By Natalie Hendry
We spoke with Natalie Hendry about young people’s online media practices. Natalie is an education lecturer at Deakin University and PhD candidate in the School of Media and Communications at RMIT University. Her research explores social media cultures and young people’s media practices and experiences of mental illness. Natalie’s work draws on her experience as a teacher in both hospital and mainstream school settings.
Background to this study
Social media platforms make young people’s worlds visible, whether that be through sharing and tagging Instagram photos “on the go,” collecting and re-pinning images on Pinterest, or curating photo albums after special events on Facebook (Hjorth & Hendry, 2015, Scolere & Humphreys, 2015, Robards, 2012). Making sense of life through images is not new, although it is increasingly ubiquitous. Sociologist Martin Hand (2012:12) argues, as the proliferation of visual technologies “create a potentially ubiquitous photoscape with significant consequences, the ways in which images are produced, consumed, distributed and interpreted are tremendously diverse. Photography may be everywhere, but it is not everywhere in the same way.
Media studies consider the contexts of media and images, often through “media practices” – what people do and what it means (Couldry, 2012). Since 2013 I have been exploring these contexts through researching young women’s experiences of mental illness and recovery. This research is distinct in our field as it moves away from “media effects” – what impact media has on someone – to consider how media, young people and their social worlds are interconnected.
Four young women 14 to 17 years who were engaged with, and recruited via, a clinical adolescent mental health service in Melbourne participated in this in-depth ethnographic case study. The study explored the everyday media practices of these young women: what they did on social media, how and why they did this. To do this, the study incorporated a mixed methods approach including image collections, social media platform analyses, and semi-structured interviews involving digital platform ‘walk through’ activities over six months.
Participants self-reported anxiety disorder diagnoses, alongside other presentations including depression, deliberate self-harm, disordered eating and suicidal ideation. All described significant school absence, with some repeating senior years of schooling. Despite absenteeism, some continued to participate in theatre groups or learning new languages online. This presents a complex and nuanced picture about their capacity to engage socially and emotionally, while also successfully managing their anxiety in some spaces but not others.
Among the findings, two insights stood out:
- These young women were highly attuned to visibility on social media and beyond. There was a sense of concern around how they were visible to others and who was visible to them.
- By curating images on social media platforms that allowed anonymity, women felt relief from the pressures and frustrations associated with being visible and accountable to others. They were able to feel in control of who they were visible to through curation. Such platforms were recognised as creating communities of feeling.
For these young women, visibility was about how others saw them – as women, young people, and experiencing mental illness. The fatigue of needing to be “seen” to manage school (both their education and school-based relationships), family, friendships, and their identity, whilst working through their recovery was significant, especially when these aspects of their life were exacerbated at times by their illnesses. Young people are visible on social media, but not everywhere in the same way.
Participants acknowledged that social media didn’t necessarily produce these pressures, but made them visible. For example, others could see if they posted images to shared Facebook photo albums, or liked their friends’ content.
Managing social relationships, especially when participants were visible online, was challenging. They relied on the different affordances of social media to negotiate how they were visible, to whom and when. One young woman posted humorous and creative images to her Instagram to show her family and friends she was well, so that she didn’t have to re-tell everyone about her therapeutic progress. Others increasingly used “invisible” or direct modes of communication, such as private or direct messaging, or only socialising with one friend at a time at a café or at school. This reduced the overwhelming pressure to talk to “everyone.”
Communities of Feeling
Visual practices of curating images on platforms, like Tumblr and Pinterest, were strategies participants of this study used to manage the anxiety of being visible in their homes, schools and other social media platforms. Humour about the everyday challenges of being a young woman and experiencing anxiety or mental illness were common. This project revealed that memes and animated gifs shared on social media were important, and provided reassurance and relief.
This study looked closely at the reasons why participants engaged with certain social media platforms, and how this made them feel. One young woman explained that her use of Tumblr provided a space for her to collect and reblog images that made her feel less anxious and more connected to a larger group. The images were personal to her, but never images she photographed herself. Like other women in the study, she didn’t really converse with other Tumblr users, but enjoyed feeling like she was part of something bigger, without the “work” of actively connecting. In her words, these practices were “therapy”. She described her Tumblr use as being explicitly connected to her engagements with, what would formally be considered, clinical therapy.
This contrasts to earlier chat-based or contemporary forums where young people actively converse together (see Webb, Burns & Collin, 2008, for example). Of course platforms like Pinterest and Tumblr afford limited (and changing) conversation tools, and not all young people use these platforms in the same way. However, the affordances of these platforms, such as public anonymity (Cho, 2011), their visual focus on interests, and norms of shared content circulation through reblogging (Kanai, 2015) make them spaces for ambient connection through imaging practices. Media practices both shape the platforms, and the platforms shape media practices.
What Next? Rethinking Media Literacies
The implications of this project provide nuance to important research emerging from other health fields and disciplines, especially the diversity of “communities” on image-based platforms and how young people may seek disconnection from the pressures of visibility and peer relationships.
Traditional notions of community, where young people communicate with insiders or other group members, may be inadequate to make sense of how and why young people are engaging with social media platforms. Interventions may benefit from extending common notions of connectedness, as establishing relationships with people, to also include ‘feeling’ connected through shared, relatable content.
Utilising a ‘media practices’ approach requires us to ask why and how rather than what young people do. In this way, we might not recommend particular platforms or apps to a young people in clinical and education work, but instead seek to explore what practices young people do engage in and unpack what underlies those practices: their experiences, values, and attitudes; their social and personal cultures and environments; and the changing affordances and cultures of platforms.
By understanding the relationship between media practices and young people’s experiences we can better establish interventions that closely understand the diversity of young people’s media practices in recovery. From here, the project is continuing to develop media practice-based workshops for young people and practitioners, and to produce new recommendations for practitioners to support exploring media practices with young people to inform recovery interventions.
Cho, A. (2015). Queer reverb: Tumblr, affect, time. In K. Hillis, S. Paasonen, & M. Petit (Eds.), Networked affect. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Couldry, N. (2012). Media, society, world: Social theory and digital media practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hand, M. (2012). Ubiquitous photography. Cambridge: Polity.
Hjorth, L., & Hendry, N. A. (2015). A snapshot of social media: Camera phone practices. Social Media + Society, 1(1).
Kanai, A. (2015). Laughing through the discomfort: Navigating neoliberal feeling rules in a Tumblr attention economy. Presented at the The Australian Sociological Association Conference, Cairns, Queensland. Retrieved from https://www.tasa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Kanai-2015.pdf
Robards, B. (2012). Leaving MySpace, joining Facebook: “Growing up” on social network sites. Continuum, 26(3), 385–398.
Scolere, L., & Humphreys, L. (2016). Pinning design: The curatorial labor of creative professionals. Social Media+ Society, 2(1).
Webb, M., Burns, J., & Collin, P. (2008). Providing online support for young people with mental health difficulties: Challenges and opportunities explored. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 2(2), 108–113.
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