There’s a tendency in popular discourse about social media and its impact on young people to lump all platforms together and talk about a single entity called “social media.” The U.S. Surgeon General has warned that social media poses a mental health risk to teens. The Kids Online Safety Act that was introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this year aims to protect youth from the harms of social media.
A certain shorthand can be useful, even necessary, to facilitate public discussion about a complex topic. Still, this shorthand glosses over the very real differences among platforms like TikTok, Instagram, BeReal, Snapchat, and Tumblr.
In a tweet back in 2015 (they were still called tweets back then), civil rights activist, author, and podcaster DeRay McKesson observed: “Twitter is home. Facebook is grandma’s house. Snapchat is your best friend’s house. Tumblr is the lunch room. Instagram is 24/7 prom.” Whether or not you agree with these particular metaphors (would BeReal be your bedroom? TikTok your favorite influencer’s house?), they capture something important about social media platforms: they’re all different.
In my book Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up, I explore how the design of platforms and the way people engage with those designs helps to shape the cultures that emerge on different social media platforms. I propose three layers for understanding this process.
The first layer is the feature layer. These are specific features—autoplay, the like button, the disappearing photo on Snapchat, Instagram filters, TikTok’s For You feed algorithm—that allow people to do and see certain things and not others when they interact with a platform.
The feature layer provides the baseline conditions for what goes on at the practice layer, where features and people interact to produce certain kinds of behaviors and not others. Here, we talk of the affordances or “possibilities for action” of a platform as people engage with it.
Some typical affordances of social media sites include interactivity (people can interact with each other’s content and ideas), reactivity (people can also simply react to content by clicking a heart, or a like or angry emoji button), persistence (the digital traces created by posts, even after they’ve been deleted), and spreadability (repost and reblog buttons make it easy for people to circulate content widely). The practice layer is all about what goes on when technology design meets human proclivity/disposition/propensity.
The third and final layer is the culture layer. As people interact with features, content, and other people on a platform, certain cultures start to emerge. Spend an hour each on Instagram and Tumblr, and you’ll no doubt experience distinct cultures (there are many subcultures within each platform, so your experiences will likely be different from mine). Both Instagram and Tumblr are social media platforms, but they’re designed and governed in quite different ways, giving rise to different user interactions, topics of discussion, norms of behavior, and so on.1,2
Here are just a few examples: Unlike Instagram, Tumblr isn’t profile-based or linked to a person’s legal name, making it much easier to experience a degree of anonymity, or “pseudonymity,” which in turn makes people feel they can communicate more openly and about sensitive topics. Tumblr places more emphasis on interaction than reaction through features such as reblogs and replies. In contrast, the heart button on Instagram lends itself to quick reactions as people scroll through their feeds (and it represents a source of stress for many teens who monitor closely the number of likes their posts receive). Instagram’s primary mode is visual. People post, like, and comment on their own and each other’s photos and stories, which has helped give rise to a culture of self-presentation and promotion. Tumblr content, by contrast, comes in many different forms, including text, image, GIF, meme, and link, helping support a community based on shared interests.
What goes on at the feature, practice, and culture layers of technology use combine to shape young people’s digital experiences in distinct and important ways. The three-layer framework illustrates just how important it is to consider the role of design when reflecting on young people’s experiences on social media platforms. It also underscores the just-as-important interaction between design and people—their motivations, values, social and cultural contexts, where they are developmentally—and how this interaction is key to understanding a particular teen’s experiences on a particular social media platform.
In short, using the social media shorthand can sometimes be expedient, but we ought to take care not to let it dominate our conversations about teens and technology.
- Leaver, T., Highfield, T., & Abidin, C. (2020). Instagram : visual social media cultures. Polity.
- Tiidenberg, K., Hendry, N. A., & Abidin, C. (2021). Tumblr. Polity.
*Parts of this post were adapted from Katie Davis’s book Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up.
Post by Dr. Katie Davis
Dr. Katie Davis is Associate Professor at the University of Washington (UW) Information School, Adjunct Associate Professor in the UW College of Education, and a founding member and Co-Director of the UW Digital Youth Lab. Davis investigates the impact of digital technologies on young people’s learning, development, and well-being, and co-designs positive technology experiences for youth and their families. Her work bridges the fields of human development, human-computer interaction, and the learning sciences. In addition to her academic papers, Davis is the author of three books exploring technology’s role in young people’s lives, including Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up (MIT Press, 2023). She holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Visit her website to learn more about her work: https://katiedavisresearch.com/