If you’re a social media user — even a light one — you’ve probably seen at least one or two of these hashtags on one of your feeds at one point or another. Maybe you’ve even used the occasional #insertwordorphrasehere on one of your posts. But the idea that you’d use these to decide who to follow, what to look at, what events to go to, and what to buy might seem a little strange to you.
That’s likely not the case for your teens. Hashtags are more than just fun phrases, quirky additions, and ways to curate photos from an event like a wedding or family reunion. For them, hashtags are the key to noticing what’s important to them and being noticed by others who they want to appear important to. They bring attention to key issues, global events, and moments they won’t want to miss out on.
While hashtags are used on a variety of social media platforms in similar ways, for the sake of this blog — and considering it’s the most used social media platform by teens (once it surpassed Snapchat last year) — I’ll limit my exploration of the once-pound-sign-turned-algorithmic-organizer to how it’s used by teens on Instagram.
How They Work
Essentially, hashtags are automated curators of related content. So when a user uses a hashtag on a post their post is added to that hashtag’s page. This can be really useful for marketers, as it organizes all user-generated content under a hashtag promoting something they’re marketing (i.e. #bestcampever, #airpods, #coachella, etc.). It can also be really useful for users (teens or otherwise), as they can see what others are posting about a particular thing, be it an event, a product, a project, a lifestyle, etc. On Instagram, users can add hashtags to their posts and stories, meaning those posts and stories will be populated under that hashtag and users looking at that hashtag will be able to see their content. Additionally, users can opt to follow certain hashtags, meaning content posted with the hashtags they follow will populate in their feed.
While not all teens on Instagram are exactly tech wizards, with a detailed understanding of the way social media platforms algorithms curate content for them, as users they can unconsciously react to the way their behavior on an app affects what comes across their feed. Therefore, they realize that when they choose to follow a particular hashtag, use a hashtag frequently, or like a lot of posts with the same hashtag, they’ll start seeing more content like that as they navigate Instagram.
Essentially, using hashtags curates content for users, giving them more of a reason to use a given platform. What I mean by this is that, when they’re on top of their hashtag game, users don’t need to scroll through posts that may not interest them to get to eventually happen upon the ones that do. Nay, the ever-selfless hero Instagram (if my sarcasm is unclear, believe me when I say that Instagram is no hero) will do that heavy-lifting for them and put the posts they want to see right in front of their eyes, heightening their desire to remain attached to the app.
But hashtags aren’t all bad. Are they designed to manipulate users’ attention and keep them using the app? Maybe, but they do have some positive aspects. For teens, hashtags that trend quickly can be the first place they discover big news. For example #NotreDame and #SriLanka were both global stories that were trending because news outlets and users were using the hashtags to automate the curation of content that covered the events.
We also see the positives in this type of automated curation when movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are propelled forward by the many voices of social media users lending themselves to their respective narratives. That said, the passive nature of social media can make such movements become opportunities for “slacktivism” among teens, where they post about their passion for the movement, rather actively participate in any means for change.
This automated curation, however, also comes with a downside as hashtags will organize all content about a particular subject, but will prioritize content that is the most popular, not always the most helpful. This means that, if they’re navigating hashtags uncritically, teens may be receiving flawed information or being swayed by highly biased posts. This becomes problematic when, for example, things like #IStandWithPP start trending because many well-intended but poorly informed people start jumping on a bandwagon of support for Planned Parenthood, potentially misinforming and swaying the opinions of young people inspired by the pro-woman rhetoric offered.
On another level, hashtags can keep teens informed on trending events that they won’t want to miss out on and provide them with a way to feel connected to them. For example, #Coachella was trending earlier this month because it was, ya know, happening, so a lot of people had a lot of posts to share about it. This made it easy for users to tap #Coachella in Instagram and be directed to a page featuring well over 4 million posts about the event, mostly featuring girls in whimsical clothing posing in front of Ferris wheels in the Coachella Valley.
Mostly, I think hashtags are relatively harmless. But I have two words of caution for them.
Take note of whether or not your teen is including multiple hashtags in their posts.
If your teen is including multiple hashtags in their posts, it’s likely they’re (a) eager for attention and feeling some lack of self-esteem and (b) sharing content in a more public way than may be safe. It’s more likely that young women would employ this habit, as they may be trying to be noticed in the world of lifestyle bloggers and influencers, hopeful for ad and sponsorship deals of some kind (which are not as far off as you probably think).
Additionally, if their accounts are set to public and they’re using multiple hashtags, it’s likely they’re being seen by way more users than follow them. So say your teen has 1,000 followers, but their account is public and they post a photo using #blonde, that post is then added to that hashtag, making them more accessible than they would be to any Instagram user who looks at that hashtag. As you keep an eye on how they’re using social media in general, if you notice they’re using a lot of hashtags, consider opening up a conversation as to how they approach social media use. Ask them questions like “what is the goal of your account?” “are you connecting with friends or trying to grow an audience… why?”
Keep an eye on trending moments that merit discussion with your teens.
I briefly outlined the positive and negative aspects of trending events and movements on social media above, but this note requires work on your part. Do your homework and pay attention when something seems to be getting a lot of air time on the news. Even if it seems like a fleeting moment, a hashtag can turn something like a one-day protest into an ongoing global reaction. If your teens are on social media, they’re likely going to come across it and you need to be prepared to discuss it with them.