Everything you’re doing wrong on Instagram, according to teenagers

Let me set the scene. My sister and her dozen-ish college friends were staying at my parents’ house during their spring break. Our visits overlapped by a weekend. At one point we were hanging out in our kitchen, and a whole bunch of random kids I didn’t know were squished into my house. Thus, I was nose-to-my-phone, as one does when one is uncomfortable in a social situation in the 21st century.

I was playing around with a picture I had taken earlier on Instagram. I can’t remember what the picture was of, only that I was flipping back and forth between “Valencia” and “No Filter.”

“Should I use a filter?” I asked my sister. I saw out of the corner of my eye one of my sister’s friends immediately shake her head and mouth “Nooooooooo.”

“No filter?” I asked Sister’s Friend.

“No,” she replied.

“Like, ever?” I clarified.

“No,” she repeated, and I could hear the “How do you not get this most basic fact of life, old person?” edge of annoyance, because I hear the same thing in my voice when I’m explaining to my dad for the kajillionth time how to find a file on his computer and attach it to an e-mail.

I was a late adopter of Instagram, I had downloaded the app the year before, on the day before my wedding (because I wanted to see all our guests’ snaps that used our wedding hashtag, natch) and since that day I had been hooked. Filters were magic to me the way digital cameras had been magic to me. I came of age in the final days of drugstore disposable cameras being the teenager’s picture-taking weapon of choice. I would use up the 20-something exposures, take the film into the lab, get my envelope of pictures back a day or two later, and flip disappointedly through the stack. I never looked how I wanted to look in these photos. I did not know how to take a good picture in one shot.

When digital cameras, and eventually smart phones with cameras came around, I thrilled in being able to take endless shots. And once I got hooked on Instagram, I was obsessed with clicking my way through lighting options. Valencia was usually a slightly prettier version of reality, Inkwell made everybody look like they were too glamorous and Parisian to take pictures in color, Rise almost always made everybody look weird, except in an underlit photo in which case it would swoop in as the unlikely day-saver. And now this random college freshman was telling me I couldn’t use any of these filters. And she couldn’t give me a good reason why. She was just following the rules of teen Instagramming, rules I had been hitherto unaware of, rules that dictated the use of filters just wasn’t done.

A few questions later, I also learned that hashtags were a social (media) faux pas on Insta.

“But what if I’m using a hashtag ironically, like I say I’m #blessed, but I’m not really serious, I’m just joking about people who actually use #blessed seriously?” I asked.

My Sister’s Friend shook her head, and the Greek Chorus of Teenagers at the table backed her up. Hashtags were not done. Not even ironically.

I also learned that I had been posting WAY too frequently.

“You post on Instagram every day?” the girl asked the way you would ask someone “You’re telling me you’re Patient Zero for the Zombie Apocalypse?”

“Well sometimes, and sometimes every other day, I don’t know, my dogs are really cute, how often are you supposed to post?” I asked.

Once a week was the maximum, I was informed. But usually every few weeks. Unless one was on vacation. Then an allowance was made for a few posts over the course of a week.

I had been breaking all the rules of Instagram without realizing it. Well, this wasn’t quite true. I had been breaking all the TEEN rules. Or at least, this specific subset of teens’ rules. I had been following adult rules just fine. My late-twenties/early-thirties peers all used filters and hashtags with abandon, and nobody followed the every-few-weeks rule because our lives were finally cool, with significant others and  fun parties and rad vacations and pets/babies and that needed documenting and nobody does Facebook albums anymore, so Instagram ho.

“Why didn’t you TELL me any of these things?” I asked my sister later.

“I didn’t know, how would I, I’m not even good at Instagram,” she protested.

“Ugh, what’s the point of having you be my teenage sister if you’re not going to spy for me and report back with secrets,” I grumbled.

I teach at the high school and college levels and if/when social media came up with my students, I would awkwardly say “Hey, I have a question…” and then ask about filters and hashtags. I got a wide range of answers. Several of my students had deleted Instagram from their phone or still had it but never checked it anymore because it was the app stressed them out too much. Let me tell you, I FELT that. Instagram was now stressing me out on the regular. But most of my anecdotal findings confirmed what I had learned at my kitchen table. Adults were using Instagram differently than teens. In every way one could try too hard on the platform, we were, as a group, trying too hard. In every way teens could be effortlessly cool, they were being effortlessly cool.

I started reporting my findings to my peers and they were just as horrified as I was. And that was what was so fascinating about this slapdash social experiment. We all had the same reaction of “Oh my God, what do you mean I can’t use filters? Post once a week? But I take more than one cool picture a week, how is that math supposed to work out?” No one ever said, “Oh, whatever, they’re teenagers, they exist in their own world, they can have their own social media rules and we can have ours.” We all immediately took the teen guidelines as gospel and upon learning of their Instagram ways, all felt embarrassed that we had been posting/filtering/hashtagging so much.

I kept thinking about when my parents joined Facebook, when all the parents had joined Facebook. When I entered college in 2004, only students from select colleges were allowed to join the platform. As a UCLA student, I had access. Shortly after, all students with a .edu e-mail address were allowed to join. And then the platform was opened up to anybody with an e-mail address. When the parents joined, they joined with gusto. They liked and commented on EVERYTHING.  Okay, not everything-everything, but certainly more things than I liked/commented on. They posted photo albums containing basically all the photos from that vacation/birthday party/whatever the occasion in question was. I knew they were breaking the rules even though no one had ever actually explained to me what the rules of Facebook were, I just knew. Except they weren’t breaking any rules, they were just inventing their own way of interacting with the platform. I knew this, because I was now the equivalent of a “Parent on Facebook” on Instagram.

As you get older, there are moments in which your age is revealed to you in small and surprising ways. Not knowing who a pop star is until they are household name. Bringing up a TV show or movie you loved growing up and seeing blank faces on people a decade younger than you (Even with Netflix, the young’uns do not know of the hotness that is Jason Behr as a sad, serious alien boy on Roswell, the tragedy, the tragedy). And, of course, realizing that you’re accidentally breaking all the rules of the social media platform du jour without realizing it.

Except, it’s not really BREAKING the rules. It’s just following a different set of rules. Old people rules. Which is okay. Because old people don’t have to be too cool for filters and hashtags. And we can post more than once a week because our lives are bigger than they were when we were teens, and we have more things worthy of posting on a weekly basis. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. Social media no longer just belongs to those with .edu e-mail addresses. It’s for all of us. And different generations are going to have different ways of interacting with platforms. And that’s fine. It has to be. And while it stings a little bit to be up for a teenager’s approval and found wanting, the fact is I would not go back to high school for a million dollars. I probably wouldn’t go back for a billion. I hated being 14-15-16-17-18. I love being almost 30. And if the tradeoff is that the kids cringe when they scroll past my Instagrams, then that’s the price, I’ll pay it.

As a coda to this story, I recently downloaded Snapchat on my younger siblings’ insistence that it was fun. I got the sucker on my phone and my brother and sister immediately sent me videos, but I couldn’t make my fingers move fast enough to turn on the audio and I couldn’t work out how to reply to messages and I basically could not figure out how to work the app that all the kids were using and so eventually I just gave up and deleted it, like a total old person, but, like an old person that has better things to do with her time than constantly have existential crises about apps on her phone that are supposed to be fun. These apps were designed as tools to help us connect and share, and if an app isn’t doing that for you, you got to tap an icon, get all your apps wiggling, delete the offending icon, and move on with your life.

(Image via Shutterstock.)