By Annie Stein age 16
“Activism” is likely not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “Instagram.” In fact, it’s probably not even among the first five things that come to mind, as “activism” is mostly incongruous with selfies, memes, birthday posts, pictures of people’s food, and pictures of people’s dogs. Most people think of the relationship between teenage girls and Instagram as negative, with adults tending to judge as Instagram as the root of girls’ self-esteem problems or anxiety about being excluded (or just a huge waste of time).
These impressions are accurate to some degree. But they overlook one of the incredibly positive and powerful tools that teenage girls are presented with when they make an account. Along with the ability to watch infinite videos of someone making slime and homemade lip gloss, Instagram gives girls a unique opportunity to begin to use their voices to advocate for good– specifically, by way of the Instagram “story.”
Taking a stand can be “uncool.”
A lot is going on in the world right now that is frustrating. Many adults have no problem speaking up about their beliefs (or taking out their anger) by posting on Facebook, but for most girls, it’s not that simple. In the world of teenage social media, a strict culture exists about what’s acceptable to post– namely, pictures of yourself, pictures of yourself with your friends, pictures of said friends at concerts, beaches, parties, the like). There’s an unspoken rule, especially on Instagram, against that posting about politics or activism is uncool. The fear of judgment makes taking a stand scary, and for that reason, barely anyone posts their beliefs, creating a chilling effect (because for teenagers, caring at all about something is obviously seen as uncool). This tacit agreement is a roadblock: girls who want to be vocal about what’s going on can feel restrained by certain social norms, which is understandable.
So what’s an aspiring teenage girl social media activist to do?
There’s one key feature that I think is changing the game when it comes to a way for girls to be activists on social media, and it’s the “story.” On Instagram, beyond just a classic post, users can also post to their “story,” a collection of pictures or videos that can be viewed with the tap of a button at the top of their feed–pictures or videos that last for about six seconds and disappear after 24 hours. Users can put text, cute stickers, and even polls on whatever content they add.
Why the “story” platform allows for bravery
Instagram stories are a middle ground; they aren’t permanent posts and they don’t show up in people’s feeds, making the rules about what’s acceptable to publish feel more lax. Where normal posts are under the pressure to fit a plethora of standards, especially for girls, stories have become a more personal and casual means of expression. On top of that, no one can comment publicly on stories, so there’s less fear of negative backlash. They’re a concise and public way to share information– and activism.
Over the past year, in the wake of shootings, supreme court nominations, and elections, I’ve seen more girls be activists on Instagram than I ever have before. As Christine Blasey Ford shared her testimony with the world, I saw countless manifestations of “Believe survivors” and “Kava-nope,” as well as information about domestic violence and help hotlines. Following the tragedy in Pittsburgh, I saw solidarity with the Jewish community and indignation about gun control; and, as midterms drew closer, I saw an awe-inspiring quantity of “VOTE!” It’s moving to see so many girls my age–in high school, that is– standing up for causes they support. Coming after a long era of extreme anxiety for my peers and myself about what’s okay to post, these stories have made me feel that I’ll be accepted and encouraged when I contribute my voice to the mix.
This type of Insta-activism is only the first step.
Obviously, posting on your Instagram story and then going to take a nap won’t create change by itself. The most important part of this new manifestation of activism is that it is a first step, a way for girls to become more comfortable standing up, spreading information, and sharing their voices before going on to bigger and better ways to make a difference in the world. Instagram story advocacy is starting to create a culture where it’s acceptable–cool, even–for girls to take a stand, and I think that’s a victory in itself.
Annie Stein is a junior at Needham High School who is super passionate about empowering girls and women. She served for two years on the MEDIAGIRLS Youth Advisory Board and is a co-founder of the Needham, MA chapter of Girl Up. She is also a captain of the Needham Speech and Debate Team and co-editor of the art and literary magazine at the high school.