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A field guide to suburban cool kids

Popular teens still wear the “right” clothes and play the “right” sports. They also never (like, ever) put down their phones.

Group Of High School Students Running Along Corridor
Associated Press

KENZIE MCINTYRE, GEORGIA MELLOR, AND MOLLY O’HANDLEY are squeezed together on a couch at Cafe Nero, a quick walk from their Andover middle school, in a corner beneath a bookshelf piled with hardcovers. The eighth-graders spot one titled Savage Sleep and giggle. “I wish I could sleep like a savage,” says Molly as Kenzie works her way through a piece of vanilla cake.   

Kenzie is short for McKenzie, which was the 44th most popular girls’ name in 2003, the year she was born. She has fair skin, freckles, and long legs and is chatty and self-deprecating. She is wearing sweat shorts and a T-shirt that reads “Leader of My #Squad,” though she would like to point out that these are her gym clothes and not what she wore to school today.

Kenzie and Georgia met in elementary school and became friends through cheerleading, where Kenzie is a “flyer,” the person who gets tossed in the air, and Georgia is a base. They joined up with Molly last year, after Molly and Georgia had homeroom together and bonded over a love of shopping. “We kind of met because of Marshalls,” says Georgia. They all love Marshalls. Marshalls is where you can find American Eagle, Brandy Melville, Hollister, and sometimes Lululemon, if you’re lucky. Most girls go to school in skinny jeans or leggings, sweat pants on occasion, and Converse Chuck Taylors or Adidas Superstars. It’s not a big deal if you don’t adhere to the uniform, but it’s definitely cooler if you do.

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In mid-September, it’s still warm enough to wear shorts to school. Molly’s are shorter than school rules say they should be, which is to say they are most definitely shorter than about a fist-distance over the knee. Her tank top, floral with spaghetti straps, is also not regulation. (“Straps are supposed to be three fingers,” says Kenzie, exasperatedly. “Otherwise, they say it’s distracting to the boys.”) The dress code is something they’re not happy about, and they’re working on it. “There’s a petition,” Kenzie explains. Boys also have a dress code, but what’s most unfair, says Molly, is that it prohibits things Andover boys don’t really want to wear anyway, like exposed underwear or sports jerseys without shirts underneath. They say boys at their school wear either head-to-toe Vineyard Vines or head-to-toe Under Armour. The girls don’t have a preference for which, so long as the choice is made for the right reason. The problem with the Vineyard Vines contingent, for instance, is that sometimes “it’s basically like saying, I have money, I live in Andover,” says Georgia. That’s a wrong reason.

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In many ways, hearing Molly and her friends describe middle school felt entirely familiar, even though my own suburban adolescence took place sometime in the last century. Growing up in Warwick, Rhode Island, I remember understanding there were certain rules to being cool, and that while it was OK to be unique, it wasn’t entirely desirable. Either way, you certainly didn’t go around broadcasting it. But now, in the age of social media, when everything is broadcast to as many people as care to tune in, I’d gotten to wondering: What else has changed for middle-class suburban teens since I was one?  

Every morning, Molly says, she wakes by iPhone alarm at 6:15. She scrolls through Instagram and Snapchat, reads any new texts, and then checks the weather. She might Snapchat Georgia to ask what she should wear. (“Like, she sent me a picture about this top,” Georgia says of Molly’s floral tank, “asking if it’s cute or not, and I told her yes, obviously.”) As Molly is getting ready, she’ll look at her phone whenever she has a few free seconds, like while she’s brushing her teeth or eating cereal. Waiting for the bus, she’ll Snapchat her friends a “good morning” selfie. School is six long hours, during which phones are not allowed. After school, she’ll send some Snaps, check Instagram, have a snack, and do homework, maybe go to hockey practice or jump a bit on her backyard trampoline (they all have trampolines). Then, before bed, she’ll watch a movie or TV on her phone using the Netflix app.

So what’s changed for teens today? Nothing. And everything.

Snapchat selfie of Kenzie.

ASK MOLLY, KENZIE, AND GEORGIA how much time they spend on their phones and they’ll dissolve into giggles, unable to produce an answer any more specific than “um, a lot.”

