I was somewhat disappointed by last Monday night’s Australian Story, on the ‘selfie’ phenomenon. The thirty minutes were more about Olympia and her arty family than about the posturing culture, which is the current fad in teenage hood.

I was however, intrigued by Olympia’s reflections of this ‘selfie’ culture,

“We’re faking it, so that we get to be among the most popular, get to be ‘liked’ by the most popular and thereby gain popularity… The aim is not to communicate joy but to score a position…It’s a neurotic impulse, not a happy one.” (16 years old)

 

Because this mirrors, almost exactly, the words of hundreds of teenage girls I have spoken with this year.

 

I presented at a high school mother-daughter event recently, entitled ‘So who are you, really?’ Girls were almost unanimous in their agreement about their agonizing need for ‘likes’, on their Social Networking Sites (SNS). They feel propelled to judge themselves, and their worth; by the number of likes they receive on a comment or photo.

 

One girl’s words are seared in my memory,

“I don’t know why I need them. I don’t want to need them. It seems illogical, but I just do. We all count the ‘likes’ we have, and continually compare them to someone else’s.” (17 year old)

 

Despite the prolific sexy selfie, there are hundreds of other selfie genres:

Me in this city

Me at that party

Me with Mr. Popular

Me on our beach/bush/overseas holiday

Me with my breakfast (stop with the food shots already!)

 

Are we simply logging in to our very own popularity contest? Have we become brands, in need of marketing, in order to validate existence?

 

‘Welcome to Facebook*, your Daily Make-over Show!’
(*insert Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Kik or any other SNS)

 

We all agree that social media is an amazing tool for connection and interaction. People are made for relationships, and SNS will naturally fill a part of our need for connection.

 

But I sometimes wonder about these connections.

 

Daily highlights can be broadcast in 140 characters and photos are hand picked. With the brilliance of the camera phone came the ability to select, only the very best snaps from the hundreds on our holiday – smiling faces, sunny skies, or over exposure for hiding wrinkles.

 

When we wear our hearts on our virtual sleeve, even this is carefully worded, chosen and edited – is this all part of the illusion, the character that we put forward?

 

And in turn we only see what others allow us to see, through the rose tinted social media lens.

 

FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)

There have been a number of studies published, on the Facebook phenomenon. Nevertheless, we need to remember that relationships are multifaceted and people are complex. To quote surveys on Facebook and interpret these as direct causes of teen loneliness, depression and narcissism, is simplistic.

However, one study indicates Facebook as a social comparison component, where users observe others’ behavior and compare it to their own ‘gains in reputation’.

 

But don’t blame the tool

SNS are an intricate part of our young people’s world, and a wonderful avenue for enhancing existing friendships. (I personally love being connected with my friends around the world)

Burke’s research in fact found,

‘Messages exchanged between friends are both a product of the friendship and a means of facilitating and maintaining such friendships.’

 

But these relationships need to exist first.

 

The problem I see is this, teens already struggling with friendships offline, often struggle online just as much. They are no closer to being more ‘popular’ or feeling less awkward on the playground.

 

‘Surfing Facebook for hours in fact makes us feel worse, just as sitting alone in a crowded restaurant on Valentine’s Day might make you feel lonely.’ (Burke, 2010)

 

How do we harness the benefits?

 

Years of media literacy lessons have increasingly taught young people, at home and at school, how to critically navigate corporate media. They are regularly told that photos of models and celebrities are altered. The recent ‘celebs without make-up’ stint is meant to be some kind of attempt at communicating that real people have flaws. They learn that advertising has more to do with selling products than telling the truth.

 

But are we telling young people that the same is true, to some extent, when it comes to social media? That Social Networking can sometimes threaten our ability to be authentic?

 

I tweet therefore I am!

* We need to share with young people that SNS can sometimes be about gaining likes.

* Selfies can sometimes simply be about trying on different selves.

* That interactions and comments on SNS can cause some to feel popular and others left out.

* That some people on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, blogs… have a propensity to form cliques, just like in the school yard.

* That the numerical value of all their ‘likes’, ‘followers’ and ‘friends’, do not present an accurate picture of the quality of their social experiences, the total of their abilities or a reflection of their worth.

* As adults, we need to lead by example and talk about netiquette, often.

 

Social media is wide in connection, but can not be deep. We need face-to-face contexts for that.

 

Sharing lives over coffee, getting involved in hobbies together, hugs during grief, listening during tough times and laughing with joy over a shared experience – These are what forge the deep connections that endure.

 

 

Collett Smart is an adolescent psychologist at Family Smart www.familysmart.com.au She is on Facebook here


On Twitter – @collettsmart