How screens made of tiny words and complex algorithms deepened the cuts of our teenage insecurities
By Laviza Syed
If you were born between the years of 1997 and 2003, it’s safe to say you’ve been part of the generation that grew up with social media, technology and watched these advancements come to life, experiencing each phase at a new point in your own life. Many of us saw the rise and fall of MySpace, the use of Facebook, which soon transitioned to platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.
As we grew older, however, the ways in which we utilized social media became less about staying in contact with friends and staying updated on everyone’s lives and became more about building a brand and staying up to date with current trends.
In the early days of Facebook, people would use the app to post life updates about their family, a school dance or Thanksgiving dinner, and were only in contact with classmates or those they had a direct link with. Slowly, what was once a way of receiving updates turned into a social monster revolving around body image and self-esteem.
As our generation grew into our teen years, the shift from Facebook to Instagram began slowly. Instagram’s entire purpose when it was first released was to be a photo sharing app. However, using it as teenagers, the majority of kids would only post photos of themselves and sometimes their friends. This is when a cultural shift began to occur — social platforms became less about connection and more about content.
Instagram launched filters in 2010 and stories in 2016. These changes not only affected the platform, but the way users interacted with it. Introducing face-altering filters to adolescents was the starting point of cultivating a generation that exhibits body image and esteem issues.
The most prevalent example of this today can be seen through TikTok.
TikTok stands out from other social media apps because its existence functions on a different playing field. TikToks are able to retain the audience’s limited attention spans by providing new and fascinating information in less than 60 seconds, while creating an elite online society with app-wide inside jokes. The culture on the app creates an environment where niche communities are formed and everyone has the same chance to go viral.
Though, the problem that this creates on the app is a lack of social boundaries and the creation of trends that exemplify insecurities. A term that has been coined on the platform recently has been “new insecurity unlocked,” which refers to the sheer rapidity of ways to pick apart your body and face.
A current example of this can be seen through the “scalp check” trend. This trend involves users lifting their cameras above their heads to film their scalps in order to see if their hair is balding or thinning.
Another example is the new eyebrow trend, which uses a built-in TikTok filter that maps premade lines and proportions onto the user's face to see if their eyebrows are properly placed on their faces. Many have called this the “perfect eyebrow” filter. In line with the eyebrow filter, another commonly used filter is used to check face proportions, to see if the user’s features line up with what the “ideal” face looks like.
Since everything is done behind the safety of a screen, social media platforms have removed a sense of boundaries, as now people think it’s acceptable to point out flaws in others, coupled with filters and trends that can go on for ages. Face symmetry, hip dips, dark circles, big noses, stretch marks, body hair and acne are just a few examples. But, these so-called flaws now have a broader reach. Younger kids have increased access to technology, and with limited supervision, they can be exposed to too much too early, and allow themselves to be profited off of at ages as young as six or seven.
Not only has TikTok created more insecurities within teens and young adults, but it has also created an ideal type of “girl.” An entire genre of TikToks now consist of people trying too hard to achieve a perfect, ideal lifestyle — going to the gym every day, eating three balanced meals, being productive, having a social life, getting eight hours of sleep — fostering a fixation on hyper-productivity rather than valuing a healthy balance of rest and work.
Behind the facade of this extremely put-together individual lies the reason behind this change in the way we use social media — platforms have become less about staying in contact and more about being a content creator. Algorithms and engagement on apps like TikTok and Instagram have created a global demographic. Now, posting something at the right time could connect you with audiences around the world, placing more emphasis on using these platforms to increase your following, rather than remaining up to date with friends and family.
People can spend up to 20 minutes perfecting the placement of objects and people to post a story that will hold followers’ attention for no more than 10 seconds because they are no longer posting for their friends; they are posting to increase their brand and broaden their reach.
It isn’t all bad. Social media has many positive aspects as well. TikTok and Twitter have allowed people to be introduced to new aesthetics, food styles and curate their personalities. It has led people to try new foods they otherwise wouldn’t have, as well as learn about other cultures more in-depth. It has also allowed people to hear the lived experiences of those they would never have connected with, if not for the reach of algorithms widening their perspectives. It is possible, though, that this level of openness and instant gratification has created a sense of identity loss from being exposed to so many ways of life. People now don’t know which chronically online “style” they want to experience life in.
With rapidly advancing means of technology and the constant creation of social platforms, we never know when the next TikTok or Instagram will be launched, or how deeply invested in it we’ll be. But the creation of insecurities will be a consistent factor, exposing users to the ideal body type to compare themselves to unrealistic expectations to create profit.
Maybe the way to fix the problem is to forget aesthetics and branding, and go back to posting unflattering family photos?
This piece was published in New Wave's Spring 2022 Issue