Tweens, Teens and Instagram
Oh my, the popularity contests that tweens and teens get involved in and they don’t even have to leave the comfort of their bedrooms. Now all they have to do is to post their photos on Instagram or Snapchat. The amount of times I see young people’s feeds full of ‘tag for likes’ ‘like this’ and ‘opinions’ which is actually the worst as it is blatantly putting themselves out there for some criticism be it good or bad. Even when they do get opinions from friends or acquaintances they do sound rather shallow (from an adult perspective anyway). There are plenty of comments such as ‘gorgeous’ ‘stunning’ and the recipient will generally respond with equally insincere compliments like ‘seen you’ ‘have you looked in the mirror?’
I am all in favour of young women boosting the self-esteem of other young women (and it is predominantly females) but I can’t help but feel that this is just encouraging a contrived landscape of girls pretending to support one another in a shallow, superficial way based on looks, fashion and social status.
Our young people seem to be validating themselves in terms of how many likes they can get, how many comments etc. All it takes is one bad comment to really bring a girl down. Wow, who needs that in their lives? If social media is anything to go by, it seems that many of us do. How many of us as adults are guilty of feeling a little miffed when a post gets ignored or a when a photo doesn’t get a single comment. No wonder our kids are replicating our behaviour! And I do begin to wonder just how healthy that is, both for adults and young people.
I don’t think that this quest for popularity is anything new for young people but I think that social media has put a completely different spin on the yearning for peer adulation and admiration. Now it’s all about tagging one’s squad, the group of people that mean the most to you. The reciprocation of likes and comments is often a strong measure of how important you are in the squad. This article nails it far more succinctly than I ever could The Secret Language of Girls on Instagram. I gave it to my daughter who said that she agreed with almost all of it. When I read it I felt that the writer had been eaves dropping on conversations I had had with my husband, so it’s quite clear that I am not alone in noticing the effect social media is having on our tweens and teens.
Of course since my daughter has just started secondary school a lot of her life is geared up to how she is engaging with other young people, who her friendship groups are and how she appears to others. We have had some interesting discussions about popularity and what it means. It’s no coincidence that the ‘popular’ girls at school have huge social media followings and engagement. Social media plays an increasing role in school peer groups and one which I suspect will only get bigger and bigger. Let’s face it using a phone is almost part of a rite of passage for young people nowadays. After all how will they become upstanding members of the community if they don’t spend 75% of their lives glued to their phone as an adult?!
The way that young people use social media differs from how we use it as adults. Many of them have bypassed traditional social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and chosen Instagram and Snapchat as their peer networks. Through my daughter I have noticed that often they use Instagram in an entirely different way to the way we do. They don’t tend to share that many photos but when they do there is a definite ‘call to action’ encouraging others to comment and like. My daughter’s group of friends don’t always post lots of photos but choose to take advantage of the direct message function as a way to have a group chat.
There are two areas of the tween/teen social media experience that I have observed so far that concern me and they both involve socialisation. It seems a bit strange to say that social media may affect socialisation as the very nature of it should be about socialising, shouldn’t it?
The first thing I have noticed is that young people don’t seem to feel the need to meet up as much outside of school. Why would they, when they can chat all night long in the comfort of their own bedrooms? When I was a teen we went round to each other’s houses, or the youth club. Our local leisure centre ran a disco once a week and the Police ran a monthly disco at a local theatre hall. I’m not saying that there was plenty to do, but we certainly got out and about and made the most of it.
As parents in the 21st century perhaps we are much more concerned about letting our kids go out and about (that’s a whole other blog post), but has that meant that they are content to stay in and chat online instead? Some parents might think that this is great because it means they know where their kids are, but I think that socialising face to face is a way for kids to develop independence and confidence and of course nurture friendships. As I said before though why go out in the cold when you can just sit and chat all night and even better with a wider group of people? Perhaps this is something that will change as my daughter gets a little older (she is only in Year 7 after all).
The other thing that concerns me is almost the opposite of tweens and teens not going out. That is the concern about tweens and teens going out! When I was her age I came home from school and if I’d made plans with my friends I saw them in the evening (once my homework had been done of course). If my friends got together without me I was oblivious until maybe next day at school when someone mentioned it. Now our tweens are exposed to total FOMO from a very young age. As far as tweens and teens are concerned if they are out, they want everyone to know about it and appreciate the great time the gang is having. This is great for them but not so great for the ones who have been excluded from the event (I’m sure that happens to adults on Facebook too!)
I’m not saying that everyone can be invited to everything of course, but sometimes it’s being better not to know. Pre-internet if you had been excluded from something it would have been upsetting, but now I think it is even worse. The fact that you haven’t been invited is magnified by the tagged photos and blow by blow visual account of the party or sleepover . I worry that being bombarded with snapchats and instaphotos of others having a good time can lead to some young people feeling isolated and lonely. Puberty is such a difficult time with a mixed range of emotions as it is without feeling like everyone is having a great time without you.
Of course the alternative is to avoid social media altogether and my blog post has been inspired by my thoughts about whether social media is good for teens and tweens. Certainly the providers of our popular social media channels seem to think there should be some caution as they have put ‘age limits’ of 13 and over for their users. The cynic in me thinks that this is just the social media networks going through the motions though, there is nothing in place to prevent kids younger than 13 from accessing the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All they have to do is have an email address and a fake date of birth that is never going to be checked. I imagine that tweens and teens are precisely the group that social networks want to target, get them at an early age and all of that. As for big brands imagine all that willing audience of tweens and teens to expose their products to, it’s a marketer’s dream!
I am a bit on the fence about social media for young people. On one side I think it is such a part of our everyday lives that it would be futile to exclude young people from social networking. However, it still makes me uneasy about how it is being used as a popularity contest (I suspect this is far more prevalent in young female users than males). Do I really want my daughter to validate her place in society based on the number of likes she receives on a photo or the number of ‘gorgeous’ comments that she gets. No I don’t, but I think that in my time judgements were still made on ‘popularity’ or more correctly ‘likeability’. It was just more subtle, it was shown by your relationships, your invitations to social events even bizarrely on whether people copied your fashion or fancied your boyfriend. The world we live in now is so fast moving and superficial, we base so much on appearance. If I’d have said to someone years ago that one day you would be able to have an app on your mobile phone where you could view other peoples pretty photos and say how nice they were they would have thought I’d gone soft in the head. And yet over Instagram has over 500 million registered user accounts in 2016 ( www.statista.com)
So perhaps we can’t avoid our teens engagement with social media, but it’s still up to us to monitor, observe and at times intervene if we think that they are being adversely affected by that engagement. Chatting with them about social media from a young age helps too as it becomes part of a natural conversation and I think it gives them a stronger sense of what is acceptable on social media. I guess it’s also about finding other ways for young people to validate themselves in our society and not seek out shallow confirmation from peers that they meet some mythical bar. I suspect though that this kind of peer approval has gone on since teenagers were ‘invented’ back in the 1950s, it’s our job to try and help them to build up enough self-esteem and resilience to deal with it.
What are your thoughts? Do your tweens and teens participate in social media?
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