What We Can Learn About Leading Students from Instagram

Social media platform is making a change that could influence your leadership.

Posted May 30, 2019

Angela is in the sixth grade. Her parents have chosen to not purchase a smart phone for her yet, because they see the anxiety social media platforms cause Angela’s peers. When my teammate Andrew McPeak asked her if she wishes she had a phone, her response was insightful.  She said, “No. I wish my friends didn’t have phones.”

The fact is, social media platforms have turned into a popularity contest.

What originally began an innocent platform to post pictures of a significant event or relationship has now become a competition to stage a scenario that appears to be amazing or heartwarming, just to get “likes.” Other platforms do the same thing, begging users to post content for:

  •  “views”
  •  “shares”
  •  “retweets”

Did you hear what Instagram is doing about this?

Twenty20
Source: Twenty20

Instagram is Considering Removing “Likes”

Recently, Instagram announced at Facebook’s F8 developer conference that they are experimenting with a new feature that removes exact “like” counts from posts. Instead of a numerical count, a user will be notified that some users “and others” liked the post and leave it at that. Short and simple. Very general.

Why is this important?

First, a user’s life can become about appearances rather than reality. I know too many middle and high school students who are more concerned with how they look instead of who they really are. Instagram’s decision may cut our preoccupation with image.

Second, it slows down the popularity contest obsession. Teens have always been into seeking who is most popular, so that reality won’t completely disappear. But this can level the playing field a bit, pushing students back toward authentic communication.

Third, since current social media scorecards measure the responses a post gets, they foster artificial stories; filtered photos; exaggerations or distortions. Many young users have additional account personas called “finstas” (fake Instagram accounts). This may slow down.

Journalist Karissa Bell writes, “Though ‘like’ counts may seem like a relatively minor feature, it’s one that’s become emblematic of the social pressures often surrounding Instagram. Younger users, in particular, can feel pressure to get a certain amount of likes, and sometimes delete posts if they don’t get enough. De-emphasizing like counts could reduce potential bullying or make people feel better about their feed.”

How Does This Inform Our Leadership?

Let me offer some tips on what we can learn from Instagram’s decision. Like this platform, we can be intentional about our leadership of students when it comes to social media:

1.  Help students develop a sense of identity outside of social media.

Several teens in our recent focus groups reported that they draw their primary sense of identity from their social media accounts. This sets them up to ride an emotional roller coaster. Why not work with your students to create purpose statements for their life that focus on doing something meaningful? Then, social media can be a servant and not a master. The more time students spend offline, the more balanced they tend to be, both socially and emotionally. Teach them to find a need and fill it. Teach them to serve and in the process, discover their talents and abilities. When kids finally spend hours away from their phones they soon feel how liberating it is. Social media is supposed to “enhance our lives” not “enslave our lives.”

2. Take steps to enhance your students’ wellbeing.

Instagram is demonstrating a growing focus on features meant to enhance users’ “wellbeing.” In fact, the company has launched anti-bullying elements and tools to monitor your screen time. Coaches and parents can join them in providing guidelines or guardrails for social media use by minors:

  • No Phone Zones. Why not give clear guidance on when phones can be used for educational, meaningful exchanges or research and when they cannot, such as lunchtime in the cafeteria or meal time at home. Also, what if 9:00 pm is the time everyone turns their phones into re-charge them and enjoy time offline.
  • Equal Time Equations. Why not teach students the unintended consequences of smartphones (i.e. anxiety and depression) and help them spend an equal amount of time in face-to-face interactions as they have on a screen. We tried to ensure our kids had equal hours in quiet and with people as they did online.

3. Offer students a different kind of report card.

For too many young adults, Instagram is their sole, unilateral scorecard for how important they are. The more followers and “likes” they get, the better they feel about themselves. Both Instagram and I say it’s time for a new report card. Students need to “live their life” not just “post their life.” Posting can be both superficial and meaningful depending on our motive. Pause and consider this fact: we all have chosen something to measure how we feel about ourselves. It could be our performance. Our friendships. Our faith. You name it. Why not work with your students to choose to measure themselves with something that cannot be taken away by someone else. Popularity is a very bad scorecard. Purpose is a very good scorecard. Help them to be conscious about how they evaluate their life and satisfaction. Suggest they consider items like:

  • Positively contributing to a cause or a community.
  • Belonging to a group or family.
  • Taking a stand for their values and convictions.

I think you and Instagram together can make a great team to help your students.