How Social Media Has Changed Everything for Teenage Girls
Being a teenage girl is hard enough without navigating the whirlpools of Instagram and Snapchat. We ask a group of girls how the intricate codes of selfies, emojis and likes actually works.
The schoolgirl’s eyelashes are so long they seem to scrape her cheekbones. She still likes to wear false lashes, though. Her mother laughs when she puts them on but she likes how they make her own lashes fuller, like for when she’s finishing a look for parties and selfies and stuff.
Don’t be so heavy-handed, mind the eyebrows, don’t cake it on! That’s what her mother tells her. But the remonstration is gentle. “She’s got a natural beauty,” she says, looking fondly at her only daughter sitting beside her at the dining table in their modest home.
Bridget’s eyebrows are groomed slashes on a neat face, her eyes are blue lakes, her nose is tiny and studded, the tan under thick foundation tends to the orange and her lips are full.
But not as full as Kylie Jenner’s. Bridget’s loves the American celebrity. “I look up to her a lot.” She especially wishes she had big lips like Kylie’s, her cosmetically enhanced pout, her beyond-bee-stung look. She’s taken lip lessons from her favourite YouTube makeup tutors.
She uses pencil to extend her natural lip line, drawing a higher cupid’s bow and a lower bottom lip, then fills the new shape in with colour. She wouldn’t do the shot-glass thing though. That’s stupid. Some girls did it for the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge.
Who knows how it all started but, for a while, #KylieJenner ChallengeGoneWrong was a thing: social media was flooded with photos of puffy, bruised, bleeding lips. That’s what can happen when you try to live the dream, when you try to plump your lips by sticking them in a shotglass and inhaling for a suction effect.
Jenner has more than 80 million followers on the photo-sharing app Instagram, nearly four times the population of Australia, although not as many as her half-sister Kim Kardashian West (88.9 million) or American actor/singer Selena Gomez (104 million). Kylie also has a new sell-out cosmetics range that includes the #KylieCosmetics LipKit (“Your secret weapon to create the perfect ‘Kylie Lip’ “).
Kylie Jenner was 10 when the family reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, launched. She’s 19 now. In August, she bought a $6 million mansion. In October, her Halloween party photo – a breast-busting bikini top, micro-shorts cut high on her butt and cowboy-style leather chaps – got 2.7 million likes on Instagram.
In a Starbucks another Facebook-famous girl explains it all. “That’s the important thing to know about the majority of teenage girls,” says Vali Clarke, who is 16 and goes to school with Bridget.
“Like, their social media doesn’t necessarily represent the way they actually are.” Vali is striking, with blue-grey eyes and an auburn mane. When she tosses it back from her face, it stays high on her head like a demented separate being.
Vali has more than 4400 Instagram followers and presents an online persona that eschews brash Kardashian and skews ice-cool and international, as though styled for some high-end fashion mag (although still with selfies galore).
She’ll post a still-life of her passport alongside a bottle of Chanel perfume, a takeaway coffee and a Ralph Lauren tartan handbag, then follow that with a dramatic black-and-white portrait of herself, hair streaming, on a windy Irish cliff.
She’ll post a pic of herself with her boyfriend, elegantly dressed at the races, and another of them lounging on a beautiful boat. In one shot, she’s in a chic gown and high heels; he’s wearing a tux and playing a grand piano.
But Vali has a double life: on the day I meet her, she’s wearing sandshoes, T-shirt and denim shorts. Her nails are bitten. She talks in a torrent. Today she’s been into the city to train for an after-school job at a shoe store.
She lives with her single mother in an inner-west flat and is thinking of doing something in customs and border protection when she graduates (although she would like to model).
She can tell a 747 from a 737 and likes to watch documentaries about plane disasters. She travels economy class with her mother to visit family overseas. She bought the Ralph Lauren bag at a discount fashion store.
The nice boat was hired. The grand piano was at her boyfriend’s school formal venue. She appropriates vignettes of sophistication as they spin past.
Over cups of tea with Louise and her mother in the open kitchen of the family’s spacious Federation bungalow, the teenager explains the codes of smartphone and social media conduct.
For a start, the phone matters: her group doesn’t care about what phone you have, but the cool girls do and they’ll judge if you have an old iPhone or an Android. Louise would like to upgrade her iPhone but has decided instead to keep her savings for a school trip.
She shows me her essentials – Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Messenger – which she keeps in a folder on her home screen called “social”. Each has a specific role.
