TIME Internet

Teen Girls Describe the Harsh Unspoken Rules of Online Popularity

Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

In a survey released exclusively to TIME by the social networking site We Heart It, young women open up about bullying, peer pressure, and online drama

Most teens live, at least in part, on social media, the virtual platforms that shape their real worlds–places where they joke, flirt and seek constant, elusive validation from their peers. Most of what goes on isn’t easily visible to adults, but a new survey reveals what teenage girls think of the darker, more anti-social side of this universe, in their own words:

“Bullying is constant.”

“I just feel like I don’t fit in.”

“There’s a lot of bad things that grown ups don’t see.”

“I hate seeing perfect people because it makes me want to be perfect.”

“People think it’s okay to make fun of others, that it’s just a game.”

“No one understands me. They call me fat and ugly. I wanna kill myself.”

“Sometimes I just feel like I don’t exist, like I’m invisible to everyone, I pretend it’s okay, but it hurts.”

These are just a few ways females from ages 13 to 24 described their negative experiences in a survey released exclusively to TIME by social networking site We Heart It. In research conducted through their site, many young women expressed versions of the same complaints—that they felt unseen or insulted, that other people didn’t understand the consequences of their actions. One clear lesson: while social media may be a place to make fun connections, it can also be just another way to feel isolated and insecure.

In a focus group conducted with 12 users and non-users of We Heart It, young women were asked about how they used social media sites like Instagram, a world apparently governed by an exhausting set of unspoken rules. If their feedback were written up into a list, it would look something like this:

  1. Have lots of followers.
  2. Have more followers than people you follow.
  3. But don’t look like you’re trying to get followers by hashtagging too much, etc.
  4. Don’t serial post. (“You only want to post one Instagram a day.”)
  5. If you do post multiple things per day, they’d better be amazing. (“You can post multiple tweets a day, but they can’t be stupid or not interesting.”)
  6. If you game the system, don’t get caught. (“She [my friend] probably has 20 fake accounts where she goes and likes her own pictures.”)
  7. Remove photos that don’t get enough likes.
  8. Be witty. (“Cute and clever captions are important. People judge you if they’re weird.”)
  9. Time your posts for optimal like-getting. (“There’s a lot of social pressure to get likes, so you have to post it at the right time of day. You don’t want to post it during school when people don’t have their phone.”)
  10. Facebook is for photos that weren’t good enough for Instagram.

And so on.

We Heart It, a site you’ve probably never heard of, is a social network based on uploading and “hearting” images. As Facebook has become more widely adopted and lost its in-group shine, this is one of the lesser-known places where young women have fled to interact without Aunt Sally looking over their shoulder. To date, the site has more than 25 million users, about 80% of whom are under the age of 24 and female.

In a survey on social media, conducted on We Heart It in December, 66% of roughly 5,000 respondents said they experienced bullying on Facebook, followed by 19% on Twitter and 9% on Instagram; 59% said they felt like they didn’t fit in on Facebook, compared to 32% on Twitter and 30% on Instagram. Just over 80% said they’d gone through drama with their friends on Facebook, 22% on Twitter and 12% on Instagram. Lower percentages said the same of We Heart It, but there is clearly a self-selection factor among respondents, given that all of them were active We Heart It users voluntarily taking the survey on that particular medium.

That said, the site does make bullying more difficult in at least one respect: there is no comment function. We Heart It is built as a visual medium where the only words allowed are essentially one-word tags on pictures, one-line bios, and one-liners on images. And a user’s number of followers is hidden a click away from the user’s primary profile page, which the company says is part of building an anti-competitive space. The gist, President Dave Williams says, is for people to arrange images into collections “to build a visual playlist,” something like a modern mix tape that other people can “heart” but not make fun of.

The site was started by a young male graphic designer who built an “I Heart It” page to gather pictures that inspired him. He didn’t intend for it to be a business, but his friends liked the idea, and the site soon became We Heart It. The company capitalized in 2011, and creator Fabio Giolito has taken a role as lead designer, handing the business reins to startup veterans like Williams, who previously worked for music service Rhapsody.

Spending time on the site, it’s hard to imagine that the users of We Heart It don’t also feel some of that oppression of imperfection, despite the positive formatting. Users post images of unicorns and painting nails, flowers and people holding hands—but also oodles of models in skimpy jean shorts and crop tops. It’s also easy to understand how simple it is to use, speaking only through pictures. Scrolling through hundreds, even the dour posts have some element of solidarity: “Girls fake smiles,” one image reads. “Guys fake feelings.”

Some of the descriptions of negative social media experiences from We Heart It’s survey also get at why it’s never going to go away.

“It’s just teens being teens.”

“People can suck.”

“Without having to face them in real life … that makes it easier for people to be rude.”

And the latter speaks to at least a few productive ideas: interacting with people face-to-face when you can and only doing things on Facebook, et al., that you would do in the flesh. Teens adopting that across the board is a dream, of course, but one worth promoting.

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