There’s a scene in EIGHTH GRADE where Kayla, the shy, quiet main character, buries herself in an endless stream of Instagram posts on her iPhone during dinner. Her peas go untouched. Her dad makes a few attempts at small talk until she finally, reluctantly removes her earbuds to let him “say one thing.”

That one thing turns into a tangent about how special Kayla is — during it she taps her phone to keep it from falling asleep — and how he wants her to feel better. “You know what would make me feel better?” she bursts. “Is if you let me go on my phone.” Her dad quietly surrenders.

EIGHTH GRADE Is and Will Be 2018’s Realest and Funniest Film

Is this an example of how social media is destroying our relationships, disconnecting us from the real world, and consigning millions of peas to the trash can? Earlier, EIGHTH GRADE followed Kayla through a turbulent day of eighth grade. She’s voted “most quiet” by her peers, is ignored by her crush, and receives an invite to the birthday party of a girl who clearly doesn’t want her there.

In context, social media is her reprieve from the day’s disappointment, not talking to her dad. Writer-director Bo Burnham said of the scene,

“You’re sitting across from your child and she is buried in her phone. Like, understand the day she had before that and maybe why she wants to escape from you at that moment.”

According to the Pew Research Center, like Kayla, 72% of teenagers use Instagram, and 95% have access to a smartphone. (Eighty-five percent use YouTube, 69% use Snapchat, and 7% are Reddit users who would comment “nice” at that last one.) The digital world rivals the real one — 45% of teens are “almost constantly” online.

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Social Media in EIGHTH GRADE

Social media, for most teenagers, is a convenient way to connect with others. This could be through sharing pictures and videos to update others on our lives and thoughts, laughing at the same memes, or getting the word out about a march for gun control.

The costs of social media — including bullying and anxiety — are more long-term, less immediate, and therefore hard to compare to its benefits. In the Pew Research poll, 31% of teens said social media had a mostly positive effect, 24% said mostly negative, and the rest said it had neither. A consensus about social media isn’t clear yet. Even Burnham has expressed his desire for his film to avoid taking a stance on social media. In an interview, he said,

“I want to take an emotional inventory of what’s happening, and hopefully the audience can make what they want.” 

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Kayla trying to talk to her crush. Courtesy of A24

EIGHTH GRADE stands out from most coming-of-age films, like a thirteen-year-old boy who grew six inches over the summer awkwardly towering in the middle school hallways, in that it provides a nuanced portrait of how social media permeates the lives of modern teenagers.

LOVE, SIMON stuck with old-fashioned email and a fictional website for screen-to-screen communication. THE KISSING BOOTH had no social media, or even internet, as far as I can remember. LADY BIRD sidestepped it all together by taking place in the early aughts. In EIGHTH GRADE, social media finally gets star billing, integrating itself into Kayla’s life in the most realistic way possible. And the film succeeds because it accurately portrays both the positive and negative effects — the complexities — of social media.

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Social Media Allows You To Express Yourself

Anyone over thirteen with an internet connection (and any under-thirteens with the guts to lie about their age, and robots) can share their thoughts in a public space, thanks to social media.

Kayla Day herself owns a YouTube channel where she posts advice videos on topics like being yourself and growing up. Although they rack up anywhere from 0-7 views, she gets a sense of fulfillment from educating others. As a shy middle-schooler who rarely talks to anyone at school, social media allows her to express herself more comfortably than she can in real life.

Although Kayla’s words may have had a rather small impact, social media can allow teenagers to reach a much larger audience and do tremendous good. In the weeks leading up to March 14th, teenagers across the country utilized social media to spread word about the upcoming school walkout against gun violence.

Students at Ballard High School participate in a walkout to address school safety and gun violence on March 14, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. Students across the nation walked out of their classrooms for 17 minutes to show solidarity for the 17 killed in t
Ballard High School students participating in the national walkout. Courtesy of Karen Ducey/Getty Images

On Instagram, I saw many posts by my peers that discussed the walkout’s importance, implored students to sign up for it, and celebrated as the numbers of people pledging to join shot up. When March 14th came, nearly everyone at my school knew exactly how our walkout was going to be carried out, and hundreds of students peacefully and orderly walked out at the planned time, joining many others nationally. A movement like this could not have happened if teens had lacked a platform to share their beliefs.