Facebook is low in the pecking order of a teen’s social life: Louise uses it for photo albums or to see funny videos, vines (six-second-long videos) or memes. Her year at school and her water polo team have Facebook pages and if someone has a party, they usually start a page for it.
Instagram is everything: a calling card, a girl’s identity. You put a lot into it – into the shots (“Which one, which one?” is what some girls ask in group chat before deciding which selfie to post), and the feed in its entirety, which should be aesthetically pleasing.
“You’ve got a great aesthetic” is high praise, or “that’s so aesthetic”. For a while the trend was to post photographs with white borders for a clean aesthetic. Some girls stick with black and white, others use the same tinted filter for every shot.
Louise likes to make sure her photographs fit together well with no random shots. “You don’t want it to be disjointed.” Her feed is cheerful, wholesome and includes shots of her with a friend in a restaurant; by the sea, wearing a fluoro-orange bikini; with her father on his birthday; and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
“I post a photo when I have done something, whereas a lot of people I know will post photos for the sake of posting a photo,” she says.
Snapchat is mostly for silliness, either in the private “chat” area, or in the “stories” realm where all your followers can see your “snaps”, generally short videos with words or graphics superimposed on the frames, or video selfies using the app’s kooky lenses.
(On Snapchat, Kylie Jenner calls herself King Kylie and leads the celebrity pack, with millions viewing snaps offering a glimpse of her glitzy life – and her cosmetics.)
Snapchat lets you be yourself, maybe a bit raunchy or crazy: evidence you might regret vanishes so fast there. Snaps posted in stories disappear after 24 hours, images posted in the chat area are gone after 10 seconds, while users can choose how long friends are able to view chat text.
(Although private snaps can be saved via screenshots or external apps; as one teenager tells me, “Everyone knows how to save stuff on Snapchat.”)
Louise’s mother was only half-kidding when she told her: “If you ever post your knickers online, I’ll belt you.” Sometimes she “audits” Louise’s accounts but she knows her daughter is careful about her image, and the mother-daughter conversation on the subject is ongoing.
She barely flinches when Louise reveals to me that boys have sent her dick pics. “This is news to me,” she says quietly.
Boys do like to send girls photographs of their penises. Louise says she doesn’t know the owners of the organs that arrive in her Snapchat account – they could even belong to a parent’s worst nightmare, the dirty old man – but she gets hopeful messages from boys she does know.
“Nude for nude,” they ask. “Some girls will send photos in their bras or undies cos they feel like they need to; it makes them, like, seem good,” says Louise.
“I just don’t reply or I say, ‘Get lost.’ ” Or sometimes in reply she’ll send a photograph back of a “nude palette”, as in, an eye-shadow set of nude tones. “No, be serious, like babes, I want you to send me nudes,” they beg.
Get used to it: smartphones and social media contribute to how today’s teens form relationships and identity, and teenage girls and boys share naked pictures.
“It is absolutely a normal part of teenage sexual development,” says Catharine Lumby, citing a 2014 La Trobe University survey into the sexual behaviour of more than 2000 year 10, 11 and 12 teenagers.
“Teenagers are not going to stop sending those images to each other any more than they’re going to stop pashing at parties.”
The survey’s numbers are arresting: 54 per cent of students reported receiving a sexually explicit text message and 26 per cent reported sending a sexually explicit photo of themselves.
Among the sexually active students (about 25 per cent of year 10s, a third of year 11s and 50 per cent of year 12s), about half said they had sent a nude or explicit photo or video of themselves and 70 per cent reported receiving one.
Lumby is enraged by cultural double standards that continue to attach weight to the physical attractiveness of girls while telling them not to be sexually active. “Why in this society do we think it’s so shameful that women have bodies and sexuality and that when they’re teenagers they will explore that, just like we accept that young men do?”
Not that Lumby is an advocate for teenage anarchy; she thinks conversations and education about issues relating to sexuality, consent and predatory behaviour in the online world need to start young for both boys and girls.
I ask her what advice she’d give to the father of the 13-year-old who wants to show the world her body in a bikini. “Teenage girls like showing off new clothes and new poses and parents should be careful not to shame them for that or give them the impression that their bodies are so inflammatory they cannot be shown in public.”
Not surprisingly, she scorns the dominant narrative that casts teenage girls as narcissists with bleak futures. “These young women will lose their narcissism because they’ll have to if they want to be part of life. They’re not going to sit around taking selfies for the rest of their life. Like, how is that possible?”