AHS students share what it’s like–and what it takes–to live in social media fame
She’s not a person who likes to wait very long. Well, nobody likes to wait. But her life flickers at full speed, photograph after glitzy photograph, comment after impassioned comment. She fits into the palm of a hand and the seam of a pocket, but connects over a billion people around the globe in the blink of an eye. She’s social media. Speeding through the Internet and through life on this fastest of fast lanes, these AHS students share how social media has helped them connect with not only the world around them, but also with themselves.
Act 1: Looking Outward
Kim Ton is a Fremont-ite. Always has been. But her Tumblr followers–all 900,000 of them–span the city, country, and globe. Using her influence to dissolve the stigma around mental illness, Ton holds the unique position of harnessing the power of social media to bridge, connect, and make a real difference.
Ton’s blog, on which she writes fanfiction relating to mental health and identity struggles, is crafted in the vivid setting of the Marvel Universe, which thousands know and love as the world of larger-than-life superheroes and citizens of apocalyptic societies. Thanks to Ton, it is a universe now not only imaginative in the characters’ escapades, but also relatable in their struggles and inner turmoil.
“My blog came to life when I would write about my struggles with mental health. I was going through some really rough times in 10th grade … when I was diagnosed with anxiety … and found that I was unable to share these thoughts with my friends and try to get help. I started to let out my emotions through writing,” she says.
But what first began as a channel for her own heartache spiraled exponentially, building not only her own emotional strength but that of over 900,000 Tumblr users who were moved by Ton’s writing and followed her blog.
“In many of my stories the reader has anxiety, or mentions it; my audience has responded with mainly positive feedback as my stories help normalize mental health,” Ton reports. Her influence has grown to the point where readers frequently request her to write stories pertaining to issues they are facing. Readers have trusted her with some of their darkest and most fragile burdens, and Ton has risen to the occasion.
Act 2: Looking Inward
But other students at AHS utilize social media to stay in touch with their own realities, for introspection and self-confidence. These students may not be traversing the digital globe but they garner influence just by being themselves, which may be at the core of what social media provides to its users… An ability to speak out, carve a space for one’s self in the vast world and inhabit that space with pride.
Mimi Tran (11) is one AHS student who is riding the turbulent Instagram wave. Or rather, she is surfing it, with close to 5,000 followers to her account. Her page is resplendent with aesthetically composed selfies, her strikingly dark features and pale skin making for many dramatic photo shoots. Each photo is accompanied by thousands of likes, as well as dozens of comments. The comments, peppered with innumerable heart, kiss, and “warm-blush” emojis, seem boundless in their energy, warmth, supportiveness, and use of capital letters.
“SlaYYY Gurl ILYSM!!” “AWWW mY HEART is combusting!!11!!…” A small, but representative sampling of the feedback on Tran’s images demonstrates that Instagram can provide more positivity than its reputation suggests.
“So far the Instagram community has been good to me…I have heard nothing negative from people at AHS and my friends and students at the school have been extremely supportive,” she states.
Interacting with fans and commenters is a commitment only magnified as follower counts increase. Tran attests that maintaining a star-studded account can grow exhausting.
“It is extremely time consuming,” she reports. “Sometimes I feel as if I am forcing myself to engage with my audience [of over 3,000] in order to keep them in my community. It sometimes gets in the way of school and work.”
This time sink potential of social media is something that worries many; even passive consumers of social media can easily lose multiple hours scrolling mindlessly through their feeds, but active content creators can spend much longer. In some ways, this is the classic—and entirely understandable—parental qualm about technology.
Act 3: The Influence of Influence
“It’s basically a non-egotistical way to show off.”
Take it from sophomore Mingyu Wu, Instagram aficionado. Social media has provided millions of teenagers real-time, rapid documentation of their lives…or at least the edited version. As their circles of influence grow, so too do the dangers.
“On Instagram, people just look at these photos, and keep flicking. They press the ‘heart’ button as an affirmation, but it can be used as a weapon,” said Ms. Klipa, Health teacher at AHS. “And you get ultra-edited photos with tons of comments stacked on each other, or a lack thereof. And that can be damaging.”
With likes and comments regarded as a form of currency, some students at AHS admit to bartering for online affirmation.
“I sometimes write a supportive comment, or like someone’s photos, knowing that when they see that, they’ll have to like my photo back. And that’s probably what they’re thinking when they like my posts,” confirms one student sheepishly. “It’s like we’re trading. Racing to 100 likes, or 500, or whatever. It builds our image”
Image. With students as young as 12 or 13 actively maintaining an online image, mental health professionals point to the immense stress that cultivating a persona can bring: there’s a dichotomy that characterizes social media of this scale; it’s simultaneously a way to be one’s true self, and a way to mask it. It’s this very paradox that is shaping an entire generation whose hours and lives are built around the Internet.
Ton remarks, “I told Tumblr I had anxiety before I told my friends. I can meet people from across the world, learn entirely new cultures without going anywhere. It’s good chaos. And although it comes with trolls–that’s the chaos–being safe behind my laptop rather than meeting these people in real life makes a huge difference.”
If the attitudes of the students interviewed here are any indication, it would seem that this generation is more determined than ever to utilize this “good chaos” to create, inspire, support, and influence, while learning valuable skills and lessons in the process.
For Ton, sharing her mental health journey with close to a million people has certainly changed her. “My experience with helping people online has influenced me to be even more open about my mental health to help others around me, [such as] when I wrote a speech about the stigma behind mental illness in my 11th grade English final. With these things, openness is everything.”
Whether these students are harnessing media to look outwards or inwards, to learn about the world or to learn about themselves, what’s certain is that they’re racing. Their windows are open and the wind rushes through their hair. They move through the social media universe making the best of the exhilarating chaos, become stronger and faster drivers, running over potholes, and enjoying the process thoroughly. They’re living in the fast lane, and they’re here to stay.