Illustration: Hannah Buckman
I recently got reported to Instagram for bullying, which was a first for me. It’s humiliating to describe your Instagram Stories in writing, and perhaps it’s even a form of penance, so here goes: I had shared three posts by a brand that sells apparel printed with aphorisms about resisting grind culture. On the shared posts, I had editorialized very rudely — fine, profanely. I thought the sweatshirts were stupid and decided in a moment of self-indulgence to share my feelings with my 1,100 followers.
This kind of apparel is everywhere these days, from fast fashion to Insta-brands: shirts printed with phrases like “Self-Care Club” or “Your Worth Is Not Measured by Your Productivity!” Tote bags emblazoned with to-do lists for relaxation (“Take a Big Stretch!”; “Morning Walk!’). I suppose Gen Z is pushing back against the breakneck pace of late capitalism by wearing messages about rest. It’s nothing new, and I should have chilled with my criticism. Gen X drove around in their Toyota Tercels with bumper stickers telling people to “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty” and reminding fellow motorists that “Mean People Suck,” so really this kind of thing has been going on forever.
What compelled me to be rude? I suppose it was an overreaction to the Instagram commerce that’s created a flattened voice of niceness, which, to my frustration, is beginning to read like a dull but upbeat AI animating the entire platform. Everyone is trying so hard to hustle, and to support each other’s hustles, then returning the favor of support. It’s taken on the form of a natural process, like the hydrologic cycle, except composed of tiny droplets of human effortfulness.
When the prevailing tone of my feed sounds like a careful sales pitch about, like, “selling sustainable undergarments for everyone,” or whatever, I do begin to chafe. When those affirmations themselves are co-opting the language of resistance to exploitation, social media starts to feel like an ideological M.C. Escher painting. Using an amoral social platform to sell garments manufactured through exploitation that are printed with slogans about how collective liberation will happen through the normalization of going to therapy? It feels like using a wine cork to plug a leaking oil tanker.
I get why younger people on Instagram cling to stale affirmations, and I don’t blame them for hustling by any means necessary. It is not getting any less precarious out there. My outburst over this sweatshirt brand was fueled by impotent rage that this blanketing, smoothed-out blandness of mandatory hustle is coming for my own kids — and I really do not want that for them.
I hadn’t realized that brands are notified when you share their posts, which might be surprising given that I’ve spent the last three years doing doctoral research on Instagram motherhood.
A few hours after I posted my mean story, I received a DM from the person behind the page I’d shared. She informed me of her age (mid-20s), called me a bully, and reported my content to Instagram as inappropriate. I felt remorse. I had meant to make fun of a discourse, not an individual. But making fun of a brand isn’t bullying, is it? Still, maybe she had a point — I hadn’t realized that the brand’s owner was also the person modeling the shirts. I apologized for bothering her and told her (probably not convincingly) that I didn’t realize she’d be notified about my posts. Mostly though, I felt sad for this person, whose feelings I had badly hurt.
The following day was a Saturday. I made my kids breakfast, did some errands. I came home to an email from someone claiming to be a concerned bystander, a witness to my Instagram Stories bullying. This person shared a last name with the young woman who DMed me the day before, so I presumed them to be her parent.
The parent (I was correct) was extremely pissed, and I got an earful. My credibility as a writer and as a caregiver were questioned. I was compelled to reply because this person had clearly spent some time composing a thoughtful email while fuming with anger — an exhausting activity that deserves recognition. I apologized, and I also wondered if maybe the person’s daughter, whose brand, in all seriousness, is exactly the kind of thing Gen-Z kids love, should take heart and brace herself for more success and brand visibility, which might come with more unwelcome comments. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only asshole on the internet.
This anecdote is almost over, but not quite. The parent wrote me back a second time at even greater length. They had given me a deep Google (we hyphenates have impeccable SEO) and presented me with evidence of my moral hypocrisy based on things I’d written in the past. They implied that they could send screenshots of my Instagram Story to the dean at the college where I have taught and wondered what the dean might think of it. They accused me of the “character assassination” of their daughter. They also asked, at great length, what I plan to do when my children are someday cyberbullied.
You know what? That’s a great question. How should we go about raising resilient kids? What does resilience even mean anymore, and how can families shore it up for themselves? When my kids are in their 20s, will I DM people on their behalf? This unexpected exchange with the parent of a young entrepreneur was the first time I’d really given these questions any thought.
“I don’t think life is real unless some things are just for you,” Donald Glover said recently in Interview. “Things that should not or cannot be shared. I think the younger generation is going to have a hard time distinguishing whether something is for them or for others, and I think it could play out as a diminished sense of self. You really have to know what you would do if no one else was watching. Like the story about Robert Redford when the elevator door is closing and someone asks him, ‘Are you the real Robert Redford?’ And he said, ‘Only when I’m alone.’”
