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Identity in Communities and Networks

Because We Are Girls: The Instagram Identity of Adolescent Girls

Because I am a girl, I cannot lose a pound without having someone say I look great. Because I am a girl, my new job in a male dominated field will be discredited as a diversity hire, rather than an outcome of my hard work. Because I am a girl, I have expectations to meet … and way too many of them. Because I am a girl, my social media profile is important to me because if I make a mistake, I can edit it. If I do not look the way I should, I can Photoshop it. And I receive negative feedback, I can just delete it. Online presence is so much more manageable than real-life, and this is the reality for adolescent females. Luckily, I’ve grown up and matured well beyond caring this much about my online presence, but the above statements were all true words and thoughts from my thirteen-year-old self, and I know I am not the only girl to have felt this growing up. 

I always thought that online identity was the best and worst thing that could happen to a teenage girl. Despite Instagram’s simplistic definition of its intended use, it really is not just about sharing photos and videos. It is about followers and likes and comments and it is essentially a platform for a user to be the perfect version of themself in accordance with what society defines that as. For the purpose of this paper, I will solely focus on Instagram as the main social media platform used by young female adolescents to display their online identity. Young girls tend to use their Instagram profiles to display the desirable image of themselves that they want others to view them as. However, this online identity is often not an accurate representation of what they truly see when they look in the mirror. This paper will argue that girls ages 13-18 create their Instagram profiles based on a mix of; accurate self-reflection, unrealistic self-expectation and the dominant expectations of what society tells females they should be. 

Pretending to be something someone is not is not only a lie to themself and to their followers, but it is extremely exhausting. For that reason, when creating an Instagram profile, most adolescent girls create an online identity that resembles their true selves. Of course, there are people of all ages and genders that “cat fish” or create fake accounts, but for this paper I will focus on personal Instagram profiles. This being a person’s Instagram profile that is intended to be an authentic portrayal of who they are in real-life. A portion of an online identity has to be authentic, especially when a number of one’s followers may know them personally and have the capacity to confront them on their fabricated identity.  Research on adolescence suggests that teenagers have a heightened sense of self-consciousness and this can often leave them feeling like they’re being watched or judged. This idea is called an imaginary audience and many adolescents, especially females, cater a lot of their online presence to this audience that does not actually exist (Reich & Yau, 2018). Many teens seek to establish a stable sense of self identity that is often formed based on feedback and validation from their friends (Reich & Yau, 2018). When creating an online identity, teen girls will experiment with what interests of theirs seem to attract the most positive attention. 

Teenagers tend to use other people’s profiles as a guideline to what they want theirs to look like. They follow influencers with similar interests to their own and mimic the traits that they find to be socially appropriate for their own profile (Boyd, 2017). According to Danah Boyd who examines MySpace as the platform of her argument, she explains how HTML coding was used to enhance the look of teenage girls’ profiles (2017). Similarly, with Instagram, teenage girls tend to manage their page in accordance with a theme based on their interests and hobbies. Now these interests are not necessarily made up in order to gain attention. However, if a teenage girl has multiple hobbies, such as hiking, playing hockey and working out, which ever one gains the most attention when she shares photos of her engaging in said hobby, tends to be the theme in which she shares most dominantly (Reich & Yau, 2018). Working out and keeping fit has become arguably one of the most dominant trends on Instagram, making it extremely easy for fitness gurus to gain a massive following. Due to this high demand, girls who work out tend to share that with their followers. Though they may only work out twice a week, if their profile is made up of fitness videos, then they are still technically displaying an aspect of their true self – while seemingly appearing much more obsessed with fitness than they truly are. The roots of the online identity are accurate self-reflections, but the unrealistic self-expectations come from putting certain characteristics in the spotlight, while shadowing those that are less desirable. 

