How to do Instagram right according to 15-year-olds

I’m 24 and use social media all the time – but am I doing it right according to the generation just below me?

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As a teenager in the mid-2000s, I very much came of age during the rise of social media. Seemingly overnight, the way that my friends and I filled our evenings and weekends changed. We finally had something to do, inside, where it was warm. Myspace, MSN and Bebo were free, (fairly) creative, and felt social when we couldn’t get a lift or afford to actually hang out. Over a decade later, for both adults and today’s teens, very little has changed in that sense – but the landscape of social media, the way we use it, and how often we use it certainly has. Where Myspace, Bebo and MSN have all died a death in their own ways (RIP) Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have taken their place, all fulfilling different functions and all more accessible than they were in 2006. We now, do not log off.

Which is fine, mostly, despite the growing concerns that it makes teenagers stunted and antisocial, but the jury’s still out on that – social media can be and has been lifesaving for many. What it does mean though is that for teens who never really grew up without it, there are rules attached to social media use that those of us who only ever had to worry about the snub of being kicked out of a top 8 wouldn’t even think of.

In my experience, people who grew up during the rise of social media and those who have never known life without social media use it very differently. People in their 20s and 30s are seemingly less concerned with their feed looking ugly, with posting too often, or with having old posts available. Teens, either because they’re better at it or because they’re more aware of online safety and of the consequences of fucking up, seem to post less, post better, and delete posts more often. They have more rigid rules attached to their social media use, and more social consequences if they stray.

Full disclosure – I am 24 and have no teenage friends, this is only something I recognised after following my boyfriend’s then 17-year-old sister on Instagram. Despite having the platform for two years, she only has 18 posts, all of which are meticulously curated with simple captions and obsessive vetting before they go live. She, like all of her friends, is private. Until this point, until I saw a real-life teen obsessing over her social media in ways I had never even considered, I felt young. By the time I interviewed teenagers for this piece and one told me that she had only heard of Myspace because she’s “seen people online talking about their MySpace friends and being ‘emo on Myspace in 2007’”, I knew that my youth was dead and buried.

Teenagers use social vastly differently to the way that people only five or six years older do. The additional rules that they follow are more implicit than explicit – painfully obvious to those of us who grew up thinking it was appropriate to spill our deepest feelings in Myspace bulletins, but less so to those who have had it drilled into them that their future employers will look at their output. But what are these rules? Do they always follow them? Do they wish they could be as chill as all the dumb 25-year-olds I know who will let the world know they’re still up at 7am?

WHICH PLATFORMS ARE “COOL”?

First up we need to know which socials are even cool at all. Roxy, 15, told me that she uses “Snapchat and Instagram, sometimes Facebook” but that Facebook isn’t cool anymore. Esme, 15, said that she personally doesn’t have Facebook because “not so many of my friends have it, so I think it would feel a little empty and pointless”. Emily, 18, went one step further and said that she “hates” Facebook and that it’s the worst platform. Tolly, aged 17, is a blogger and said that she only uses Twitter for professional and blog-based content. Of the teens I spoke to, they unanimously agreed that, much like people my age, Instagram was the one that they use most, and incidentally the one with the most ‘rules’ – so, naturally, most of these sections cover how they use Instagram.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU POST?

My friends and I are, for the most part, unfiltered beasts who will spray our content all over every platform that’ll take it. Posting three photos in a row on Instagram is annoying but not uncommon. Sharing most moments of your day on your story from coffee to sesh to coffee is ill-advised, but normal. For teens, though, they think about it a lot more.

Roxy said that she posts on Instagram “every two weeks” but if she or her peers didn’t post on Snapchat daily, “you'd just look like you didn't have friends”. She went as far as to say that on Instagram “if you post more that every day then that would be annoying and everyone would unfollow you”. Emily said that a lot is “every two days” and that she posts once a month. But how much do they care about what their peers think? Emily said that if one of her friends started posting daily she would wonder what they were doing. Which, as someone who grew up posting three Myspace bulletins in a row for attention, seems mad.

PRIVATE OR PUBLIC?