We are still figuring out the impact of growing up with social media; the first generation to experience that is just reaching the age of majority. For the young person whom I insulted on Instagram, her brand seems inextricable from her sense of self. When I insulted the sweatshirts, she experienced an insult personally. She is not to blame for this conflation. It’s probably what she has always been conditioned to want: a passion project that is a total extension and fulfillment of the self to be shared widely and leveraged into a success.
At what cost, though? Glover is right; we need to protect parts of ourselves from the marketplace of selfhood, to guard and nurture them away from general scrutiny. This was considered a cultural imperative when I was a teen: Fuck the man; be yourself! Today’s teens are encouraged to work on constructing selfhood using tools designed to optimize outcomes for shareholders.
I grew up in Bill Clinton’s 1990s reading Adbusters magazine and worrying about how corporate interests were trying to manufacture my consent. As teens, our job prospects were not dire (yet), and most of us were still naïve enough about the Earth’s future to trundle forward with measured optimism. Without social media, we were free to develop a sense of self that we weren’t under continuous pressure to A/B test. Selfhood for ’90s teens could sometimes feel like a creative project, like something you might do in art school. We got to play pretend like we were protecting our individualities from the nefarious schemes of encroaching corporate overlords. We believed they were coming to co-opt and destroy us, but they didn’t — they came for the next generation. We escaped, mostly.
Which is not to say that the ’90s were some kind of teenage Valhalla. For many teens, it was not a safe time. The abject cruelty of homophobia and fatphobia during that time will remain enduring hallmarks of that age. It can be hard to explain to today’s kids just how mean pop culture used to be. Social norms are changing for the better, and on behalf of every parent of young kids, I am grateful to the kids who grew up in the last 20 years for being part of that change. But teens today have an adversary that’s harder to defend against because it’s harder to see: algorithms and unregulated platforms.
So we fret about resilience. Will Aedin be able to handle the creative director’s negative feedback on their slide deck? Will Ella crumble under the pressure of the dinner rush on their first night on the sauté station? We think about our kids’ resilience in terms of performance at work, but maybe that’s beside the point. What is resilience but a robust sense of self? How does one develop one of those?
At the risk of sounding like the exasperated voice-over in a Michael Moore documentary, allow me to insist that selves and brands are not the same. A self can have a brand, like a self can have an artistic practice, but they can be considered separately too. The 2010 Citizens United ruling giving corporations free-speech rights has understandably confused many people about this, but a social-media manager’s tweets should not be considered comparable to emotions pouring out of a human mouth.
Our apps quantify our time and energy throughout our days, so it’s easy to see how kids begin to see being a person as no different from being a business. As soon as kids can read, they understand social metrics. When I was writing on Substack, my kids became aware that I had stats related to my work like they see on YouTube. “How many subs did you get today, Mom?” they’d ask, excited that for the first time ever, my work had a meaningful logic for them. “It doesn’t matter,” I’d lie to them. “What matters is that I enjoy the work.” They rolled their eyes at this.
So, yes, my kids are vulnerable to these same risks. The only way I can help them develop and nurture a sense of what is “for them” and what is “for others” is to create time for them away from sharing platforms. The territory of what is for them should be dense with meaning and history. It’s partly my responsibility to help them inhabit it. It’s more than a question of “putting down the phone” (we got the memo, thanks). It’s a much more interesting and less morally high-handed project: tending to life away from the screen.
I can let them take walks around the neighborhood alone, without a phone, so they can get to know themselves in that space. I can try to set an example by showing love for everyday things: our routines, the things we see together. I can encourage many pastimes for their own sake, like making up choose-your-own-adventure stories of maddeningly long duration that, like the ancient sagas, are recited but never written down. Or compiling a ranked list of every item in the fridge. (One child is a Virgo.)
I can incite them to have long, rambling phone conversations with friends and family members that leave no visible, shareable trace. My kids aren’t teenagers yet, and I don’t know what I’ll do when that time comes and phones become part of their bodies, like mine is a part of me. If I find myself eating my words, I’ll let you know.
So what will I do when my kids are cyberbullied? I will remind them, lovingly, that Audre Lorde didn’t theorize self-care so that white kids of privilege could justify their capitulation at the merest hint of a stressful social situation. Just kidding! I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll probably get very upset and want to DM the little punk who upset my kid.
Instead, if my kid will let me, I will take them out for ice cream and try to remind them of their reservoirs of delight. I’ll tell them to turn off their phone for a while, and they will scoff at me and continue texting their friends. We’ll do our best.
I hope the person I insulted has forgotten all about me. I hope she is feeling the daily comfort of her own observations. Perhaps she has taken a cue from the apparel and has given herself a break.