“Mummy, why don’t you have on Facebook pictures of yourself when you were a kid?” This is what my seven year old son asked me once when I was showing him some photos of when he was a toddler that came up as a memory in my feed. While looking at the photos, I mentioned that in one of them he looked just the way I used to look when I was about the same age. My son asked to see a photo of me as toddler so he could see the resemblance himself. Sadly, I had no photos to show him, and I had to explain that most of my childhood photos are in photo albums stored in a closet in my mum’s house in Colombia. The above discussion led to a deeper talk about how back then we didn’t have phones with cameras and social media was probably someone’s wildest dream.
As the report of the Digital Youth Project asserts, new technologies are ever present in the lives of young people these days. According to the Ofcom survey of 2016, 99% of the surveyed people between 16 and 24 years old in the UK, use social media once a week or more.
New technologies, and in particular social media, are intimately related to the way teens connect with their peers, and in the way they learn and develop different types of relationships. Furthermore, these technologies help them find ways to hang out, for example, when using video chats when they can’t meet in person; they are also part of hanging out, for example, when together they access a music sharing app to set up a playlist of their favourite tunes.
Undoubtedly, there are a myriad of advantages of growing up in a time of connectedness and instant access to the world’s knowledge. In the course of an hour, a student researching space exploration can look up websites for information, search engines for the most up to date photos of astronomical phenomena, watch a live feed from the International Space Station, and even connect with past, current, and future space explorers through social media. Unimaginable a generation ago.
On the other hand, the Digital Youth Project report discusses how social media has reshaped social norms related to how we interact in and out social media. For instance, the report elaborates on what they call “controlled casualness”, where the asynchronous nature of social media allow the users to carefully craft what they post online, which is something more difficult to do in face to face situations. In a way, controlled casualness allows the users to create the persona they want to portray online, which can even be different from one social network to the other. This video by Boohoo.com illustrates this point:
The ability to shape and enhance what we present online, can create digital representations that do not necessarily correspond to reality. For many teens, posting the perfect selfie, which looks all casual and impromptu, implies time and effort, from the many versions of the photo that were taken, choosing the best one, to the filters and alterations made to make it look outstanding. The idea of perfect, interesting lives can be crafted through meticulously selected posts. The public nature of social media draw teens to compare themselves to the images and posts they see online, sometimes creating anxiety and depression for feeling less “cool” or less attractive or interesting. A UK survey from the Royal Society for Public Health has even pinpointed two social media platforms, Instagram and Snapchat, as two of the most detrimental for teens’ mental health. If we take into account that between 40-50% of teens use these apps, it is clear that we, as a society, have a lot of work to do to make sure we are equipping youths with the skills to navigate our connected world.
As educators, parents, and policy makers wrap their heads around this situation, one thing is undeniable: the ever changing new technologies and social media are here to stay. They have changed the way we interact and will continue to do so as they evolve and as new ones come in. The key here is to assume the responsibility that comes from introducing these technologies to the public, and create the best tools to educate and prepare the new generations to become curators of the content they consume, and to use social media and the Internet to their advantage.