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All three got their first phones two years ago, at the beginning of sixth grade, and Instagram not long after (Facebook, if you haven’t already heard, is officially for old people). Molly got Snapchat this past Christmas. Kenzie got her Snapchat “a month before Georgia got hers,” whenever that was.

Georgia needed to write an essay to convince her parents about the value of Snapchat, which, unlike Instagram, is harder to monitor. It’s also less permanent — Snaps automatically delete after a certain period of time. “But it’s just me and Molly and Kenzie sending pictures of ourselves, like double chins and stuff,” Georgia says.

Snapchat, they explain, is a more “low-key way to communicate” than texting, though it lets you add text, as well as special effects, like rabbit’s ears and flower crowns. It’s the favorite app of “Jenna,” a 16-year-old sophomore at Hopkinton High School (who asked to use a pseudonym because not everyone thinks it’s supercool to talk to journalists). While you’d generally only text a friend, you can Snapchat with anyone you’re even sort of friendly with. Georgia once had a 300-day “streak” — a streak is when you maintain a conversation thread by engaging with it at least once a day — with a boy from school. He wasn’t a friend, or even a crush, but racking up more and longer streaks than your friends is just fun. “Then one day he negged me,” Georgia says. This is when someone opens your Snap but doesn’t respond. “I was like, I worked so hard for this!”

If you’re ever without your phone for more than 24 hours — you go away on vacation, or you get your phone taken away, like Kenzie recently did for a whole week, which was no less than an eternity — you lose your streaks and miss out on whatever else was going on. When Molly went to camp for five weeks this summer, she gave Georgia her account info so that she could “take care of her Snapchat.” Jenna manages 35 different streaks at once. “It’s definitely tiring,” she says.

Back when I was in seventh grade, a boy “asked a girl out” — although you hardly interacted after that, let alone actually went anywhere — via handwritten note. I remember the one I got from Brian Fineberg as I was between classes at Winman Junior High School back in Warwick. “Will you go out with me?” it read. “Circle one: Yes. No. Maybe.” Kids still do this dance, though they don’t use paper, or punctuation. They use social media. Middle school boys might send a Snap with the message, “Swipe up for a tbh” (you “swipe up” to respond to a Snap, and “tbh” stands for “to be honest”). The boy might respond with “tbh, you’re nice” or “tbh, you’re fun to be around,” explains Georgia, “or they’ll rate you 1 to 10 on how pretty you are.”

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Kenzie won’t do tbh’es, and not just because the boys in her grade still think throwing grapes at girls during lunch is cute. “I’m not a feminist, but I just find them, like, disgusting. Swipe up for a rate? I find that not OK to do to a girl,” she says. “Plus, if you swipe up and they say something bad about you, it’s like you asked for it.”

An hour or so after we’d first sat down, the trio exit the coffee shop in a swarm of backpacks and long hair — Molly off to hockey practice, Georgia and Kenzie home, their heads bowed toward the screens in their hands. “This was fun,” Kenzie says without looking up. “I think I’m going to get a therapist just so I can talk out loud more often.”

Snapchat selfie of Georgia.

WE DIDN’T HAVE SMARTPHONES in the early ’90s. We had  7-Eleven. Weekend nights would be spent “driving around,” which my parents surely thought was a euphemism for whatever I was really going to do, but was the truth (usually). If you hadn’t made a plan by the time you left school Friday afternoon, there was little way of knowing what everyone else was up to. The 7-Eleven is where you’d head for leads.

Had my friends and I had iPhones, surely we’d have saved plenty of time and gas — though perhaps we’d have had a host of other problems that parents, psychologists, and educators worry about these days, ranging from an increasing inability to focus to being victimized by cyberbullying.

That said, growing up pre-Internet certainly wasn’t without distractions and unsupervised moments. Even before my friends and I were old enough to waste time driving around, we spent hours every night locked in our rooms, talking on the phone. We passed plenty of notes in class; we just wrote them by hand. There were bullies, but they were easier to spot.

