Generation Z, the youngest wave of teens shaping the zeitgeist, is finding and building its own supportive, inclusive communities online — ones that stretch far beyond the cafeteria table.
For many members of Gen Z, opening up about teen struggles — the typical, such as building self-confidence, or the less-than-typical, like coming out as LGBT — is easier to do online than off.
“We hear all the time from young people how social media is the most accepting space for them,” says Steve Mendelsohn, deputy executive director of the Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention among LGBT youth. “Even our Instagram is important. They can find people similar to them — maybe in the way they present and in their lifestyle or their attitudes.”
Instagram hashtags, YouTube comments and views on YouNow, a live-streaming broadcast site, can provide the same safe space found in youth groups and study circles.
As 17-year old Savannah Sicurella describes it, “There’s this blanket of security behind the Internet.”
We talked to five teens about how their online communities have supported and sustained them, whether through a difficult time, a crisis of identity or during a change that a teenager of any generation might have experienced.
Justin Blake, 16, @JustinBlake on YouNow
Justin hosts a daily vlog documenting his life as a trans teenager on his YouNow channel. Justin first began broadcasting with his siblings as “The Blake Brothers.”
I don’t remember the first comment, but when I first started YouNow I was “stealth” — I wasn’t out. At the time, I just thought I was like every other middle-schooler. That time in their life when they don’t know what to do with themselves. But I was different. So I felt like I couldn’t connect with them.
I was getting a lot of hate comments on Instagram, all transphobic. And I wanted to talk about it to people. I wanted to go live so people who didn’t understand it could ask questions and stuff.
My mom was worried at first because of all the creeps on the Internet, but she understands there’s creeps on the Internet and also people who are there to inform people, or understand things, and connect with other people.
Through YouNow, people get to really see who you are. It’s live. You don’t edit it. The people who stuck around — they really wanted to be there. It made me feel good.
Ajala Way, 15, @ajalaniku on Instagram
Ajala recently participated in Instagram’s #PerfectlyMe campaign, sharing her love of dancing and body positivity with other members of Instagram’s teen community.
I see so many inspirational people at my studio, but I see different kinds of dance and technique on social media. I find dancers that aren’t super-white technical dancers, and I found other black dance accounts and other dance accounts of dancers that did modern dance, because that’s the kind of dance I want to do when I’m older
I remember when we were in middle school and we’d just post whatever we thought would get us the most “likes.” Now, it’s the happy moments. I know that’s so cheesy.
It’s so important to post things that make you happy, because that’s how you remember your life. People see your social media sometimes a lot more than they see you. You don’t have to shy away from it, but you have to share things people want to know about you, while sharing your truth.
Tahlie Puvis, 17, #FreeYourBody on Wattpad
On the fan-fiction social media platform, Tahlie collects user-submitted stories about body acceptance and shares them with more than 9,000 followers.
I found Wattpad through reading. About a couple months after I’d been reading on there, I decided I’d write.
That first story was basically about a girl who had a very flat chest, and she was very self-conscious about it. It went through detailing her ex-boyfriends, and they didn’t help her overcome her self-confidence for it — and in the end, she finally does.
Many people have said, “Why don’t you just imagine it?” You shouldn’t have to imagine these different body features. When you read a book where someone has acne in it and then you see someone out and about with acne, maybe you’ve read a book where that person was a hero. They don’t seem as set apart from everyone else.
Rachel Fong, 18, Kawaii Sweet World on YouTube
When Rachel first started her YouTube baking channel at 12, she showed her hands mixing ingredients but no glimpse of her face or body. When she decided to begin broadcasting like hers was a TV cooking show, she noticed a spike in her followers — and in her own self-confidence.
Posting my face online, that was a big step three years ago. People really connect to a face.
At first, being on camera was really hard for me. Growing up, I was really shy. I didn’t like participating in class, but as I started making more videos where I was on camera, I got much more comfortable with that. People respond to your videos the most when you’re being truly comfortable, when I’m just talking to a friend, talking to the camera — that’s when I get the most positive comments.
Before, [showing my face], it was still great response and positive comments overall, but afterwards, as I started getting more comfortable, people were saying my cheerful attitude about my desserts brought a smile to their face.
I was learning to participate in class and take on more leadership. Then making more videos helped me be more confident, and then that made me want to make more videos. So it’s like a positive feedback loop.
Issabel Kenkle, 16, @bravebel on Instagram
Issabel posts photos of healthful meals and school outfits to her Instagram, which she started last year once she entered recovery for an eating disorder.
Well, when I was really, really deep into my eating disorder, when I was starting to get help, I came across a girl named Jordan, @thebalancedblonde. One of the hashtags she posted was #eatingdisorderrecovery. I decided to make my own account.
When you’re posting it on Instagram, you’re saying it to people who understand what you’re going through. That’s what makes Instagram special — when you’re talking to your therapist, they’re not going through it. As much as they’ve been educated on it and as much as they know it, they’re not in your head. These other people, they know what you’re thinking.
I found that a lot of people [on Instagram] are around my age, a lot of people are teens, but there’s also people in their 20s. People who are 11. People have direct-messaged me from my stories and said I’ve been an inspiration to them, that I seem really sweet.
The thing that was contributing to [my eating disorder] was the comparisons to people around me in my life, like not on the Internet. Comparison is definitely something people can struggle with, but on Instagram people really put an emphasis on, Everybody’s journey is different, everybody’s recovery is different.
Savannah Sicurella, 17, halloweentownhigh on Tumblr and writer for Affinity Magazine
Savannah, a 17-year-old Tumblr user, felt uncomfortable talking about her mother’s alcoholism. She felt more at home chatting with her friends on Tumblr.
I have been on Tumblr for a couple of years. I find it to be a very accepting community. I’m not a person who has difficulty making friends, but I’m a shy person and, for lack of a better word, I’m not a “popular” person at my school. So to find people who are just like me, on Tumblr, like whether that’s being a child of alcoholism, not fitting in, being an asexual or a lesbian or gay or whatever, finding you’re not the only person in the world who’s going through this is such a unique experience.
Like five years ago, when I first started my Tumblr blog, I met a girl named Tatum who I instantly bonded with. She’s the longest friendship I’ve ever had. It’s a unique experience — it’s one thing to grow up with people you can directly interact with, but it’s another thing to see people online that you’ve known since you were 12 and you liked One Direction, to attending school and to attending college and to making something of your life. You feel proud of them. I talked to Tatum about my family’s struggles with alcoholism, and me telling her was like testing the waters of how my friends would react. Because I didn’t want to tell a friend in person and have them completely drop me altogether. You feel like they’re going to say, “Oh, you’re a freak,” “Oh, you were lying to me this whole time.” And telling Tatum gave me this sense of relief.