I’m actually very lucky. I was born early enough that I experienced life before phones, the internet and social media took off and have seen both sides of the coin. When I was in my teens, the internet was a fascinating and important part of my life – but different to the life we live online today. MySpace was just about to take off, the internet was used to engage with people in chat rooms and MSN was the ‘Facebook messenger’ of the time.
Webcams weren’t in every household as desktop computers were still ‘the’ thing, ‘selfies’ had to be taken using a digital camera or a very low-pixel phone. To be online was to represent yourself through your words and not your image, and MySpace was all about having the most interesting profile content than the hottest profile picture. We all had that friend called ‘Tom’ who we knew nothing about but considered him an integral part of the Myspace experience.
It was exciting having the world at your fingertips to explore, and meeting people from America to Australia was what I enjoyed most. I made friends all over the world when I was younger and spent most of my time, outside of school, talking to them. I look back at that time and ‘think happy thoughts’ in the words of Peter Pan. There was no pressure on people then. The internet was a positive place – people didn’t publicly put themselves out there so online bullying didn’t really exist. You could actually finish a crappy day at school, go home to the internet and forget about it until the next day.
Now, the internet is a completely different platform that has become much more integral in our lives. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has become a part of who we are. But for someone like me, who has grown up both without the internet, and also in the early and friendlier stages of it, it’s hard to see where we are now as a completely positive development. I see children and young people being immersed sooner and sooner into this online world we have created, and here’s why I think it’s not for the better:
Likes , loves & re-tweets
Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. They are the three main staples to our online identity; our public persona that we present to the world in return for self-gratifying compliments and approval – as though the amount of ‘likes’ we receive represents how much we are loved, liked and accepted by others and as a way to define our popularity. The less the likes, the more we internalize this as unappealing to our audience, and keep trying until we get the approval we so desperately crave – in relation to everyone else.
Sadly, this is the reality for kids growing up today and is so incredibly detrimental to their feelings of self-worth and acceptance. My online persona when I was younger was private, and I didn’t feel the need or want to share that with others for their approval. I wasn’t happy at all with being the ‘nerdy outcast’ who got bullied at school, but I was happy that they weren’t able to access my private life at home – and I didn’t feel the need to share that with them. I could be whoever I wanted to be without judgement. However, the development of social media has changed all that for everybody – especially young people. There is no escape for them – it’s a 24/7 open world that can’t be stopped or switched off and the pressure to be appealing is an ever-growing burden on them.
You will commonly see on young people’s Facebook profiles that they have hundreds, if not, over 1,000 friends. They obviously don’t know 1,000 people – even hundreds on a personal level. But, it is widely accepted in their generation that the more people who follow you, the more likes you will receive – thus feeling some sort of approval and attention. The comments they receive aren’t genuine or heartfelt – there’s this unspoken agreement of ‘like for like’, ‘comment for comment’ and ‘follow for follow’. It’s all about those numbers and that ‘public persona’. The comments are generic and repetitive and it’s no surprise that they feel this ongoing pressure to conform.
The rise of the emoticon means words are losing their power and their meaning. Rather than say how we feel or how we are reacting to something, we can respond with an emoji with no effort required. On Facebook, we can ‘react’ to statuses and updates, without the need to comment why we agree or disagree. There’s no need to write how you feel or why you enjoyed that content. We can just click the ‘angry’ face and suddenly, our reaction is now represented as a statistic and not as an opinion with reasoning and justification.
We are taking away voices – and replacing it with images that convey a hint of a feeling. Kids aren’t being welcomed to explore and explain – they are dumbed-down to being wordless, muted and restricted – when what they really should be doing at a young age is exploring, learning and connecting – that is how we form our personality, our opinions and beliefs and find an understanding with those that don’t share our thoughts. By closing off their ability to explain and communicate, we are opening up channels that promote bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia – and any other demographic that challenges their ‘norm’ – because they don’t know how to respond to something different other than with a ‘down vote’ or an unhappy face.
With the emergence of celebrity presence on social media, there is no shield from what is now perceived to be ideals and ‘goals’. Kids are under the presumption that everything they see online isn’t fabricated to get their attention or to entice them to buy into the brand. For women, we are all expected to have a body like an hour-glass, flawless make-up and wear the latest fashion. I also feel there is pressure on men to have pumped up bodies, biceps bulging out of XS sized t-shirts, trimmed beards and the perfect styled hair. If you haven’t got it, you’re apparently not ‘attractive or desirable’. Because this perception is based on what is shared online, we are led to believe that every man wants a slim woman or every woman wants a muscly man. There’s no longer the acceptance that we all like different things!
