I grew up in a drafty farmhouse in southern Minnesota. My sister was gone to college by the time I entered middle school, and my parents and I lived 20 miles away from my nearest new friend. If I were a little older, this is where I’d tell you that I had lonely teen years during which my only friends were books and trees. But, being a child of the internet age, I wasn’t alone at all—all my classmates were hanging out nightly on AOL Instant Messenger and, a few years later, the earliest iteration of Facebook.
In my case, the internet bridged a physical distance that would otherwise be insurmountable—I didn’t live in town, I wasn’t able to drive yet and my parents weren’t going to chauffeur me around every night just because two of my friends were playing Halo and I felt left out. My small online communities—which were largely one-on-one conversations with friends that we’d pick up at school the next day—created a life where I spoke as much online as I did in real life. In retrospect, this is great training for the modern white-collar workplace, where I do pretty much all my talking via email.
I learned to communicate, but I also learned what to hold back—if you said something cruel about a classmate, your conversation partner could copy-paste it to the victim in a second, and reputations suffered. We learned to curate, to prune and to artfully exaggerate our real-world activities to make life seem more glamorous to a reader—in short, we created a language for social media.
Language creates controversy, so we also figured out how to create dustups around online communications. A brand tweeted something insensitive; how do we respond? A star’s nude photos leaked; is it their fault for taking them? A relative made callous remarks about one group or another; do you engage and argue or unfollow and ignore?
Now, 10-plus years after the mass advent of the original social media platforms, we millennials find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of judging today’s teens for their adaptations and expansions of the medium. The Pew Research Center’s annual report on teens’ use of social media is always an illuminating look into the changing practices of our times—and a good barometer of where communication in general is heading.
According to the 2015 report, a quarter of teens are online “almost constantly.” Ninety-two percent of teens use the internet daily, up from a mere 51 percent in 2005, when I was a sophomore in high school at the peak of my IMing practice. Of course, smartphones were just Steve Jobs’s obsession then, and not his legacy; now, nearly three in four teens has or has access to a smartphone. It’s actually more of a surprise that some kids don’t go online daily.
Statistics like these were (and still are) like catnip for bored opinion-page writers and CNN anchors in search of a quick, umbrage-inducing story that stokes the ever-renewing myth of “today’s wayward teens.” An Onion-produced video from 2012, titled “Brain-Dead Teen, Only Capable of Rolling Eyes and Texting, To Be Euthanized,” pretty much sums up the depth of cultural conversation about social media happening in traditional media.
The general disdain for social media in the older generations has even given rise to the puzzling sentiment that “young people don’t care about privacy,” even when that idea is verifiably false. A 2013 report from the University of Southern California showed that a sizable portion of the population at any age does care about online privacy. Participants were asked to offer their responses to the sentiment “No one should ever be allowed to have access to my personal data or web behavior.” Seventy-seven percent of 35-and-older participants agreed, compared with 70 percent of millennials.
That’s just a seven-point difference, but that didn’t stop USA Today from writing a quasi-alarmist article about the general trend titled “Millennials don’t worry about online privacy.” Another oft-cited statistic is that millennials are slightly more likely to engage with brands and companies online in exchange for deals or products—as opposed to older adults, who have never once fallen for a phone scam or chain email.
In general, younger people have flocked toward replacing or “disrupting” traditional practices with smartphone-enabled practices, from food deliveries to splitting a bill at a restaurant to hailing a cab. Even critical life decisions like finding and getting jobs can be made easier by a strong social media presence and the use of the right digital tools. Millennials have created a new kind of metaphysics: “I press a few icons on my phone and food, shelter or money appears shortly after.”
In the sex and dating world, we can even summon a partner faster by using social media. I remember well the moral panic and general sense of creepiness online dating inspired when I was in college: If you couldn’t meet someone in person, what was wrong with you? And then came OkCupid, which exploded the vagueness and what-if of meeting a partner into identifiable facts: shared interests, similar answers to personality tests, attractive photos, even a hard-and-fast percentage rating that told you how likely you are to like or love a person.
That fast-twitch response— “Knowing what I know, do I like this person right now?” —later gave us Tinder, which has all the ease and speed of a smartphone food delivery but with a live human on the other end. Each day, there are 10 million active users making a daily total of 1.4 billion swipes on the app. I have friends who use it for sex and I have friends who have gotten married and had babies through swiping. It’s such an established part of the youth lexicon, and though it’s not for teens, they’ll organically inherit and redevelop a mode of dating and sex that was unimaginable even to my generation.
So why has the initial shock and horror about social media given way to a muted buzz of acceptance? For all the spilled ink and tortured think pieces about teens’ use of social media, everybody’s doing it: fully 80 percent of American adults who use the internet have Facebook profiles. Whether you’re a rural retiree or a young city dweller, online communication has grown to encompass everyone. There’s less room for moralizing and opining when everyone participates in the same behavior. It also helps that things are generally shinier and catchier than they used to be—Snapchat, which is exploding in popularity, is candy for people of any age, and especially for younger grown-ups who are desperate to avoid feeling old. (Who’d have thought: A platform designed for self-deleting sexy nudes has become a powerhouse of content creation and conversation.)
After a decade, what have we learned?
To some, this is a monolithic hellscape where advertising is presented as news, truth is a series of opinions, up is down. Some days, I agree, but while it’s true that these devices exist as a way to deliver advertising and harvest user data, so were television, radio and newspapers. Social media’s advantage—one that came to bear for better or worse in this year’s election—lies in the ability to spread alternative messages and reach wide audiences with non-mainstream-approved content. This ability—to bring alternative messages to a wider audience—created the Bernie Sanders campaign and strengthened the current neo-Nazi movement. Twitter in particular has become the platform of political discussion—to noxious ends, at times.
And, of course, using social media invites a host of other problems. Teens who use social media report higher rates of anxiety and lower feelings of self-esteem than those who don’t go online. Cyberbullying, hate speech and suicide are real and heartbreaking issues. And yet, we choose to continue, for no other reason than “this is the way we communicate now.”
The close of this year—the 10th birthday of Twitter—brings an ideal opportunity to ask, “What’s different now?” With the rancor of this year’s news events somewhat in the rearview—and an unprecedented political setting in the U.S.—we are reckoning for the first time with a new realization: social media matters. The tossed-off tweets, political memes, circular comments-section arguments—the things we generally profess to hate have coalesced into actual reality. We’ve seen the consequences of turning “engagement” from a physical activity into a digital yardstick. Realistically, the question is not how social media will change for today’s teens and tomorrow’s, but how different the “real” world will become for them as it adapts itself to our new universal language.
Alex Gaterud is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. As of 2016, the three most important things in his life are Bruce Springsteen, Sour Patch Kids and playing the drums.