The ever-evolving life of a teenager is more challenging and has more confusion and pain than ever before. Of course, we all struggled at some level through those awkward years between childhood and adulthood, but we did not have to do it when everyone in the world was watching every move we made.
It is natural for teens to fixate on how their peers view them. They are immersed in hormones and curiosity, and they are desperate for acceptance. In psychology, we talk about the concept of the “imaginary audience,” which refers to an adolescent’s tendency to believe that others are always watching and evaluating them. This concept has been around since 1967, long before anyone could have imagined how this “theory” would truly become reality. Today children are judged by every post to social media. Each comment on the post is a measure of their acceptance (or rejection). How many “likes” did I get on that photo of me on the beach or at the concert? It seems innocuous enough on the surface, but where does it end?
Pushing the Envelope
More likes may translate into greater feelings of acceptance and higher self-esteem, but do we really want our children’s self-confidence dependent on the click of a button? And worse, do we want our kids posting even more provocative photos in a desperate attempt for acceptance? Frighteningly, this is already happening, and there has been research on this phenomenon for nearly two decades.
For instance, it has been clearly reported that sexting, or sending nude images, is a relatively normal experience for teens and positively correlates with actual sexual experience. In other words, the more your kids participate in online exchanges, the more likely they will start in-person sexual behaviors. When a child sees how much more attention she receives posting a photo of herself smiling in a swimsuit as opposed to one of her smiling in a headshot, you can see quickly how she is encouraged to push the envelope.
How social media encourages us to create selfies that ultimately merge into inappropriate images being shared online is based on human nature. We all need acceptance, and neurochemically we seek out opportunities and feedback that fill this very real need. Brilliantly, the tech industry has spent millions of dollars hiring psychologists and behaviorists to help them curate platforms designed specifically to tap into our basic needs—and perfecting ways to encourage snapping and sharing selfies is one of them.
Kids aren’t aware that the tech industry is more interested in the selfie because of the massive amount of data it provides and the millions in marketing dollars that can be attached to its use. For most kids who use these platforms, the connection between selfies and billions of dollars of revenue is of little to no concern. They are looking for acceptance and the confident feelings they get when their post is liked. The “slippery slope” danger leading from simple selfies to posts that are more sexual and revealing is something kids are ignorant of, which means we adults must pay attention to it. We must be the ones who educate them about the algorithms that encourage more and more inappropriate behaviors online without concern for the legal or emotional consequences.
Students are both legally and psychologically impacted by this, and we must come together to make a change. The work being done by groups like Gaggle, who alert administrators of these inappropriate postings in an effort to thwart the unintended consequences such as self-harm and even suicide, is a massive help to families who may not even realize it is happening.
Want to learn more about how selfies impact students? Register for the upcoming Student Wellness Series: Selfies and Explicit Content webinar on Wednesday, April 7 at 1:00 PM. Join us to dive further into this topic and learn how educators can help protect students who find themselves in vulnerable situations.