05.26.2019 Culture

What’s it Really Like to Be a Teenager In the Instagram Age?

Johanie Cools
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Social media is, collectively, a place to share ideas, show off talents, and express oneself. Despite its power, social media captures its users in a single moment in time, but no tweet, video, or post could ever fully encapsulate any one person or group. Though most people know this, it’s still easy to forget once a newsfeed is flooded with story after story of the next Internet infamy.

Once someone is caught up in the social media spotlight, it’s difficult to break out of. Though older generations have been affected as well, it’s mostly the younger generation, young Millennials and Gen Z, who are the most vulnerable. Unlike others before them, they have had the disadvantage of living their entire lives online for anyone to see. Everything from their baby pictures to their junior high thoughts to their mistakes will forever be imprinted in social media’s archives.

The online world can be a ruthless place. Once a mistake has been documented and distributed, it becomes a permanent stain on a person’s reputation whether merited or not.

Walter Easley, a then-teenager from South Carolina, infamously filmed himself kicking a kitten off of a porch across a 20-25 foot yard. In the video, he’s laughing with his friends as the animal flies through the air. Once the video spread to 4chan (the underbelly of the web), people from all over the globe found his personal information (like his home and school address) and his social media handles and posted them online in a practice called “doxxing.” As a result, Easley was charged with animal cruelty, and because of the wide exposure of the video and disgust of everyone who watched, he will always be known as the Cat Kicker.

Not everyone who puts themselves out there online necessarily ha d the intention of doing so. Some are coaxed by their parents or other family members into getting in front of the camera. That’s the case for many children who were born into a vlogging family or who act as the patsy. The latter is the case with Lil Tay. A foul-mouthed, antagonistic nine-year-old flexer, Lil Tay had over 2.5 million followers on Instagram before her account was deleted. Her videos mainly comprised of her speaking in a “blaccent” showing off her multiple houses and cars.

Of course, it’s not possible for a young child to be that wealthy, but that didn’t stop the Internet from sending her racist, violent, and hateful messages. Others said her mother and brother, whom both coached her and provided the locations and cars she claimed to own, were taking advantage of her. She went on Good Morning America insisting the entire act was her idea, but has since disappeared from all her social media handles. However, no matter what happens to Tay now, everyone will always remember her as the fake Instabrat.

Another kid caught up in a media storm was Nick Sandmann, the teen from Covington High School, who smirked at Vietnam era veteran Nathan Phillips during the March for Life protest. In the viral video, Phillips walks up to Sandmann seemingly wanting to pass, but Sandmann defiantly stands before him, lips pulled back in almost a smile. A crowd of boys from the same school were all there hollering at the man, but Sandmann was the one in focus and became the face of that moment.

Sandmann went on the Today Show to defend himself, insisting he wasn’t being disrespectful. To address the accusation that he was being aggressive to Phillips for standing and staring, Sandmann said, “If he wanted to walk past me I would have let him go.” His story is contradictory, to say the least, and potentially crafted by the conservative PR firm his parents hired. Regardless of what opinion anyone has of Sandmann, one thing he said had a ring of truth to it: “They’ve gone from [seeing me smirk] to titling me and labeling me as a racist person, someone that’s disrespectful to adults… they’ve had to assume so many things to get there without consulting anyone that can give them the opposite story.”

Sandmann admitted that the attention he received (thanks in part to President Trump’s tweets) became overwhelming. Guilty or not, that signature expression will be associated with him for many years to come, for better or worse.

Internet fame is a wild card. There’s never a way to tell if it’s going to have a positive or a negative effect. With all the bad press, sometimes comes the good, as was the case with New Zealand’s Wil Connolly, aka: Eggboy. After Australian Senator Fraser Anning made racist and Islamaphobic comments blaming the Christchurch shootings on Muslims, Connolly shot to infamy when he smashed an egg on Fraser’s head. The video went viral and Eggboy is now heralded as a hero. A GoFundMe campaign was even made for his legal fees, however, Eggboy is rather donating the money to victims of the shooting.

No matter the reason why a child may get thrust into the spotlight of social media, there is — eventually — a way out of it. In an interview with John Oliver, humiliation queen Monica Lewinski said, “You can get through it. You can move past it. I know it feels like, in this one moment, that your life would forever be defined by this… but it won’t.”

Johanie Martinez-Cools is a blogger, writer, and editor. She loves writing about life lessons and mental health. She reads a diverse array of books including The Queen of Water, Who Fears Death, and Persepolis.

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