Something else that’s been apparent on teens’ Instagrams is that most of them are private. It’s probably for the best – despite my generation having it drilled into our heads that it was dangerous to make friends online, we still had public profiles and met up with boys from Myspace. We are still terrible at concealing our bad behaviour online. Eleanor, a 16-year-old blogger, said that most of her friends are private and so is she, because it’s “what is essentially safe on the internet”. Roxy said that she’s private because “you wouldn't let someone creepy-looking follow you”. Tolly said that she thinks it’s “really important that younger people understand why privacy is so important. They need to truly understand who can see what they post and the fact that nothing really ever gets deleted or goes away”. That accountability is key – we know that our social media use can be used against us, but teenagers evidently are far more aware and take better steps to protect themselves.

“It's really important that younger people understand why privacy is so important. They need to truly understand who can see what they post and the fact that nothing really ever gets deleted or goes away.”

WHAT IS THE CORRECT CHIRPSING ETIQUETTE?

Social media has simultaneously simplified and complicated dating, sex, and everything inbetween. We all use it, however clumsily, to strike up relationships with people. We lay cleverly-devised but actually-really-blatant thirst traps. When I was a teen, I would appear offline and wait for my crush to come on MSN – then, when they did, I’d come online and wait for them to speak to me. They were likely doing the same. It didn’t work very well. We don’t speak anymore. But how do the kids go about it? Roxy said that “if you fancied someone, you’d put ‘pop up’ on your story on Snapchat. Then you might send it to them as well”. She added that “some people might put a selfie or a cheeky photo”. Emily said that if you fancy someone, “you've got to build it up. Like you'll start with the chatting, and then you've got to move on to actual snaps. You’ve gotta take it in stages”.

CAPTIONS

Teens, despite putting so much effort into their feeds, have outrageously simple captions under their photos. Mine and my friends’ are a mess – attempts to be funny, descriptions of what’s happening, some emojis. All of the teens I looked at (unless they were bloggers or influencers) went with “xx” “palm tree emoji” “love” or something similarly basic. Their bios were the same. Roxy said that she puts a lot of thought into her captions and that she tends to “go for a really simple caption that wouldn't get you judged”. She also said that teens will caption their photos with “[friend] chose” because “if you post a selfie of just yourself, you’re saying that they said you should post it” so it’s less like you “love yourself”. Esme said that she used to do this but got frustrated with these rules and started trying to have more honest captions a year or so ago. Emily said that people who “overuse emojis” in their captions get on her nerves, but that captions are hard. This is really less about safety and more, sadly, about how friends judge each other for their behaviour online.

“If you fancy someone, you've got to build it up. Like you'll start with the chatting, and then you've got to move on to actual snaps. You’ve gotta take it in stages”

LIKING PHOTOS

I was honestly stunned the first time the only teen I know sent me a message that simply read “insta x”. I asked her what she meant, and she told me that I had to go and like her latest Instagram post. Where teenagers have rules around social media that seem rigid, for me, I reckon it wouldn’t go down that well if I started messages my friends telling them they had to like my post. If someone doesn’t like it, it’s not a case of feeling heartbroken – it’s more a case of: my friends are sometimes too busy to be looking at my feed 24/7. Or they just didn’t like it. That’s fine.

Esme told me that she always likes her friends’ photos, because she thinks “it's a nice thing to do to show that you support them”. She added that many people post “‘recent Instagram’, ‘like and comment on recent’ or ‘recent’ on their Snapchat/Instagram stories” to send people over to their latest post.

WHY DELETE POSTS?

As grossly nostalgic babies obsessed with revisiting our past, people my age tend to use Instagram as an archive – a way to catalogue old memories. Teenagers take the “Insta” part of “Instagram” a little more seriously, posting photos for the likes in the moment and then deleting the bulk of them periodically, leaving behind a clean grid of highlights. Roxy said that “people delete because then everyone can just see all your photos easier - and it looks cooler. Also, scrolling through your Instagram, you might find a lot of really embarrassing old photos that you just don't want people to see”. Emily said that she deletes because she finds that she doesn’t like photos as much days or weeks after she posts it, but she knows people who will delete and repost until they get more likes.

“People delete because then everyone can just see all your photos easier - and it looks cooler. Also, scrolling through your Instagram, you might find a lot of really embarrassing old photos that you just don't want people to see”

WHAT IS A FAUX PAS?

