Youth, social media, influencers, and cultural awareness

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

As a young, 20-something Aucklander, I can tell you that youth culture is saturated with social media. Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter; you name it, we are on it. And we are not just on it, we are actively using it to participate in society.

Studies suggest that using social media helps to make us more politically aware, and that social media users are more likely to actively participate in political issues. Theorists say this happens because we like to surround ourselves with people we trust, and whom we think, tell us the truth: family, friends, and our favourite social media influencers. This, in turn, makes the information we have access to online more influential (McLeod et al., 1996; McLeod, Scheufele, & Moy, 1999 as cited in Boulianne, 2015).

Melemaikalani Makalapua McAllister is a young Hawai’ian influencer on Instagram and TikTok who uses social media and the hula to help teach people about her culture. She

By Hayley White

Reading time: 9 minutes

As a young, 20-something Aucklander, I can tell you that youth culture is saturated with social media. Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter; you name it, we are on it. And we are not just on it, we are actively using it to participate in society.

Studies suggest that using social media helps to make us more politically aware, and that social media users are more likely to actively participate in political issues. Theorists say this happens because we like to surround ourselves with people we trust, and whom we think, tell us the truth: family, friends, and our favourite social media influencers. This, in turn, makes the information we have access to online more influential (McLeod et al., 1996; McLeod, Scheufele, & Moy, 1999 as cited in Boulianne, 2015).

Melemaikalani Makalapua McAllister is a young Hawai’ian influencer on Instagram and TikTok who uses social media and the hula to help teach people about her culture. She first started posting videos on TikTok last year with her sister when she suddenly decided to post a video telling people that when you wear your pua (Hawai’ian flower) on the left it means you are taken (or married) and if you wear it on the right you are available (and want others to know).

“That video actually ended up getting a lot of attention and I said to my sister: ‘I guess people are really interested in this stuff’,” she says. “Ever since that video went out, every day I was like: ‘Okay, I’m going to make this my new thing.’ Now I’m just going to make my TikTok a Hawai’ian place – a Polynesian place where people can come and learn,” she tells me. She soon realised that people did not know about other cultures as well as she thought they did, so it became her priority to help them learn.

Despite being based in California, she has managed to stay connected to her culture through the help of her mother who is a kumu (teacher). Her mother was specifically trained to teach the meaning and history of the hula and the Hawai’ian culture. Naturally, Mele learned about everything her mother knew, and now uses that knowledge to spread her teachings around the world. Mele, who has been doing the hula for 17 years now, says it was her followers that helped her decide to dance in her videos.

“At first, I was just kind of doing messages on TikTok, but then I started to really tie together hula with whatever I was teaching. When people watch my TikToks they really make it a priority to tell me: ‘Oh, I watched it once to read what you’re teaching us, and I watched a second time to see your beautiful dancing’.”

She tells me that it is very rare for people to do hula outside of the Islands because there is only a small community of people who perform it compared to the bigger dance cultures, such as ballet or hip hop. She really makes a point of showcasing the hula so people can experience how it truly is, compared to what is seen on TV or in movies, as these can inaccurately portray how real hula looks.

“It spreads around a false image of who we are and what we do, and it makes some people think it’s okay to inaccurately teach something they don’t know about just because they saw it in a movie or a TV show.” She says that this is why she teaches people on social media, because that’s where the people are. And she’s not incorrect.

Surveys show that 90 percent of teens ages 13-17 have used social media, and 75 percent report having at least one active social media profile, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2018. In 2021, Instagram reported 71 percent of people who use the photo-sharing app daily, are under 35 (Oberlo, 2021), and Facebook still remains the most popular social media site with over a billion users worldwide.

“I feel like everyone’s on social media,” Mele says. “And if it’s not everyone, it’s usually the younger generation, and the younger generation, of course, is the future. They’re going to be the people who will raise the next generation. It’s so important that they are able to be exposed to the correct mindset when it comes to looking at cultures that are not their own,” she states. Possibly one of the most important messages on Mele’s social media pages is the fact that Hawai’i is not actually a U.S. state, but is recognized as its own independent kingdom.

Social media has been proven in many studies to negatively affect mental health, especially in youth. Influencers themselves experience the negative effects of social media even more so, because they are always under a spotlight. Mele says that it is super important for her to take time out, and always makes sure to stay on top of her mental health.

“Social media can be so toxic, sometimes people can be mean,” she admits.

“At first I was just really flustered. How can people be so ignorant? How can people be so disrespectful? But now I tell myself that those people don’t have a culture because if they did, they wouldn’t be disrespectful to someone else’s. They would have a different mindset about other people’s cultures,” she says. Now she either deletes comments or outright blocks people if they become too inappropriate and she also spends less time reading comments.

“Having an everyday balance between social media use and daily life is also very important,” she says. She holds off from checking her socials first thing in the morning. “Because I know I’ll never get out of bed if I do,” she laughs. Instead, she likes to stay motivated and focusses on the more important things like housework or her animals before she thinks about what she will post that day.

“I kind of put social media on a backburner because it’s always gonna be there. It’s not like my followers are going to be uninterested at any time, they are always going to be there for me, so it’s important to get my stuff done first and then run a social media if I have extra time. But I try to make it something that I do every day at most or every few days at the least.”

Time and again, our youth are told that social media is bad, and we need to get off our phones. While I can admit that we do need to spend less time staring at screens, I can argue that social media can be a place of radical change. If used correctly, it can actually help people become more culturally aware. Mele agrees, saying that young people reach out to her all the time: “When I see younger people reaching out to me, like 10 or 12 or 15, and they’re reaching out to me to grow more or learn more about the culture it really makes me happy,” she says.

“I know they wouldn’t have been exposed to culture in any other way if it weren’t for social media.”

 

 

Sources: 1. Social media and teens. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2. Social media use and participation: A meta-analysis of current research, Information, Communication & Society 3. Top 10 Instagram statistics you need to know in 2020

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