But It Can Also Cause Anxiety & Worry

In face-to-face conversations, we can’t pause time to come up with a witticism or remove spinach stuck in our teeth. On social media, you can. You can present yourself in the best possible light, and nearly everybody does.

At the beginning of EIGHTH GRADE, Kayla wakes up, does her makeup following a teenager’s YouTube makeup tutorial, and crawls back into bed to take a Snapchat of herself with the caption “just woke up!”

Eighth Grade movie Kayla
Kayla trying to take the perfect profile picture. Courtesy of A24

Who hasn’t fixed their hair before taking a picture? To do this every day, for every Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube video that will be broadcast to hundreds or more people, however, is draining and anxiety-inducing

At one point, Kayla announces that she’s going to stop filming videos. For so long, she’d tried to come across in her advice as someone else — someone more confident, liked, and popular. She realizes she couldn’t live up to this fantasy version of herself in real life, and she becomes depressed. “Expressing yourself” in front of an audience is rarely truly “expressing yourself.”

It’s an Entertaining Retreat from Life’s Problems

It wasn’t until my second viewing of the movie that I realized just how many people on smartphones there are. Extras sitting next to Kayla in the auditorium as the principal talks, standing in the hallway during a school shooting enactment, sitting in the bus once again as the principal talks, waiting in line to graduate — they’re all hunched over looking at their small screens. It looks just like my high school did during similarly dull events. If anything, the phones-to-people ratio in EIGHTH GRADE was a little low.

Eighth Grade movie girls on phones
Kayla attempting to strike up a conversation with the cool girls. Courtesy of A24

When we’re in boring situations, it helps to turn to a device with all the world’s knowledge in it. In a survey by Microsoft, 77% of 18- to 24-year-olds agree with the statement

“When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone.”

This, however, could be causing us to lose concentration faster. Microsoft’s study found that from 2000 to 2015, the average attention span decreased from 12 to eight seconds. This may be due to our increased use of digital media. Over time, we get used to being constantly stimulated, and the thought of a minute of being alone with our thoughts may become more excruciating.

Kayla Day on her computer
Courtesy of A24

After the dinner scene, Kayla continues her social media binge in her bed. While Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” plays, we follow Kayla’s screen as she entrances herself with Tumblr, Twitter, a Jimmy Fallon clip. Her face is stone-still, completely blank. Watching a slime video won’t get rid of her struggles at school, but it’s understandably an excellent distraction from them.

It Connects People, but Connecting in Real Life is Better

Social media provides an easy escape from the mundanities of life — but not all of them are bad. At the dinner table, Kayla’s father is trying to interact with his daughter and learn more about what’s going on in her life, but she turns to social media to block him out. At a pool party, she initially avoids being around the other kids by scrolling through Twitter in a separate room. And while she’s watching the high school students at the mall debate different topics, one of them sits quietly on his phone, shutting himself off from his surrounding friends.

Eighth Grade movie Kayla with high school students
Kayla hanging out with high school students. Courtesy of A24

Social media may make it easy for people to avoid meaningful interactions in person. But the film acknowledges that it can create them as well. At the birthday party, Kayla meets an eccentric, intelligent boy named Gabe. Later on, they follow and direct message each other on Instagram. This leads to a successful, phone-free date at his house. Social media allowed Gabe to contact Kayla after their brief encounter at the pool and extend their relationship to something deeper. Instagram was the bridge, but the ultimate destination was an in-person conversation.

Towards the end of EIGHTH GRADE, there’s a shot of Kayla sitting in the passenger seat while her dad drives. Earlier when she sat there in other scenes, she’d play games or text on her phone. In this shot, however, she’s laughing and looking at her dad — a rare visual of her looking truly happy. Social media can create some positive effects, but for now, it can’t replace real-life relationships.

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