We were also just as consumed as kids are today by notions of what was cool and what wasn’t, who was cool and who wasn’t. A recent group text with three high school friends from Rhode Island, all of us now 40, easily turned up a list of the “right” things to wear back then, including pegged jeans, Coach bags, shrimp rings, and Revlon’s Silver City Pink lipstick; the boys wore J.Crew button-downs and NCAA bar hats, perfectly broken in. On a basic level, popularity was measured in mix tapes and phone numbers. The more of these you had from other people, the more popular you were.

In many ways, all of the IRL (that’s “in real life”) stuff that marked coolness in high school still exists. Jenna even says that “the loop” at her high school, where the buses pull up in front of the school, serves as a de facto Saturday night check-in spot, like my 7-Eleven. Varsity sports are still in, at least for the guys, with football, lacrosse, and hockey players leading the ranks. In some schools, cheerleading is apparently still a thing. And having older siblings definitely helps boost one’s profile. So does a willingness to “try stuff — like drinking earlier, dating earlier,” says Peter Gelsthorpe, a 2014 graduate of Dover-Sherborn High School and now a junior at Union College. That does not mean being reckless, or even unambitious. At DS, Peter says, some of the coolest kids were very, very smart. “The most popular girl in our class was also the smartest girl in our grade — and the class president,” he points out. She’s at Boston College now.

But today’s teens have to tend to a whole other life that I never had to worry about: the virtual one online. For some, that life represents an extension of what they already have. For others, it’s a reminder of what they don’t.

Snapchat confirmed what Newburyport 14-year-old Madison Brown had started to feel last year: that she didn’t fit in with the popular crowd. “I talked to people but would never hang out with them on the weekends,” she says. “I would see people hanging out on Snapchat, but I wouldn’t be there.” One of the reasons she was looking forward to starting a new school this fall was to get away from the middle school cliques that had begun to feel impenetrable: Athletes stick with athletes, musicians with musicians, and so on. “Every year I was the lone floater,” Madison says. “I don’t really know why. Maybe because I have a lot of different interests. A lot of people in friend groups have the same interests.” Her friends from band, she says, were “silly and fun and didn’t care what people thought of them.” She loved that about them, but also wanted to be friends with the popular kids, some of whom she knew from years of playing soccer. One day in seventh grade she decided she would sit at their lunch table. “It didn’t really work out,” she says. “No one really talked to me. Everyone was kind of like ‘Hi, what’s up?’ but that’s it.” She sat there every day for two weeks and eventually just left.

For a while, Madison, a smart four-sport athlete who dreams of becoming a surgeon, spent a lot of her time on social media, where some kids treat amassing followers as a game. If you have a lot of them, she says, everyone knows you. “Most of the popular kids from Newburyport have like 3,000 followers. Like, look at this girl,” she says, pulling up the Instagram account of a former classmate with 4,200 followers. “She’s the most popular girl in the grade. She posts pictures in bikinis. All of these people are looking at her.” Madison has 650 followers, which she says is “not that much,” given she’s had the account for two years. “I rant all the time,” she says. “I’ll be like, ‘Mom, this person just got 2,000 followers, and I’m always on my phone and always trying to post!’ ” She “likes” every photo that shows up in her feed, because she knows how it feels when people don’t like hers. For a while, she used an app to see who unfollowed her. It would upset her if the unfollower was a friend IRL. If it was someone she just knew by reputation — like the time the girl with the 4,200 followers unfollowed her — that was easier to take.

Snapchat selfies of Molly.

At some point last year Madison started spending more time on Snapchat. On Snapchat, you can’t see a person’s followers, but you can see their score, which gets higher with use as well as with number of followers. One of the first things she did this fall when she boarded the bus that takes her from Newburyport to her new school, Berwick Academy in Maine, was to ask everyone for their Snapchat username. For the first few weeks of school, she spent most of the 45-minute commute glued to the app. “I still want to be in the good group in Newburyport,” she told me in mid-September, “but I’m trying to get that out of my head.”

By early October, though, she’d dialed way back. Her mom told her she was maxing out their data plan. More important, though, is that Madison found social media status means less at Berwick, and friend groups have proved more fluid and inclusive. She loves it there.

