Social Animals Showcases the Inspiring, Terrifying World of Instagram

In Social Animals, a new documentary directed by Jonathan Ignatius Green, a teen laments the chaos that is Instagram:

“You have to deal with the perverts, the disrespectful teenagers, the racist people, and family members,” she says. “That’s too much.”

But is she going to delete her account? Probably not. Instagram may be “too much,” but it’s also too vital, too addictive and for a few, too lucrative to leave.

More than a billion people use Instagram, Social Animals reminds us. And statistically it’s the most popular social network for teens. Studies suggest that 76% of youth between the ages of 13 and 17 use it. But it’s how they use it that this fascinating doc focuses on.  In examining the lives of three teens who use and leverage Instagram, we get a snapshot of a sometimes misunderstood world—and how the network is shaping the lives of its users.

Two of its three subjects aren’t just on Instagram: They’re strategically using it to craft a brand. At an age in which their parents might’ve been worrying about finals or homecoming, they’re plotting a way to becoming internet famous—and succeeding.

We meet Kaylyn Slevin, a 15-year-old dancer and model whose lifelong dream was once to be a Victoria’s Secret model. Her new quest? That’d be to collect 500,000 followers on Instagram. When she does, her dad will let her start her own fashion line and press even harder for Insta-fame.

Not that she’s lacking for fame now, mind you—or putting in the work that comes with it. With the support of her pops, Kaylyn’s working with a stylist to get her look just right, contracting a well-known photographer to help define her “brand.” It doesn’t seem to bother her, or her father, how many of her pics expose quite a bit of 15-year-old Kaylyn’s skin, or that many of her followers keep asking to see more. More troubling, perhaps, was the stalker who created a dedicated website/shrine in her honor, sent her really disturbed messages and wound up stalking the teen.

“Thank God [we live in a] double-gated community,” her father says.

Humza Deas was 17 when he became Internet famous—climbing New York City’s most famous landmarks, then taking and posting pictures of what he saw up there. Never mind that what he’s doing is illegal: His spectacular Instagram posts have turned him into a recognized artist. He’s had a gallery exhibit and worked with Kanye West. Humza acknowledges he’s risking his life, but he justifies it: The followers and shares are worth it. Doing something different—and dangerous—is the only way to get noticed. “That’s a boundary I’m willing to cross,” he says.

But perhaps the most riveting person we get to know in Social Animals is Emma Crockett. She doesn’t have a six-figure number of followers like Kaylyn or Humza: She just used Instagram like a normal teen, underlying how important—and how destructive—the network can be.

“Social media is like a job,” she says, detailing her own Instagram schedule and how she’d curate what she’d post or not.

She talks about the envy girls feel as they scan through the Insta-pics posted by others, how stalking ex-boyfriends on Instagram can feed insecurity and misery, how often she’s been solicited by strangers online for more explicit pics.

“I block him immediately,” she says of such online admirers. “It scares me.” But when the interviewer confirms that she’s never sent anything inappropriate, Emma—who went to a Christian school—corrects him. “Oh, I have,” she says, matter-of-factly.

I won’t spoil the rest of her story, but it’s one that’ll make many a parent tremble.

We hear, briefly, from lots of other kids too. One admits that if she doesn’t get 60 likes on a picture in an hour, she’ll delete it. Another confesses she spends 90 minutes getting ready to take the perfect selfie. They talk about bullying and sexual harassment online. Kaylyn’s cousin talks about how common it is for seventh-graders to be solicited for explicit photos—and the photos are often shared around school the next day.

“So common and so illegal,” he says. “It’s getting really serious, and it’s not OK.”

Social Animals doesn’t demonize Instagram, but it definitely sounds a note of alarm about how the network can and is being used by teens. And it makes an understated but unmistakable plea to parents to be more involved with their children’s lives. (“My grandma doesn’t know what Instagram is, thankfully,” Humza says.)

Social Animals comes with caveats. It’s rated R for language (a few f- and s-words), and a bevy of shirtless guys and bikini pics throughout—illustrating Instagram’s salacious side.

But for those who want to get a raw look at Instagram and how it’s impacting teens, Social Animals is as relevant, and as riveting, as it gets. And it just might help spark some much-needed conversation with your own teens along the way.