According to the two polarities model of personality, a normal personality development requires a need for reciprocal interaction between needing to form and maintain relationships as well as needing to have an independent sense of self (Jackson & Luchner, 2018). Those individuals who are self-critical tend to prioritize the need for self-definition over creating relationships, which is where the unrealistic expectation of self is created. According to a survey done by The Atlantic where young girls were asked to rate their confidence on a scale of 0 to 10, girls ages 8-14 saw a confidence drop of 30 per cent from an average of 8.5 out of 10 to 6 out of 10 (Kay, Riley, Shipman, 2018). This can suggest that many young girls fall into the practice of self-criticism, which further suggests that their online presence plays a key role in defining themselves and boosting their confidence and brings them closer to their unrealistic expectation of what they should be (Jackson & Luchner, 2018). 

            Being well-liked is a common expectation among adolescent girls who are not yet mature enough to realize no person can be liked by everyone. The need to be liked on widely used platforms like Instagram motivates teenagers to gain a following to present their desirable profiles to a large audience (Reich & Yau, 2018). Commenting on their friend’s posts, or possibly even posts by someone they may not like, it puts their name on display to more people. Furthermore, by commenting on another girl’s pictures with affectionate nicknames such as “stunner” or “babe” and other confidence boosting statements further enhances their likeable online identity (Reich & Yau, 2018). However, though their online self may be highly likeable, it can be detrimental to a teenage girl’s confidence if her real-life self does not meet the expectation of her online self. For acquaintances, it is nearly impossible to develop an informed opinion on a person based on the pictures they post or the comments they leave on other’s pictures. This then makes the face-to-face meeting process much more intimidating when there is already a pre-conceived idea of who you are supposed to be. Possessing these likeable traits online enhances a follower’s desire to meet and be friends with you, especially among teen girls looking to expand their friend group (Kendall, 2011). For example, an eighth-grade girl who is followed and liked online by other eighth grade girls from another school but who will be attending the same high school the following year are likely excited to meet in real-life in hopes to become friends. However, if this girl’s online identity is only a representation of her most desirable traits, then her real-life self may not be as liked by her online “friends” as she expects. Behind a screen and behind photo editors and emojis, it is so easy to be the version of yourself that you expect others to like. The problem with this that many teen girls do not realize is that unrealistic expectations make their true reality seem even less appealing than it really is. By expecting to always be happy, the mornings where one feels sad will feel like the end of the world. Yet so many adolescent girls have this expectation that they made for themselves, and with an online identity, they can almost meet it. 

            The final aspect that makes up an Instagram profile of an adolescent girl is the image of themselves that they are told day in and day out that they should present. “Eat up. Slim down. Stop eating so much. Order a salad. Go on a diet. God, you look like a skeleton! Why don’t you just eat? You look sick. Men like women with some meat on their bones.” These are some of the shockingly accurate statements made in Cynthia Nixon’s powerful video shared by Girls Girls Girls Magazine this past February (2020). Women of all ages are judged first by their appearance and physique and if they successfully pass that test, then maybe their character, abilities and intellect will be taken into consideration (Lupinetti, 2015). This is reality, and no matter how much campaigning, how many protests or how many women prove men wrong, we will always be seen as the inferior feminine. Though there is one thing that women can have that can blur the male gaze, and that is true and authentic confidence. I may say this like it is an easy answer, but the problem is that society has a lot of barriers in place to make confidence in women hard to come by. In addition to that, when a woman does possess confidence, it is considered intimidating to men. It is a vicious cycle and for teenage girls, it can seem nearly impossible to be set up for success. The issue at hand for adolescent girls is that now with feminism on the rise, society urges young girls to become strong and independent women. But their youthful minds crave that need to be liked and in a lot of cases, strength and independence does not trump that craving.   

