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 25 years. The 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 seen 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. The move away from anonymity is a monumental shift from those early days of the web. Growing up in a connected world, the children of Generation Z have never experienced the web we once knew. They do not see much of a difference between their online and offline presence. The virtual world and the physical world complement each other.
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. Teenagers and young adults are essentially creating their 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. They are cautious about what they post.
Some teens even create a second, less public Instagram account. A Finsta account, or “Fake Instagram,” is the place where kids share a more accurate portrayal of their lives. Urban dictionary defines Finsta as “A fake Instagram account, so one can post ratchet pictures without persecution from sororities, jobs and society as a whole. Finstas aren’t supposed to be taken seriously, and it doesn’t matter how many posts or followers one has.” Secondary Instagram accounts have become so popular that the site released an update making it easier to switch between accounts.
Why is social media so important to this generation?
There are two main reasons why kids spend so 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 to 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 for the whole world to see. In return, teens are seeking instant positive feedback or approval in the form of likes and comments. To better understand validation, we can use selfies as an example. Many selfies are posted with filters to enhance the image and add 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. Anxiety, depression, and self doubt all rise when teens measure their worth by the number of likes they receive.
What does this mean for parents?
A teenager having a “finsta” account isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These kids recognize that not everything should be shared for the world to see. These accounts are for your teen’s inner circle. Parents should be aware of these accounts, but I’d caution on “policing” these too much. Your child could merely create a new account and redirect friends to the new name if they feel you’re too nosy or overprotective. The best thing a parent can do is have an open conversation about this.
Adults 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 continually supply them with comments, criticisms, and validation. Social media is here to stay, and so are all the good and bad things that go along with it.
With that in mind, there are several things you can do to help limit the impact social media has on a child’s image and self-esteem.
- Be Careful — Most of the research on this topic suggests approaching conversations on this topic with caution. Teens place enormous value on their social circles. Starting the conversation 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 issues with YouTube celebrities such as Logan Paul could be a good jumping-off point.
- 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 teachers 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.
Mike Daugherty is a husband, father of three young children, author, speaker, Google Innovator, and possible Starbucks addict. He is a certified educational technology leader who has served in a variety of roles through his 18-year career in public education. Currently, Mike is the director of technology for the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School district in Northeast Ohio. His blog, More Than A Tech, offers advice and ideas for parenting in a digital world.