Saturday, February 15, 2014

Blown by the Winds of Social Media

by Julia Margaret Cameron
I'm a parent with elementary aged children who don't (yet) use social media. They don't know what it is and thus have no interest in it. But I know other parents who have children that are steeped in it, and the word on the street is this: their girls hang on the number of "likes" that they get on Instagram.

I catch up with these mothers at parties or on the phone. When the conversation turns to their pre-teen and teenage daughters, they give a small groan and begin their diatribe against texting and Instagram.

It seems their daughters have a "good day" or a "bad day" based upon the number of Instagram followers they have, the number of likes their Instagram photos garner, and the tone of their friends via text messaging. One of my friends' 13 year-old daughter posted an Instragram photo, and it didn't get as many "likes" as she wanted. This worried her greatly. So she sent pleading texts to her friends, begging them to "like" the photo. Her friends, in the same predicament, negotiated with her. "I'll like yours if you like mine." An agreement was reached, "likes" were shared all around, and that seemed to make everyone momentarily happier.

Another mother told me that she was struggling to teach her daughter that her self worth was so much more than the amount of attention she received online, but to no avail. "She's beautiful and smart," the mother said sadly, "but she doesn't feel popular online. She can't see past the amount of "likes" that she gets."

I may be their parents' age, but I can empathize with the teenagers. One of the reasons that I dislike Facebook is how it makes me feel: insecure after I spend time perusing through pictures of parties that I wasn't invited to, angry after reading someone's political rants that I disagree with, and certainly jealous of people that brag about their vacations that I would love to take but can't seem to afford. Oh, and all the feelings above when people complain that they make so much money they are in a special tax bracket. (Yes, you read that right.)

Yet I have the benefit of age and (hopefully) wisdom. I don't like how spending time on Facebook makes me feel, and so I choose to use it infrequently. I've realized that the people who had parties that I wasn't invited to weren't really my friends, and to be honest, I probably wouldn't have gone anyway.

I can recognize that a "friend" may be posting smiling pictures of their family skipping along a tropical beach, but she may also be arguing the whole time with their husband or kids. And who's to say that my vacation was less terrific than anyone else's?

I'm old enough to know that, in spite of their glamorous pictures and posts, most people intimately understand hardship and sadness from their real life experiences. This is just not what they share publicly.

But things would be much different if I were my younger self in today's world. Like almost all teenagers, I remember desperately yearning for acceptance from my peers and in some cases, just plain acknowledgement. Thankfully, social networking wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye back then.

After noticing the theme of emotional roller coasters and teenage insecurity in conversations with other parents, I reasoned there would be some articles on the subject, and there is. One of the best voices that I found explaining the conundrum to parents is a Christian church worker that serves middle school students in a blog called "Life As Of Late."
...Have you considered that your child is given numerical values on which to base his or her social standing? For the first time ever your children can determine their “worth” using actual numbers provided by their peers!
Your daughter has 139 followers which is 23 less than Jessica, but 56 more than Beau. Your son’s photo had 38 likes which was 14 less than Travis’ photo, but 22 more than Spencer’s. There’s a number attached to them. A ranking....It’s not just about assumed popularity anymore. It’s explicit. It’s quantifiable.
At arguably the most awkward time in their lives, a crucial time of development when they are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong, this is what they’re up against. A quantifiable popularity ranking....
They know exactly – to the digit – how many followers they have (and who they follow that isn’t following them back). They get their feelings hurt when the popular kids “like” the pictures above and below theirs on the Instagram newsfeed, but not their picture. They delete pictures of themselves when they don’t get as many likes as they were hoping for. They don’t get invited to parties, but see all the fun they missed out on in every photo posted from it. They post ugly pictures of their friends to get revenge for some heinous act they committed (like saying Louis is their favorite One Direction member).
I don't think that Instagram, and other social media outlets, will go away, nor do I advise banning your kids from it - as I said, I'm not in that boat yet. Keeping our kids totally disconnected from their peers is probably not the answer (although sometimes it sounds appealing).

The only thoughts that I have is that parents should be aware of their children's personal insecurities and be aware of what they're doing online. With sensitivity, wisdom and strength, we should try to help our kids navigate this new popularity game. And help each other, too.

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