Larger people are made to feel they are ugly and unattractive and are usually treated less-favourably than their slimmer friends. Current trends are directed towards slimmer-figured people, which is more widely advertised and marketed. This results in what we call ‘average’ sized people looking at plus-sized fashion as a novelty and a gimmick, and plus-sized people feeling embarrassed or ‘out of fashion’ – which isn’t the case. Who decides what clothes are desirably fashionable or attractive? If we all dressed the same, there wouldn’t need to be fashion designers or different shops and brands. It’s important to accept that there are differences and variations to what people think is the ‘norm’ and we shouldn’t belittle or shame people for not fitting a demographic assumed as being ‘ideal’. All shapes and sizes are beautiful, and young people should not be pressurised to become what they are made to believe is acceptable. Their self-image becomes questioned, and we’re left with confused and ashamed kids who don’t know where they fit in.
The amount of kids I see squeezing into belly tops that don’t fit because that’s what all their friends are wearing makes me sad. You can see how uncomfortable and self-conscious they are – but if they wore a top that did flatter their body shape, they wouldn’t be classed as fashionable or trendy. Not everybody looks good in a bikini, not everybody looks good in shorts, not everybody looks good in tank tops. Similarly, not everybody is good at singing, not everybody can draw and not everybody can dance. Doesn’t make anybody better or worse than each other – we just all have things that suit us and that doesn’t. And that’s normal and okay! We need to be different! It’s what makes us diverse and work together for a better outcome!
The harsh realities of being in the public eye
Your profile is the front cover to your story – and your story is no longer limited to a friends and family audience. In order to promote yourself and fit in, you are expected to be a model and a photographer, an audience and a star, a make up artist and a fashion icon. You are expected to advertise yourself to your audience, and engage with others who are also advertising themselves and, because the internet doesn’t stop and wait for anybody, you’ve got to be ready for anything 24/7.
When I was younger, I would put effort into looking decent for school, because everyone was going to see me, and I didn’t care at home. I remember panicking when someone would send me a webcam chat request through and I’d run to grab my make-up bag for some eyeliner because I’d been sat in my pyjamas like a slob since waking up 8 hours ago! ‘I’m just… eating my dinner, I’ll be 5 minutes!’
But today, with platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram, the demand for instant and regular updates means young people feel the pressure to be what they feel is ‘attractive’ or ‘desirable’ and camera ready at any moment. I see kids going to the corner shop in a full-face of make-up and going back into their house. And when I say full-face, I mean they look like I would if I was going on a night-out or to a wedding/event. Not just to go grab a pint of milk. Snapchats replace conversation – some take their phone in the bath, others are snapping whilst on the bus home. We are in this never-ending loop of connectivity and the social pressures for them must be overwhelmingly stressful.
And the problem is – there’s no signs of stopping. As an advanced society, we only go forwards and never go back. The past is seen as restricted and negative – whereas changes and developments are seen as only positive and helpful. Because this is all they have ever known, to make steps to take back some responsibility and try to educate before letting them loose would never be accepted and seen as anti-productive. We can’t change what has happened or what is happening now – but we can try to change what happens next. I strongly believe it should be an integral part of education from a young age – aged 6 upwards – for schools to conduct regular classes on the internet, social media and the impact this has on us, not just as a society but more importantly, as individuals. If we insist on giving children tablets and access to a world bigger than they can ever imagine, then don’t let them enter without the knowledge and skills required to be healthy and happy online.
The reason I write this is with the hope that one young person identifies with any of the above, and realises that they are capable of achieving so much more than likes and loves. Unfortunately, we have created a new addiction with short-term positive effects. Like a drug, we feed off of the immediate effects and crave more once the effects of the previous buzz wear off. But if you really think about it, how long do you think about the amount of likes you received on your new profile picture? A couple of hours, a day or two. We spend minutes and hours checking every new notification, excited with each new reaction coming through, feeding off of that approval from those we surround ourselves with and choose to engage with online.
But eventually, your post drops to the bottom of the feed, and we are no longer at the forefront of people’s attention. And that buzz we felt for those few hours wears off – and we crave that feeling of satisfaction that no chocolate bar or no exercise can provide – and we post more and more to keep those feelings coming through. And in reality, it means nothing compared to the love you get from your family in real life, or how much your friends really like you.
I’m considering taking a step back from social media because of how negatively it is starting to impact on my mood and thoughts. I’m growing ever-increasingly frustrated with every argument that starts with, “Well on Facebook, she said…” It’s not healthy and it’s not positive. Social media is a business – and your self-worth and value is all part of how they make money. You are sold an image, and because all these things add up and cause insecurities, you buy into those brands that buy into social media. And when you make that realisation, as I did, you will start to think differently about social media and you.
I’m so glad I grew up when I did, and I can only hope that you young ones feel that sense of freedom as I did once upon a time…