            In western culture, attraction to women is based on physical characteristics such as thinness and hair colour (Lupinetti, 2015). Thinness can be seen as a sign of fitness. Fitness means to take care of oneself. Which means that for those who are not thin, people decide for them that they must not care about how they look. People like when someone takes care of themselves. Which furthermore means that being thin makes you more likeable. These are the thoughts that fill women of all ages minds, so imagine the thoughts that young teenage girls have whose top priority is being liked. If a woman does not fit the criteria that society deems favourable, then she is perceived as unattractive or masculine in this patriarchal world (Lupinetti, 2015). So, what happens with young girls who may be raised to be strong but have access to endless social media profiles, magazine covers, models and so many more toxic images? Their image of what they should look like is skewed. 

            It is so easy to make an online identity resemble more of the traits that young girls think they should have instead of showcasing what they actually do have. With an online identity, it is in the girl’s control to monitor what she looks like and with one selfie, she can become the version of herself that she likes best. Yet just as easily, one tagged photo from a family gathering where she did not control the angle, the pose, the facial expression, the lighting and the filter, she thinks her online image is destroyed. According to an article by Paul Hodkison on youth identity on social networking sites, girls tend to feel liberated and empowered by the ability to control their online appearance, but this appearance tends to be one made for their male counterparts (2015). There is a dominant double standard among girls’ and boys’ online appearance where girls feel they must be sexy and attractive for boys, yet the ball is in the boy’s court as to whether or not they like this or they want to criticize it.

            In conclusion, because I am a girl, I can speak to and understand my argument. Because I am a girl, I read the evidence and examples in my paper as not just support for my argument but, as the lived experience of adolescent girlhood in an online world. Because I am a girl, I understand why teenage females’ online identities are made up of three components; their accurate self-reflection, their unrealistic self-expectation and the image of themselves that they think society finds most desirable. An online identity and a self-identity are created from the same person, meaning there has to some authenticity in the online version of oneself. Nevertheless, the online world has a lot of images and a strong influence on a young girl’s expectations of herself. And even when she unplugs and is just herself without using the crutch of her online identity, she cannot escape the everlasting pressure of what it takes to be a desirable, confident, strong and independent girl in society.

References

Boyd, D. (2017). Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in 

Teenage Social Life. Open Science Framework. DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/22HQ2

Hodkinson, P. (2017). Bedrooms and beyond: Youth, identity and privacy on social network 

sites. New Media & Society, 19(2), 272–288. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444815605454

Jackson, Christina A., and Luchner, Andrew F. 2018. “Self-presentation mediates the 

relationship between Self-criticism and emotional response to Instagram feedback.” Personality and Individual Differences 133: 1-6.

Kay, K., Shipman, C., Riley, J. (2018, September). How Puberty Kills Girls’ Confidence. The 

Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/09/puberty-girls-confidence/563804/

Kendall, L. (2011). Community and the Internet. Consalvo, M. & Ess. C. (Ed.), The Handbook of 

Internet Studies. (PP.309-325). Wiley-Blackwell. Malden, MA.

Lupinetti, V. M. (2015). 

Self-presentation and Social Media: A Qualitative Examination of the Use of Instagram by Amateur NPC Female Figure Competitors. San Jose State University. DOI: https://doi.org/10.31979/etd.zbmv-39zh

Reich, Stephanie M., and Yau, Joanna C. 2018. “It’s Just a Lot of Work”: Adolescents’ Self‐

Presentation Norms and Practices on Facebook and Instagram.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 29(1):196-209.

15 replies on “Because We Are Girls: The Instagram Identity of Adolescent Girls”

Hello Grace,

I enjoyed reading your paper as one of the similarities of my paper to yours is that they are both about the effects of social networking towards women. I am a girl myself as well, and I have also been through that stage where I always feel like I was not perfect enough. Social media can indeed be toxic towards the establishment of pre-mature girls’ self-identities.

While I do agree with you that young girls these days are more prone to comparing each other through social media in a non-healthy way, I do think social media still deserves its recognition at areas that it is able to make positive changes. For example, promoting feminism. I know that is almost a contradiction towards your paper but I think it would not disappoint you.