Maybe someone less gross would feel differently, but for me, there’s very little my friends could do on social media that would shock me, bar being actually offensive. For the teens, though, a lot of thought goes into what others think of them, and for good reason – because they’re all secretly upholding these rules with one another. Roxy said that it’s a faux pas when people put “‘no replies’ on their story” which means “I'm not going to reply to you, because I'm in a really bad mood” she said it’s an attention seeking thing, which is a kind of social use I can understand. She also said that it is normal to send selfies to your friends to choose what you’ll eventually post. In that sense, the way they use social media feels more community-based and dependent – I can’t imagine asking a friend for their opinion on a photo unless they were in it. She also said that it’s a faux pas to “have your boobs out” in a photo.


Tolly said that she doesn’t understand people who “feel the need to post about every single thing that has happened to them during the day. If you're opening up to friends and more than just family, I don't think it should be used as a journaling device.” As far as faux pas, Emily cited “emoji overuse”, while Esme thinks you shouldn’t post on your Snapchat throughout the day. She believes that Instagram “probably shows lots about teens today. Most people avoid posting really often, and usually post in small bursts throughout time.” but added that they “all want to seem effortless and chill, secretly.”

THE GRID

I am very happy to throw photos all over Instagram at any time providing the photos themselves look individually OK, but the teens all seem to have flawlessly and meticulously curated “grids” - something I hadn’t even thought about until a teen told me mine was a mess. Roxy said that to make it look good you “keep it the same kinds of colours, and you wouldn't do borders and stuff – or you would do borders, but they’d all be the same border”, whereas Emily said that if you could just get other people to take photos of you so it looks like you have friends, “you’re winning”. Tolly said that “it is nice to see when somebody has ordered it all perfectly, but I don't think it looks like a natural, personal Instagram” but that “it matters less now to people than it used to, maybe when they first started using social media”.

BUT...WHY?

Why does a generation below put so much more thought into it than we, the messy 24-year-olds, do? Esme told me that, “she’s not entirely sure that people would explicitly state their dream career as being an ‘influencer’, but that “there's probably understanding of that being possible”, adding, “it's probably because people are more aware of possibilities social media can offer – especially people I know who are artists or writers. It's really, really good at connecting people”.

Eleanor said that the reason for teens having such a strong grip on their social media is also in part due to “the need for the safety measures on social media. Rules and regulations are there for protection and as a result it means that teenagers and young people are more protected against cyber bullying, personal safety and for the future”. We were told at school not to meet strangers from the internet or give out personal information, but beyond that, we didn’t think at all about how the seemingly ephemeral content we posted on the internet could be perceived by others or how it might live on. I wouldn’t even consider the ways that the dumb stuff I said in Myspace bulletins could impact my life, but teenagers now are so aware of accountability and the impact that the throwaway things we say on social media can have on our lives and futures.

“I sometimes wish I lived at a time where none of this existed, and I didn't have to think about any of it ever”

FINALLY, DO TEENS WISH THEY COULD BE MORE CHILL?

Watching The One Teen I Know panic and get very real anxiety over which holiday snaps to post and whether they were edited right and whether her ex had liked them or not made me very grateful that I kind-of ever grew up without the internet. Social media is stressful for everyone, especially if you use it for work, but there’s a very particular anxiety that the teenagers I spoke to feel that doesn’t really affect me. I asked Eleanor if she ever gets overwhelmed and wishes she could ever just..not. She said, “I think my attitude towards social media has definitely become more positive over the past few years and it's more of a digital photo album. For younger teenagers it's increasingly geared to make them feel pressured and that shouldn't be the case”. Roxy, when asked if she is herself on social media, said “a bit, but no, not really”, adding that she “definitely” wishes she could be. She said that “people think it's cool to be chilled with your Instagram – but no one has the nerve to actually do it”. Emily said that she believes they do it “to look popular”, and that it’s likely to never change unless someone “cool” leads the charge.

Esme said that she’s “definitely become more chill recently” and has “stopped caring quite as much” but she added “I sometimes wish I lived at a time where none of this existed, and I didn't have to think about any of it ever. I was talking to friends about it the other day and we think at some point we'll just all delete it, maybe when we leave school. I have been less scrupulous and particular about what I've been posting and captioning and liking and following, and it's quite liberating.”

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