Even in schools where social media really matters, a talent for it can only take you so far. “The people who are higher up have more followers on Instagram and Twitter, but it’s not a way to gain status,” says Carlin Hanley, a sophomore at Duxbury High School, who likens the attempt to using money to try to win friends. The average, moderately popular kid has 800 to 1,000 Instagram followers, says Hopkinton’s Jenna, who has 1,100. “But you can’t try,” she says.

For teenagers, the line between invisible and desperately visible is very thin. One giveaway that you’re on the wrong side? Not following the unspoken rules of using Instagram. Such as: You don’t post more than once a day. (“If you post five times a day, no one’s gonna follow you because it’s weird,” says Jenna.) Hashtagging for the sake of amassing more followers? Also “weird.” Kenzie has around 800 followers and says she knows them all. “It is kind of cool and definitely, like, a confidence booster,” she says. “Having more followers, you’re kind of a little more confident, like people actually care that I’m alive.”

Many say the new thing is VSCO, a photo app similar to Instagram but with enhanced editing capabilities. On VSCO, there are no comments or likes. You can see your followers, but no one else can. And you can post pictures you wouldn’t post on Instagram — more risque photos, because parents aren’t following, or photos with realistic-looking graphics like angel’s wings or tornadoes in the background. (Why? Because it’s cool.) And you can post as much as you want, whenever you want. Kids also circumvent the Instagram rules they’ve laid out for themselves with “fake Instagrams,” or “finstas.” Depending on where you are, finstas might be more “exclusive” accounts reserved for only your closest friends and contain photos that are less polished than your “real” Instagram (“rinsta,” naturally). Or they might be ruse accounts to throw off parents, who’ll take comfort in looking at the goofy brace-filled smiles on their child’s finsta while that same kid is posting photos of herself crushing PBRs on the rinsta everyone in school gets to see.   

A selfie from Carlin.

AT DUXBURY, as Carlin Hanley sees it, the school hierarchy goes like this: The top is made up of the girls all the guys want to date, a lot of them “cheerleader-type people,” along with the football and lacrosse players, who are “kind of a big deal.” After that come the kids in the middle — that’s where she fits in. These kids are “respected” and might know or even hang out with one or two of the kids from the top. Then there’s everyone else. Most view popularity as a fixed class system, an ordering of their reality that more or less follows the rules of the natural world. “It’s like, they just are,” Jenna says of popular kids, sort of like being born blond, or on a Wednesday. Still, the desire to want to break rank, or at least be “better known,” is also natural. She says the occasional outlier — maybe a geek, maybe a drama kid — will work his or her way into the cool crowd, though usually only with a popular kid acting as something akin to a sponsor. The key, of course, is to seem as if you never asked for any of this, even if you kind of did.

Jenna says that by the time she moved to Hopkinton in fifth grade, most of the friend groups had already formed. She spent a few years sort of floating from group to group. In the last year or so, she started going to parties and found her place. She now hangs out mostly with juniors and seniors; she met one of her best friends over text, before ever talking to her in school. Becoming friends with different people changes you, says Jenna. “It’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes, now, I do feel more selective,” she says. “You don’t mean to come off as mean, but sometimes you’ll get asked, ‘Why were you hanging out with them’ or ‘Why were you talking to them?’ ” It’s just easier to avoid being asked the question.

Peter Gelsthorpe spent most of his high school career “in the middle somewhere,” he says. “I would talk about it a lot with my friends,” he says. “I thought at the time it was because I didn’t drink, but when it came down to it, I would rarely get invited to the parties in the first place.” He wouldn’t have cared, except he wanted to hang out with girls, who were largely at the popular-kid parties. After he got together with his girlfriend, a “cool girl” he met through sailing, he felt he’d finally made it — though even she couldn’t explain why he hadn’t been popular to begin with.

And, of course, he doesn’t care anymore. His eighth- or ninth-grade self might argue that’s because his popularity story had a happy ending (and he’s still with his girlfriend). But it’s more likely that he just had a chance to grow up a little. Most kids today, at least by the time they leave high school, have caught on to the fact that high school really isn’t everything.

“I always did band and thought it was a great time,” says Peter. “And maybe some of the popular kids judged us a little. But, you know, the actual popular kids sometimes turned out to be not the greatest kids.”

Alyssa Giacobbe is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.