Below is the link to my conference paper if you would like to check out my perspectives on the power of social networking:
https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/10/timesup-movement-social-networks-influence-on-personal-identity-within-social-media/

Kind Regards,
Shong Wut Yi

Hi Shong Wut Yi, thank you for your feedback! I read your paper as well and agree that we have similar ideas about the effects of social media on girls. I really enjoyed seeing your perspective about the positives of social media because it is very true, social media does have some very great things about it. Which is why so many people have it and use it all the time. While it has more than the ability to harm self-esteem for many people, especially young girls, it also gives a platform to boost confidence and introduce you to like-minded people and bring about positive change!

Best,
Grace

I loved this paper! Specifically love the opening paragraph and how it is showing how girls feel opposed to what they do! I believe that social media is taking it’s part in the world of teenage cyberbullying and that the youthful population are comparing themselves to others based on their likes and followers! I slightly touch on this subject in my paper which is all about how the fashion world is affected by social media, including how gen Z is using fashion to build their likes and follower number! Here’s a link incase you are interested in reading:
https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/the-fashion-industries-hand-in-shaping-digital-identity/#comments

Hi Grace,
As a young woman myself, your paper really stood out to me because I’ve always wanted to hear someone’s perspective on this subject. Our papers were similar in that we both discussed the ability to control what we post and that people feel a pressure to impress others on social networking sites.

I really like the idea about imaginary audiences, because when we post things online we are thinking that this is something our followers want to see, even though we don’t actually know, we are basing it on things we see others post that appear to be successful through the amount of likes and comments they get. I also agree that this pressure, especially for women to appear a certain way online is because of the pressure we get offline in society and in our personal lives. What do you think about the impact of body positive posts on Instagram has had on women? Do you think this has been successful in allowing women to be more authentic online?

You mention that a person’s Instagram account has to be somewhat authentic to who they are because there are people who know them and will know if it is authentic or not. In my paper, I reference Donath & Boyd (2004), who state that a person’s close family and friends may not question their sincerity and authenticity online because it might be something they have not discovered yet bout the person. Honestly, I see both sides to these perspectives, but I want to know what you think about this.

Thank you for writing such a well thought out and relatable paper, I really enjoyed it.
If you have the time, please read me paper.
https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/09/how-and-why-identity-is-presented-on-social-networking-sites/#comment-224

Julie

Hi Grace!

I really enjoyed reading your paper. I agree with what you said. Social media can be a very toxic environment specially for young girls as they are easily influenced and most of them just want to “fit in”. It is true that on Instagram we can find a lot of content that reflect the western beauty standard and this can affect the confidence of young girls who feel pressured to change their online identity to reflect what they think they/their life should look like. However, there is an increase in the popularity of Instagram accounts that promote self love and positive body image. Do you think that this can have a positive impact on young girls in accepting who they truly are?

Please check out my paper. I talk about Teenage Feminism and Twitter. I would really appreciate having your insight on the topic: https://bit.ly/2YWLfnA

Hi Grace. I enjoyed reading your paper – I certainly resonated with aspects you brought up throughout, especially when looking back at my attitudes as a teenager.
I was wondering if you looked into ‘private’ Instagram accounts at all? When I was younger, I had a public account and a private account – the public one being for more appropriate, ‘better’ photos and the private for funnier posts. It would be very interesting to see how this dynamic changes between the two accounts, especially in young women. When I was 17, I saw my private account as the unfiltered version of myself, but in reality, I was still tailoring this content to the smaller, more intimate group of followers I had. It tended to be with closer friends and posted about inside jokes etc.
Even if you didn’t look into it in your research, I’d love to know your thoughts! Did you have a private account when you were younger?
If you have an opportunity to, I’d love for you to check out my paper on Facebook communities and Aboriginal Australians https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/how-facebook-communities-have-changed-cultural-connections-and-identity-amongst-aboriginal-australians/

Hi Grace, thank you for the feedback! I did not look into the different private versus public accounts but that is a really good point. I resonate with the feeling of displaying a more appropriate version of yourself for everyone and anyone to see and then the more private account just for friends. For the purposes of my paper, I was focusing on the public accounts or at least those who only have one account. Though I do think that the use of a secondary account does tend to be a more authentic version of a person. However, I also think that has to do a lot with who they allow to follow them. For example, the first thing that comes to my mind is if a boy I had liked tried to follow my private account when I was younger, I may have been hesitant to accept the follow request if anything was embarrassing or anything like that. So I feel that the level of authenticity presented, even on the secondary/more private accounts really depends on who follows it and just how “private” it is.

