“Am I ugly?” It’s a loaded question, made up of one part vanity, one part insecurity and, in this particular case, one part poor internet etiquette. As of late, preteen girls have taken to YouTube to pose this question to an infinite audience of anonymous viewers.
The concept: they ask if they’re ugly, the webisphere answers via comment. The answers range from cruel to uplifting to serious concern over their supervision (“Do your parents know you’re doing this?”). And while this certainly wouldn’t be the first time adolescents sparked up a strange internet fad, this is one that has us wondering whether it’s indicative of some deeper, socio-psychological shift. Is social media having a bad influence on our kids, or are our kids having a bad influence on social media?
To understand the phenomenon, you have to understand the digital culture that these children are growing up. A staggering 90% of 11-18 year olds use social media sites, including but not limited to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. This means a lot of young people are socializing over the internet while they’re still learning to socialize in person. More interesting, a study by AXA revealed that 86% of children use social media to build their personal brand, understanding the power this technology has to influence how others see them and what they can do, in turn, to make themselves look better. For example, 18% of 11-12 years olds exaggerate about social activities, 12% exaggerate about personal details and 14% add “cool” people to their contacts.
A majority of these young users also employ various methods to alter the images they use to represent themselves, tailoring content for what they seemingly understand to be a critical audience. But while they might understand the concept behind social media branding, they might not fully understand the complex environment of social media itself.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report in 2011 that outlined “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Families.” They were quick to point out the benefits that these technologies have for promoting communication and socialization in children, but reiterate that children at this age might not have the self-regulation or common sense to navigate the internet safely and effectively. Case in point: this YouTube trend.
These girls’ probably had several motivators for posting these videos: insecurity, curiosity, imitation, the notoriety that comes from internet sensationalism; but it could also be attributed to the fundamental nature of the internet. Its cyber structure has presented new outlets through which we can indulge our deepest natural tendencies: the curiosity to be someone else, the desire to be accepted, the need for validation. It allows us to communicate and socialize with a certain level of anonymity or detachment that we find liberating. We can talk to people and say things that we would never in person because the social standards are significantly lower for the web community. And this liberation can be dangerous.
We’ve always had a certain level of discretion when it comes to the way we express ourselves and the way we assess others and that has kept our emotions in a proverbial safe zone. That discretion doesn’t exist in the digital world, and it makes users – and children specifically—vulnerable to an onslaught of insensitive interactions. “Am I ugly?” is a question that every adolescent asks themselves at one point while they struggle with their self-identity, but it’s usually to a parent or a best friend or a bathroom mirror. When you broach that question to an audience of anonymous viewers with no particular attachment to the person asking it, there’s no telling what they might say or their motivation for saying it. They might think they want honesty, but they’re accustomed to the “honesty” that they get through real-world personal interactions. Social media interactions are a different beast entirely. The result is a cache of responses that could have devastating effects on the child’s self-esteem.
And that self-esteem is increasingly based on looks. This is a convention that has existed in our society for some time, but it seems to be magnified by social media. When one of the primary functions of these sites is to be able to post pictures of oneself, vanity is intrinsic.
Reading the Facebook interactions between pre-teen girls seems to reaffirm this. Usually between real-life peers, the nature is anything but nasty; on the contrary, the focus is largely on feeding one another compliments regarding looks. This was one actual comment archive under a picture of a 12-year-old girl (we’ll call her “Lindsey”) and her friends “Samantha” and “Jennie.”
Samantha Lindsey, you’re soooo pretty in this pic!
Lindsey Ew, ya righttt!
Samantha No, shut up, you are.
Lindsey No I look gross.
Samantha You do not, you’re beautiful.
Lindsey Aw thanks, you’re so pretty too.
Jennie you guys are both gorgeoussss!!
Lindsey Thanks Jen, you’re gorgeous!
A nice, uplifting conversation, right? Perhaps, and perhaps one that would have played out in person the same way. But what makes this conversation interesting is that it’s centered on an intentional or subconscious request for viewer feedback. When you put pictures of yourself up online, you’re knowingly opening yourself up for judgment. It’s an expectation that’s built into the system, with the capabilities to leave comments, “like” things, give things a “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down,” “suggest” or “share” things, track your views. This is one of the key elements of social media interaction that differentiates it from face-to-face interactions. The viewer feedback capabilities create a traceable tally system that we start to equate with our actual popularity and self-worth.
Researchers suggest that children and adolescents can even develop what’s known as “Facebook depression,” or a type of depression that can come on with extended use of social media sites. Young users can easily compare themselves to their peers and judge their own situations based on what they perceive. On My Health News Daily, Maryland-based child psychiatrist Dr. Mike Brody says of the phenomenon, “Facebook allows adolescents to see their friends’ successes, as well as the number of friendships those friends have….It sets up a competitive thing where kids might feel less than they are because their friends seem to be having a better time than they are…I think the idea of envy and jealousy becomes very magnified through this medium.”
It seems logical to conclude that social media may be creating a generation of adolescents with a heightened sense of jealousy and insecurity, and that these adolescents will then turn to other social media platforms to cope with these resultant issues. Facebook makes them feel inadequate, so they go to YouTube in hopes of rebuilding their self-esteem. This was one of the risks outlined in the Pediatrics medical report, “As with offline depression, preadolescents and adolescents who suffer from Facebook depression are at risk for social isolation and sometimes turn to risky Internet sites and blogs for ‘help’ that may promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or aggressive or self-destructive behaviors.”
Therein lies that question of chicken or the egg. Do these girls post videos because they are insecure or do they become insecure as a result of posting these videos? Does the internet make them more concerned with looks or does it just reflect the vanity our society already exhibits? Is social media changing our kids or our kids changing the way social media is used?
As with the egg, there’s no right answer; it’s likely a matter of mutual influence. Pediatrician Gwenn Schurghin O’Keefe, lead author of the Pediatrics medical report, offers this insight, “Keep in mind that it’s not the technology that’s the issue but the social situation that the technology has created.” This means that it’s our responsibility – the responsibility of young social media users and their guardians—to learn how to navigate this new social situation safely, without compromising the psyche or the development of our youth. There can certainly be benefits to these new technologies in regards to communication and self-exploration, but we need to find the most appropriate and effective ways to utilize it.
For parents, monitor your children’s social media activity and create an environment where they can be open about emotions and social problems. For children, understand that the internet is not a diary and should not be a platform for personal thoughts and information. Furthermore, it is not always an accurate depiction of reality; the people, even those you know, behave according to different standards than they would in real life. Its nickname “the Web” is an appropriate one… you can become entangled in it very easily if you’re not careful.