era of social media’s teenagehood, I hope we will soon enter its adulthood. The #metoo movement showed us its potential; we can use it to affect real change. We just have to grow up. Cause high school was terrible and you could not pay me to go back there.
Genie Cartier is a San Francisco native. She graduated from UCLA with a BA in English/ Creative Writing and earned an MFA in Creative Writing/ Poetry from SFSU. She was the host of the poetry reading series Poets Upstairs in 2016. Check out her first novella, Fog City Summer on this very website. When not writing, she is also a professional circus performer of 23 years and recently co-created a duo show with her sister called Yesterday is Tomorrow. Find out more at http://cartiersisters.weebly.com/.