Hey Grace! What an interesting topic you got here, I personally enjoy reading it. I can totally relate to your paper as a girl living pressured in an active social media users society. It is tough for not to create self-expectation although it is impossible to look perfect in other people’s eyes and we tend to copy what they do for us to look good in pictures. I actually noticed that some girls make a second account to express their true self and I wonder if they actually post their real sides or still think twice before posting them as they fear that their close friends will judge them? I think it is a good point to look it up too!

Anyway, my paper is also discussing about a similar topic where young girls look up to fashion influencers on Instagram to create their online identity. I really appreciate it if you have a chance to read my paper : https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/instagram-fashion-aesthetics-construct-female-high-school-identity/
Thank you!!

Hi Stephanie, thank you for the positive feedback! I also read your paper and left you a comment, it was a great read. Really interesting point you mention about girls creating second accounts, “finstas” if you will. It is so true, because I always feel that those who have a second Instagram account display a closer version of their real selves but still not an authentic version. I think many girls still think twice before posting to their second accounts and likely use their second accounts just to further validate their identity and what they are like and what they are interested in. Great point!

Hi Grace,

I just finished reading your paper, and I find it an exciting topic. I wrote on this similar topic in another class as well. I find it interesting how you point out that social media made female adolescence are more self-aware of their body. It is interesting how social media can shape our personal identity.

My key point in my previous paper discusses how the female adolescence feels pressure from how social media portray body image. The media have pressured a girl to target their body goals for slenderness. Most women who are dissatisfied with their body image are mostly the one who is categorized as overweight and obese. This woman with body dissatisfaction can lead to the risk of an eating disorder, causing them to skip meals and feeling guilty when they eat. Female gender adolescents can easily be influenced or manipulated by the media to be dissatisfied with their body image, which can lead them to engage in mental health issues.

I think young adolescence should be influence by adults (e.g., parents or teachers) to diminish the risk of social media. Where adults should teach adolescents to help enhance adolescents’ knowledge and understanding of the use of the social network. More or less, it is an interesting argument you make relating to adolescence in this generation. I hope my perspective can help you in any way. I hope that my comment is not offensive. Thank you and good luck.

If you have time on checking my paper on how online employment-oriented service networking websites (e.g., LinkedIn) are frequently applied in the employment procedure because the profiles contain useful information such as accomplish education and working experience. here is the link https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/online-communities-network-in-employment-oriented-service/

Christopher Benson

Hi Grace,

I was drawn to the title of your paper and I really enjoyed reading it. I liked how you discussed teenage girls establish a stable sense of self-identity that is formed based on feedback and validation from their peers. I realised more teenage girls in today’s society don’t feel good enough and comfortable in their own skin due to early exposure to social media where I personally think that teenagers, especially girls, are not fully developed and responsible enough to handle what they’re seeing online. Where teenage girls use social media, Instagram in particular has been seen as a platform for them to post pictures and seek acceptance and validation from others. Also, I really liked how you talked being thin are the thoughts that fill women of all ages minds, as I personally do get affected sometimes by the negative feedback I received online from peers, hence I believe teenage girls will get more affected by it, as you mentioned in your paper. Social media have given teenage girls more depression and anxiety. As I previously mentioned that teenagers are not fully developed and responsible enough to handle what they’re seeing online – I would be interested to hear your perspective: Do you think parents should give their child a smartphone when they turn 18 when they’re matured enough and are being educated about social media

