CW: pedophilia, eating disorders, and suicide.
I recently came across a series of different YouTube videos in which people revisited their 2014 Tumblr phase. Some showed pictures of themselves from that era; others went as far as dressing in the clothing they wore back then. As I watched, it became obvious that what people missed was the overall aesthetic of Tumblr during that time—not the site’s toxic, harmful side. People missed Doc Martens and black and white clothing along with early music from The 1975, The Neighbourhood, and Lana Del Rey. What they failed to mention was the platform’s romanticization of pedophilia, toxic relationships, eating disorders, and depression.
People on Tumblr during this era would probably agree it was one of the most influential parts of their adolescence. For most, Tumblr was a place to run away to; for me, it was somewhere I could truly be myself. The anonymity that surrounded the platform made it a safe place—somewhere largely free of real judgment because nobody knew your true identity. You were free to be whoever or whatever you wanted, and there was something truly exciting about that.
The artists I discovered during that time are still some of my favorites now. I loved Lana Del Rey because when I listened to her music, I felt powerful and free. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was obsessing over songs about drugs, old money, and being with older men—all at 13. I still genuinely think she is a good artist, but looking back on it all now, I realize I probably shouldn't have been listening to her work at such a young age. Amidst songs like the aptly titled “Lolita,” Lana sings about sugar daddies and falling in love with older men, all of which resulted in me—like countless other girls my age—becoming attracted to these older men because it was considered "cool."
While every teenager might feel invincible in the eyes of pedophilia or repeat phrases like “it won’t happen to me,” a lot of young women experienced traumatic events with older men while using Tumblr. Mairany, a 19-year-old writer, said, “I remember that one of my friends that I met through Tumblr was really into talking to older guys. She was also thirteen years old. She was on apps like Kik at the time talking to them.” Kik was a messaging app that gained popularity during that time and was a breeding ground for pedophiles to find younger children to talk to. Similar to Tumblr, Kik also had a layer of anonymity to it which protected the predators from relieving their true age and identity. Thankfully, I never experienced anything that could’ve put me in serious danger—but I know plenty of girls that can’t say the same. Using platforms that suggest being with an older man is “cool” at such a young age can be seriously dangerous, not only to children's mental health but physical health.
Kyla, the founding co-creator of Pure Nowhere, said, “Looking back at a lot of the artists like Melanie Martinez, Lana Del Rey, and MARINA specifically, I feel they pushed this baby doll aesthetic, like a Lolita sort of energy. I feel like young girls seeing these adult artists acting innocent yet sexual and making it seem okay but in reality was way too early on the sexualization.”
When asked about how the music from Tumblr affected them, Mairany also had a lot similar experiences. She noted, “After listening to Marina and the Diamonds, my whole personality changed. Going into high school I wasn't as quiet anymore and I knew what I wanted. I liked her because her lyrics made me feel like there was someone else out there.”
Music aside, there were a lot of factors that made Tumblr dangerous for young, impressionable minds. A majority of the content on my feed consisted of dark and depressing music and quotes, images of skinny collarbones, girls with bruises on their knees, teenagers smoking cigarettes, and the sexualization of younger girls. The idea of the “perfect” Tumblr girl never failed to promote an unhealthy lifestyle.
Tumblr culture circa 2014 is something this generation will simply never forget. When asked about how Tumblr affected them while growing up, I was shocked by the extreme circumstances people had experienced. Mairany mentioned, “This is so embarrassing, but one time my sister pushed me, and I thought, I’m not very hard to bruise. I asked my sister if she could push me again but it didn't work, I just got scrapes all over me not bruises. I was physically okay, but I just wanted to get that picture of bruised knees for Tumblr. I don't understand what was going through my head but that was the thing that people were doing.”
Ashley, a 21-year-old college student, recalled one particularly traumatic event: “My friend had told me that friends of friends have been posting their suicide notes on Tumblr. I remember my friend posted one on there, so I sprinted over to her house panicking so much. Another one of our friends called the ambulance to her house. She ended up being completely fine but it was really traumatizing at the time.”
Since Tumblr was created before Instagram, this platform was the first taste of this generation getting sucked into posting content that was considered cool but was actually deeply harmful for younger users. Young, impressionable pre-teens were posting, “cool,” trendy content but didn’t even understand what it meant. Posting suicide notes or bruised knees shows how far kids will go to get a viral post or tons of followers. From the controversial topics explored in music to the damaging romanization of drugs, toxic relationships, and depression, the Tumblr era really hurt a lot of developing teenagers at the time.