Page 18 - Independent Schools Magazine
P. 18

Identity Theft –
is social media robbing teenagers of their individuality?
Social media ‘is a huge social experiment and we simply do not know what the long-term effects of this will be... in the meantime, all we can do is to encourage our children and young people to ignore the false currency of likes and dislikes and, instead, for better or ill, to do what feels right to them’. So says Nick Forsyth, Head of Wellbeing at Kingston Grammar School, Surrey...
A letter that appeared in the Guardian caught my eye recently. It was from a reader who had been prompted to dig out her old teenage diary. Here is her entry for 20th July 1969:
“I went to arts centre (by myself!) in yellow cords and blouse. Ian was there but he didn’t speak
to me. Got rhyme put in my handbag from someone who’s apparently got a crush on me.
It’s Nicholas I think. UGH. Man landed on moon.”
The diary entry neatly highlights typically characteristic teenage behaviour. Despite the monumental historical events going on around her the young girl remains resolutely self- centred, with her priorities  rmly rooted in her appearance, her friends and a little gossipy intrigue for good measure.
I found myself thinking a bit more about the girl in the diary and I’ve decided that I like her. I like her con dence; her emphatic dislike of Nicholas and the fact that she’s made the trip to the arts centre
by herself. I imagine her planning the trip and deliberating about what to wear - she’s obviously feeling very pleased with
herself. But then I found myself imagining what might have happened if her choice of yellow cords and blouse had not turned out to be the fashion hit she was hoping for. Some mild teasing from her friends, perhaps or, at worse, a little embarrassment. Dif cult though it may have been, this would be entirely normal
and, indeed, both emotionally healthy and ultimately necessary. Adolescence is a time of great change both emotionally and physically and a time when teenagers absolutely need to experiment; to try out new clothes, new hairstyles, new ideas and opinions to see if they  t. Only by doing so can they arrive at adulthood with a true sense of
self and an understanding of who they really are.
But now imagine our friend setting off to the arts centre today, smartphone in hand. Imagine our friend in the spotlight of social media;
sel es and posts showing off
her yellow cords and blouse all over Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr. Imagine the reaction now. Perhaps approval and a number of oh-so-important ‘likes’ instantly boosting her social standing
but, on the other hand, perhaps ridicule and a stream of negative and even hurtful comments. So, faced with potential hostility, what is our friend to do and how does she react? Well, by conforming, of course, and who can blame her?
Standing at the back of one of our school assemblies, I am struck by the girls. Rows and rows of similar, practically identical, long, straightened hair. Where has all the individuality gone? The bobs, crops, plaits, French braids and pigtails? Next time you are at a shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon, take a look at the groups of teenage girls, practically indistinguishable from each other in identikit out ts of skinny jeans and crop tops.
But more worrying than identical clothes and hairstyles is the underlying problem of low self- esteem amongst teenage girls in particular. Without experimenting and risk taking, teenagers are
not developing resilience and
a sense of ‘self’. Instead, they remain trapped in timidity, forever vulnerable to the all- encompassing fear of instant, online judgement and social exclusion, continually measuring their lives and achievements against the edited highlights of others. Even worse, as teenagers struggle to establish an identity, the lure of social media can present a false mirror to them.
The constant uploading of carefully crafted sel es, likes and posts can result in the self- promotion of an online identity that is impossible to live up to and that bears little resemblance to reality. It’s almost a case of personal branding. “This is how Ineedtobe.ThisishowIneed others to see me”.
A Children’s Society report published last year found that 34% of 10- to 15-year-old
girls are unhappy with their appearance and a lot of that
was attributed to the pressure of social media. Of course, teenagers have always worried about their appearance but the internet has allowed these vulnerabilities to be ampli ed in far more immediate and potentially harmful ways. Just one example of this
would be the proliferation and popularity of apps which allow digital augmentation of the face and body.
But while they may be more susceptible, the problem is not unique to girls. I remember a
very funny Billy Connolly sketch where Billy describes how, at the age of fourteen or  fteen and after a bit of experimentation, boys “choose” their dance: “aye, that’ll do me”. Then, and for the rest of their lives, at weddings, parties, wherever, that’s always the signature dance that they do. I am sure that many of us can remember our teenage years and, at times, feeling mortifyingly self- conscious. Now imagine having
to learn your ‘dance’ in the  erce glare of social media and you have some idea of the constricting burden that social media presents for today’s teenagers as they try to navigate their way through adolescence.
A recent study found that more than half of children had used an online social network by the ageoftenandfor13to18year olds, 96% regularly use social
media. In December, Facebook launched a new social messaging service speci cally for under 13s. Despite concerns about children’s increased use of the internet it seems that children continue to be speci cally targeted by tech companies who well understand the addictive nature of gaming and social media and, in particular, the ‘dopamine hit’ of peer approval.
You may have guessed by now that I am not a particular fan of social media. Of course nobody can deny that the internet has had a hugely positive impact on children’s and young people’s lives; access to information and learning, socialisation and, in particular, a support network
for children who feel isolated or disenfranchised. But on balance, my gut feeling is that for a typical, 15-year-old girl, social media has not been a bene t. Agree or disagree, the fact is
that what we are witnessing is a huge social experiment and we simply do not know what the long-term effects of this will be. In the meantime, all we can do
is to encourage our children and young people to ignore the false currency of likes and dislikes and, instead, for better or ill, to do what feels right to them.
So let us celebrate yellow cords and indeed trousers of every colour and style. Let us celebrate cropped hair, dyed hair or
braids or anything that shouts individuality, self-expression
and freedom to choose. Above
all, let us celebrate authenticity
by encouraging teenagers to experiment and to be bold and
to take risks, whatever the online consequences. Only by doing so will they grow up to truly know themselves and, with a bit of luck, to be comfortable with the person that they really are.
   18 Independent Schools Magazine
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