Real Talk

Wary of social media’s perils, Gen Z seems to appreciate relatable reality over filtered curation. But is authenticity online just another fleeting trending topic?

Author: Allie Griffith ’17, ’19M.Ed.

At Thanksgiving dinner last year, my siblings and I sat around my aunt’s dining room table in Akron, Ohio, ready to dig in. As my little brother heaped mashed potatoes into his mouth, my sister, Abby, extended her right arm to the ceiling, iPhone in hand. Staring deadpan into the screen, she clicked the side button with her index finger, then, just as swiftly, turned the phone toward my brother. With a quick glance at the screen and a satisfying tap, she returned the iPhone to her pocket.

This entire sequence took about five seconds.

“Taking a Thanksgiving selfie?” I teased.

“My BeReal went off,” Abby said matter-of-factly, as if I should know.

I did not know. Seven years my junior, Abby’s pop culture sphere — from clothing trends and popular emojis, to new music artists and favorite Netflix shows — has intersected enough with my own to keep us in an overlapping orbit of shared interests. Lately though, my Gen Z sister exists on a planet far away from my millennial self, particularly when it comes to social media.

It started with TikTok, the video app most popular among the high school students I used to teach. Abby helped me download TikTok mid-2022. By Thanksgiving, her task was to educate me on how to “BeReal” — a new app where users share one photo per day to show their followers what they are doing in real time.

BeReal, Abby explained, aims for authenticity: when the random notification goes off, whether at 11 a.m. during a Zoom meeting or at 9 p.m. during an episode of Succession, the app demands users to post photos — both a user-facing photo (usually a selfie) and an outward facing photo — at that exact moment. Veterans like Abby get crafty with this dual capture, using a single-hand technique to wield the phone deftly, the object a mere extension of themselves. My first BeReal was a bit blurry, but sufficient. When I posted it, I felt somehow cooler; more hip and in the know.

I’m in a long-term, on-again, off-again relationship with social media — enthralled at times, heartbroken at others. Ten years ago, I boldly claimed in my final senior column for my high school’s newspaper that I would never, ever get a smartphone (I got one three months later). My college friends still remember the day we formed our own group chat, in December before our first Christmas break. It’s the same text thread we use to keep in touch to this day.

Over the years, I’ve both applauded and scolded myself for using Instagram, Twitter and TikTok — like junk food, some weekends I binge, scrolling on a lazy Sunday morning before getting out of bed. Yet, like the time I tried “dry January,” I’ve also sworn off social media completely in different seasons of my life, even deleting my Instagram account my first year at Notre Dame, experiencing FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) from seeing posts of my high school friends together while attending the same college in my home state. Another time, I deleted it after a break up.

Allie Be Real Featured
The author, learning to BeReal.

The harmful effects of social media on mental health — especially for young women — have been well-documented. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than 40 percent of Instagram users who reported feeling “unattractive” said the feeling began on the app, and about one in four adolescent girls who use TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram experience negative social comparisons. The list of downsides for young people goes on — unwanted contact from strangers, sleep interference, “availability stress,” bullying and pressure to change their self-image.

Now, in 2023, a shift in social media trends, spearheaded by Gen Z, seems to be a response to these threats and reflects an effort to find meaning and, dare I say, truth in our daily experiences.

As they maximize the positive aspects of social media for personal use — access to activism, social connection and entertainment — Gen Z also seems to have ushered in a new standard of rawer self-expression. As a TikTok user recently explained to me, filters, posing and an overall “perfect Instagram aesthetic” are “out.” What’s in? Something like vulnerability, relatability and positivity.

Scrolling through my BeReal feed, I admire this emerging nonfiction: a mundane office cubicle, a tired selfie in a grocery store aisle, a blurred mirror pic of toothbrushing. The rules here are different, more welcoming to faces without makeup, an unmade bed, an unflattering angle.

I admit I feel a bit voyeuristic, like I’m peeping into a coworker’s car. Alix Earle, a TikTok user and student at University of Miami whose popularity on the app has produced a net worth of over $1 million, claims to have secured hundreds of thousands more followers when she posted about struggles with acne, revealing her skin without its usual makeup and filters. Selena Gomez, the third most popular person on Instagram with over 400 million followers — recently posted a selfie with no makeup and a blemish above her lip. The caption? “Me.”

Yet, Gen Z’s appreciation for relatability has not remained impenetrable to the impulse to post personal highlight reels for virtual applause. Already, I’ve seen BeReal become just another social media forum used to glamorize our lives: Users can post “late,” meaning if the notification goes off at 11 a.m. at your office desk, but you have plans to attend a concert that evening, you might choose to post nine hours later from your spot in the crowd, the lights and scene much cooler than a midday office selfie. Instead of a revolution of realness, we get fleeting glances. Maybe BeReal and other social media authenticity trends will become another short-lived fad.

I’d like to think I’m “realer” these days, using social media more for information and entertainment and less for attention. Like that first sip of a local craft beer, though, a “like” on a post or refresh of the feed can feel similar to a soft buzz. Three more minutes, I tell myself, and I’ll put my phone away. It’s easier said than done, but I’m not willing to go cold turkey anytime soon.

One of the best parts of having a BeReal was keeping up with Abby — her college adventures in Chicago, her new job downtown. But she informs me that she’s deleted the app, apparently one among many of her peers to move on in the ever-shifting social-media landscape.

That’s OK with me. I prefer hearing my little sister’s voice to seeing her picture on a screen; her sarcastic comments and quick wit make me laugh every time we get to catch up.

I’ll call her later. Or, I guess, FaceTime, since that’s what Gen Z prefers these days.

Allie Griffith is this magazine’s alumni editor.