When Dharan Kumar ’16 was lying in his hospital bed the day after open heart surgery, the last thing he expected to see was an anonymous compliment on his Facebook wall wishing him a speedy recovery.
“I was very surprised,” Kumar said. “It was literally the day after open heart surgery, and I was in a lot of pain. I saw the post and saw that I had a lot of support. It actually made me feel a lot better because I was in an awful mood at the time. I really liked it, and I’m very thankful to whoever wrote it.”
While he still doesn’t know who wrote the compliment, it was posted to his wall courtesy of the anonymous HW Compliments Facebook account. The account is run by a Harvard-Westlake student who acts as a “middleman” by delivering compliments to other students via the account.
Students submit compliments anonymously to a friend of their choice through a Google form, which thanks the submitter upon pressing submit with a message that reads “thanks for taking some time out of your day to brighten up someone else’s!”
The account has 415 friends and has been up and running for the past two months. It is the successor to the previous account of the same name, which had 647 friends but has been inactive since February of 2015.
Although social media has received negative attention for being a platform for bullying, the recent rise of anonymous student-led Facebook accounts such as HW Compliments and informal course and grade-level Facebook groups has allowed students to use social media in a more positive and encouraging manner.
And although fake Instagrams, commonly known as “finstas,” have been and continue to be seen as a “safe” space to make fun of people due to the selective and private nature of the accounts, they also serve as a therapeutic outlet for students to talk about experiences and emotions that they would otherwise keep bottled up inside.
While finstas began as light-hearted and were originally intended for sharing memes with friends, they later evolved into a social media platform where teens feel comfortable enough to share their experiences with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, stress, suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues.
“A lot of the media focuses on cyberbullying and the negative aspects of social media, but I don’t think there is enough focus on the community that social media creates,” said Michelle Carlson, the executive director of TeenLine, a confidential crisis hotline for teens. “Many people might not be really social in school or in their lives, yet they have that sort of support through social media that they would not have otherwise.”
Carlson also added that it is important for teens to be open with personal issues that they are bottling up inside and that it is often easier for teens to share personal experiences online. This is because of the sense of anonymity that comes with being behind a screen. Many finsta owners agree with Carlson.
“To be honest, [my finsta] is a very good source of therapy because even if no one really reads the post or cares about it, it’s just good to get [everything] out and complain, which is very needed,” Carolyn Hong ’17 said.
In addition to sharing their experiences with old friends, people also develop new and genuine friendships over common experiences discovered by following each others’ finstas.
Due to the tight-knit nature of the accounts, students said it is easier to bond with other finsta owners because they can relate to each other on a more personal level, having seen one another at their best and worst times.
“I have had a lot of people, one person in particular, thank me for having posted what I posted about depression [on my finsta],” Lily Beckinsale-Sheen ’17 said. “The finsta community has grown a lot. I didn’t even know there was a finsta community when I started, and now I have met some of my favorite people on finsta, so it is nice to know that there are more people that I can feel comfortable with at school.”
Class and grade-level Facebook groups are another way for students to bond outside the classroom.
Grade groups are commonly used for alerting students about upcoming events and opportunities at school.
Pages for specific classes are mostly used for sharing study guides, homework help and asking for clarification on nightly assignments.
“I believe that if I benefit from [a study guide, e-mail from a teacher or homework explanation], then others should have the opportunity to do the same because I know that my classmates would do the same for me,” Sophie Tippl ’17 said. “Class groups on social media definitely make your class more than just a group of students, but rather a community because it’s a place where you can communicate with them outside of the classroom.”
Carlson said that while social media is vulnerable to misuse, such as being a tool for cyber-bullying, it can help build a stronger community if users keep in mind that there are real people just like them on the other side of the screen.
“I think social media is a really positive way of communicating with people you might not connect with on a daily basis, and it’s good for spreading a message to a big audience like the Black Lives Matter movement,” Courtney Nunley ’17 said. “I definitely think it can be used negatively, but it’s not negative in its nature.”
In an age of filtered reality where photos are often heavily edited and captions are created only with the help of many, finstas and anonymous Facebook accounts provide something different and real.
That was the case for Jillian Sanders ’17, who recently received an anonymous compliment about her personality describing her as “sweet.”
“I think that it was really nice, especially because whoever submitted the compliment didn’t have to, like it wasn’t necessary. it was something that they just wanted to do,” Jillian Sanders ’17 said.