The Secret Digital Lives Of Today’s Rising Freshmen

This American Life Status Update

This American Life recently posted a podcast called “Status Update” that delved into the online behavior of three teenage girls who were entering high school.  The girls spoke at length about Instagram and the complex rules that govern how they use it, how they maintain their social connections, and the “rules” of the “game” when interacting online.  Although my research is not about adolescents, what the girls revealed was in very close alignment with the behaviors I found among the college students in my study.  In particular, traditionally aged college students, upon starting their college careers, exhibit many of the same behaviors as these girls.  This behavior lessens over time, but it provides great insight into the developmental journeys that occur prior to first year students entering college.

In the Prologue and Act I of the podcast, Jane, Julia, and Ella discuss how they use Instagram as a means of maintaining and nurturing their social graphs.  As the host, Ira Glass, correctly points out, Instagram functions as a real-time social diagram that lets the teens know who’s “in,” who’s “out,” who their friends are, and who want to be their friends.  For an adult looking into this world, it may seem strange at first, but there is a logic to the game that plays out here.  This game involves posting pictures of one’s self and one’s friends and then accumulating engagements, Likes and comments on the posts.  By engaging with a friend’s content, you reinforce your friendship and boost each other’s self-esteem.

The girls in the podcast state that it is a “social obligation” in their circles to comment on a picture.  There is an “unspoken agreement” and a series of “unspoken rules everyone knows and follows.”  As the girls themselves recognize, “there is definitely a weird psychology about it.”  For the initiated, this may seem like an odd practice and a big waste of time.  In the teenage world, however, it is of vital importance.  Thinking developmentally, this teenage behavior makes perfect sense–externally defined adolescents are seeking validation from others.  Instagram acts as one big external validation tool and a means by which one can determine status and receive psychological reinforcement in real-time.

It is somewhat hard to articulate, but the girls (along with the probing of Ira Glass) do an excellent job of explaining how the game works.  The first fifteen minutes of the show are devoted to this segment.  Have a listen!

(See also: It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd)

Do you see these behaviors in the teenagers in your life?

What about first year college students?