My paper focuses on the effect of Instagram on adolescent girls’ (age 13 to 18 years) social and emotional development (both positive and negative) – Here is a link to my paper if you’re interested: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/10/the-ups-and-downs-of-instagram-on-adolescent-girls-social-and-emotional-development/

Hi Grace,
Loved your views in this paper and the focus on girls’ identities online and offline. Whilst I tend to agree that as a teenager majority of what is posted onto social platforms is for likes and comments, and these may be adjusted based on the engagement levels, perhaps even reposted at a more ‘engaging’ time to enhance the numbers, I don’t necessarily agree that what teenage girls are posting is 100% authentic.
The number of influencers that have a teenage girl following, and the likelihood that these influencers are 100% authentic in what they post/comment/do, would definitely have an impact on what these teenage girls are posting based on inspiration from other accounts. Therefore, is this a true representation of them as a teenage girl, or is it what they perceive to be engaging and will attract more likes and comments?
As you mention, not all personas of people are built purely on images and videos users have posted. My paper focuses on ambient awareness, where personas are built online similar to how they would be built face-to-face, where people pick up on things like the wording in a caption, the pages these people follow, interactions they have online – not necessarily focusing only on what they post specifically to their social accounts. Do you think that teenage girls would be conscious of this persona they are creating of themselves?
Great paper and really inciteful, thanks!
If you’d like to read my paper, you can find it here: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/identity-built-unknowingly-online-ambient-awareness-building-a-users-identity-from-online-social-communities/

Hello Grace!

I really like your paper and found it to be quite complementary to my own where many of the points you made were ones that address in my paper on female young adults in relation to social media. Your paper was insightful and as a female, I can relate to your comments on the pressures of Instagram. I appreciated that you as a young female adult wrote this paper from your perspective as It made it more interesting and relatable.
A point you made about something, in particular, I have to question though. You discuss how people on Instagram are trying to be something they are not but as I discuss in my paper, people have multifaceted identities. Somebody may be showing a side of their personality which to others may seem inauthentic but really is just a side that others have not seen before. If you wish to read more about this theory or hear my comments on it feel free to look over at my paper!
Thanks again!
Isabella.

Hi Grace,

Firstly. What an opener! Really got my attention and wanted me to keep reading so really well done.

As a guy, I can’t personally relate to everything that you mentioned, however growing up with technology at my fingertips I can definitely see where you are coming from and how these challenges that young women go through everyday can have a significant impact on their identity.

I agree that teenagers now are presenting a version of themselves online no matter what, however, I feel that the content in which they are exposed to on social media can extremely influence their own perception of themselves and can often impact their overall thoughts on beauty.

My question for you is, do you think that the rise in the body positivity movement is having any influence on adolescent girls perception of beauty, or do you still believe that the stereotype of the ideal figure over powers this movement? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

You discuss the impact on young females and the construction of their identity. If you’d like an alternate perspective, I discuss the impact of social media and social media influencers on adolescent males. Check it out here! https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/10/the-impact-of-social-media-and-social-media-influencers-on-the-construction-of-identity-and-self-esteem-for-adolescent-males/

Hi Sam, thank you for your comment! I definitely think that the body positivity movement is working hard at instilling confidence in girls regardless of their body shape. To me, this is really important because it doesn’t just view one “model-like” figure as the only way a woman should look. However, the body positivity movement seems to still have barriers to break down as more awareness is brought about regarding the fact that not every girl looks the same. For example, one obstacle is that “body positivity” is categorized as it’s own type of model, clothing style or body shape. Though it is widening the circle immensely to make room for many different body types, it is however still categorizing “body positivity” as it’s own type rather than just a natural body figure. Another obstacle is the terrible and unsupportive people out there who love to sit behind their keyboards and say awful things that they would never have the courage to say to someone’s face. Though many people tend to flock to the Instagrammer’s rescue amid rude comments, I can only imagine the effect that this cyber-bullying has on someone, especially younger females. Thank you for your comment!

Grace

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