Us vs. Them
Perspective plays a pivotal role in the conversation surrounding self-image and social media. Older generations see a clear separation between their lives online and offline. Back in the old days, you know, the late 90s when Internet adoption first began to take off, websites encouraged you to create an online persona. Most people were wary of putting legitimate information online. News outlets and tech experts preached anonymity. The web was viewed as a way to “take a break from yourself” in this new virtual world. Many online profiles had very little connection to reality. You could be whoever you wanted online without fear of judgment because you were safe behind your keyboard. That was part of the allure of the web.
Fast forward twenty-five years to an online landscape is entirely different. The most popular social sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat strongly encourage users to be authentic in their profile. Websites that promote anonymity are viewed as archaic.
Their pages often contain considerably less desirable content and people. As a society, we enter personal information such as a cell phone number, credit card, and our home address into websites on a routine basis. This is a monumental shift from those early days of the web.
Growing up in a connected world, Generation Z children have never experienced the web we once knew. In fact, they do not see much of a difference between their online and offline presence. The virtual world and the physical world complement each other. We’ve discussed this concept in previous posts.
Unlike the fantasy profiles of their parents, a Centennial’s online persona an integral part of his/her life.
A study from Indiana University in 2015 states that “young adults appear to utilize social media primarily as a way to attract and form relationships with peers”. In my opinion, it has become much more than that though. Teenagers and young adults are essentially creating their own brand. The rise of smartphones, social media, and connectivity to the rest of the world pushes them to be full-time brand managers who strive for likes, comments, upvotes, emojis, and hashtags. How they present themselves to their friends, peers, potential friends, and the rest of the world is extremely important, so they are cautious about exactly what they post. Their cautious nature is especially true when it comes to photos as evidenced by the rise of the “selfie culture.”
According to a study from the Pew Research Center, it takes the average teen seven minutes to snap a selfie they are comfortable with posting. Teens take an average about four selfies per day depending are which article you site. That equals out to be around 30 minutes a day or 3.5 hours a week creating shareable moments for their online profile. That’s a significant amount of time, right? With all the energy that goes into designing the perfect pic, you would expect that teen’s with longstanding social media accounts would be packed images. The reality is that only a fraction of those photos will remain posted for more than a few hours or days.
Why? Why is social media so important to these kids?
There are two main reasons why kids spend some much time taking and posting photos: capturing a snapshot or event in their life and validation of those events. We know that Centennials value experiences over possessions. Posting pics is a fantastic way keep a record of the experiences they’ve had and whom they’ve shared those experiences. Kids upload photos, tag their friends, and everyone has a shared album of memories. Carefully cultivated pictures and video capture moments in their lives. Those moments help to create connections to others as well.
Validation, on the other hand, is arguably the most significant reason teens and young adults post photos online. They’ve captured a moment, and now they are putting themselves out there the whole world to see. In return, teens are seeking instant positive feedback or approval in the form of likes and comments. To be better understand validation, we can use selfies as the example. Many selfies are posted with filters to enhance the image and passive aggressive text designed to encourage people to provide positive feedback. Unfortunately, these type of posts only strengthen the perception that image is everything and getting likes is the key to happiness. There are a variety of issues related to self-esteem and self-image when teens measure their worth by the number of likes they receive:
- Anxiety – Studies show that 35% of teens worry about how they look in a photo or being tagged in an unflattering image.
- Depression – The same survey showed that 20% of kids show signs of depressions when a post is ignored or doesn’t get many likes. “Why hasn’t anyone liked my post?”
- Self Doubt – Young adults see their friends post about all the positive things happening in their lives. Posts about a new job, acceptance in college, vacation, etc. When comparing themselves to peers, it can appear these friends have perfect lives. Kids can forget that in actuality, most people don’t post about the not so good things happening in their lives.
What can parents/teachers do?
The adults in these kids lives (Parents/Teachers) need to understand that today’s children hear feedback from more than just their inner circle of friends and classmates.
Teens and young adults are global citizens who have a vast network of peers that continuously supply them with comments, criticisms, and validation.
- Be Careful – Most of the research on this topic suggested approaching conversations on this topic with caution. Teens place enormous value on their social circles so starting off with “back in my day” may put a negative spin on the discussion before the dialogue can even begin. Remember, they don’t know what life was like 30 years ago. Instead, focus on trends or current events related to social media. If you’re looking for a conversation starter, the recent issue with YouTube star Logan Paul could be a good jumping off point. We’ll cover that in next week’s post, but you can read a synopsis here.
- Talk to them about the pictures they choose to post – Ask them why they decided to post a specific photo? Find out what it was about a photo that they liked. You can do the same with pictures they didn’t like. There’s a fantastic article on CNN that came out recently that suggests parents ask why they chose to pose the way they did. What response were they hoping to elicit with that pose? Additionally, have a conversation about how likes, comments, etc. on their posts make them feel.
- Inside over outside – Teach your kids to write encouraging/positive comments on their peer’s posts based on who they are, not what they look like. Show them how to focus on the inside, not the outside. This is a compelling idea. They can help eliminate issues with self-esteem in others by focusing on the person, not their image.
- Encourage them – Parents and teacher play a critical role in how a child views themselves. Teach them to make positive statements about themselves. Instead of posting an image that’s fishing for compliments, encourage your kids/students to make positive self-statements.
- Positive Role Models – There’s a fantastic list of positive role models on Common Sense Media that can be used as guidance for teens and for the conversations above. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/9-celebrity-role-models-we-love
Everyone wants to be accepted, and there is nothing wrong with that. The children of Generation Z may place too much emphasis on a social culture driven by virtual “likes.” As adults, we need to help them understand that their self-worth is not a reflection of those likes.
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