Why I worry about teens on Tumblr

By Jeremy Wilson on October 21st, 2013

More teenagers regularly use the blogging platform Tumblr than use Facebook. Social networks come and go, but the increasing use of Tumblr by young people reveals more than just a temporary fad. It’s changing the way young people experience growing up entirely, exposing them to “competitive stripping”. Young girls are taking more and more off in a bid to emulate their favourite stars and get attention from their peers.

The majority of this material would be illegal to view in the UK, since revealing pictures of girls under 18 are classified as indecent images of children.

Tumblr can best be characterised as a blogging platform that allows users to post images, videos and text. Their content can then be viewed on a “dashboard” by users following their account. From there the content can be re-blogged, powering a constant wave of new copy and images round the site.

Teenagers embrace Tumblr because they feel freer to express what’s real to them and one of the things that’s most real is sexuality. The mix of teenage narcissism and a platform that normalises the flow of glamorous sexual imagery has inevitable consequences. Self-shot images become more explicit in nature and sexual discovery takes place in front of a camera.

For the uninitiated, browsing through Tumblr can be a dizzying experience. You are hit by every conceivable manifestation of teen angst, from pop culture iconography, to fashion, to Instagram filters. It’s a throwback to the earlier days of the web where sites like MySpace became places for self-expression and individuality – which unfortunately often manifested itself in Nyan Cat inspired personal pages.

It’s well known that Facebook’s younger users are starting to lose enthusiasm for the site. It’s a reaction to the sanitised platform that Mark Zuckerberg has been building. Teenagers struggle to understand the lure of an online world that their parents are part of. They don’t want targeted ads from cell phone providers, they want celebrity GIFs, inspirational quotes and lots and lots of orange-filtered photos.

Browsing through the photos posted by teen Tumblr users reveals another stark difference in the way they are using the internet. The mass of photos they’re posting and sharing aren’t the food porn shots that clog up the social media feeds of adults: they are of people. More specifically they are aspirational photos of people – images of preened celebrities, models, porn stars and countless self-shot photos – about which more later.

Aspiration is the key word here. Tumblr has replaced the traditional pop idol bedroom posters with a new, supercharged medium for teenage lust.

It’s extremely hard to quantify the amount of pornographic material on Tumblr, but it’s clear from even a brief stint on the site that there’s an awful lot. Mainstream porn stars such as James Deen and Stoya are distributed in gif form by hardcore devotees, re-blogged endlessly and seamlessly integrated into the dashboards of Tumblr users.

For many young users, the dashboard is the new bedroom wall and these explicit images become normalised parts of their developing self-image.

When it comes to creating content for Tumblr, young users simply copy what they have learned. While much has been written on the selfie phenomenon, it just takes a look through a teenager’s Tumblr to comprehend how ingrained the phenomenon has become. If a teenager decides to post their own content on Tumblr, it will almost certainly be in the form of a selfie that was the product of hours of camera positioning, lighting adjustment and pouting.

There’s no such thing as a half-hearted selfie on Tumblr.

There are countless Tumblr blogs, mainly of young females who intersperse their posts of celebrities in bikinis with themselves in their underwear and posts of pornstars with themselves naked. Tumblr host self shot nudity of this sort on an industrial scale.

Why do they do it? Unlike the big brother glare of Facebook, Tumblr offers an illusion of anonymity – it feels safe. Several factors contribute to this, including the sheer number of nude images that make adding to their numbers feel less transgressive, and the fact that Tumblr blogs with adult content are not indexed by Google.

It’s almost as if users feel secure inside Tumblr’s walls, safe from the rest of the internet.

But although Tumblr might feel safe, it is not. Several Tumblr blogs with large followings are dedicated to hunting and reposting images. Tumblr users are curators and those who post naked photos of themselves will themselves be curated – to have their images resurface at any time in the rest of their lives.

And that’s before we even talk about the precocious sexuality of this material, most of which cannot be printed here for legal reasons because the ages of the girls involved cannot be confirmed but is almost certainly under 18.

Now Yahoo! owns Tumblr, dare we hope a clean-up will soon begin? Or is the web giant counting on pageviews from these illegal images to justify the absurd price it paid for Tumblr?