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Being a teen isn’t easy. I’m not sure it ever has been, but in our current bubble of social media hyper-awareness where every detail and comment is analysed, ‘Liked’ or used as a weapon, I’m certain life is harder nowadays for the average teen. Add in the pressure of having the perfect selfie on Instagram, the need to look like the current favourite flawless reality show celeb and feeling inferior to the latest superstar YouTube sensation, and you have a vortex of inadequacy and potential bullying.
The pressure on today’s teens is at an unprecedented level and suicide (amongst young people) has increased to such an extent in this age group that the World Health Organisation has now indicated that teen suicide it is the leading cause of death amongst young people in the UK*. Suicide is extreme and creates national headlines, but sadly the increase in self harming and mental health problems is less news worthy.
M lives on Instagram and Snapchat and it seems to be the only way teens communicate. I asked M if she had text Claire about an upcoming event and she rolled her eyes at me and said nobody texts. Claire, M and the other girls in M’s close circle of friends take constant selfies, hoping for the perfect pout and cleavage combo.
The word Selfie entered the dictionary in 2013 and it entered our house sometime in 2015. I would be reluctant to say M is obsessed with taking selfies, but it seems to be the most common pastime that she and her friends do. They share selfies on social media all the time, comparing and offering tips. Claire has a little selfie light that clips to her smart phone to provide better illumination for the perfect shot and a few days later, I saw M with one attached to her phone. Her school have banned selfies with a strongly worded letter home, along with a list of penalties that would be accrued if students were caught taking them. We talked to M about the new rule as she couldn’t understand the school’s policy and, in spite of several reminders, has totted up 2 after school detentions for taking selfies on school premises.
So what is the problem with selfies? It’s not an exclusive pastime of girls, boys do take selfies, but it seems it is the girls that value the social validation and approval. In a rare moment of openness I had with M and Claire after a sleepover, they told me casually that the opinion of other people in their peer group was incredibly important, and to be judged and found wanting online was a social death knell. M also confided that she wondered who else was seeing the photos and it did lead to an important conversation about appropriate photos and who can see her profile. This was not a one off conversation, but one we regularly have about body image, safety online and sexting. What was different this time was that she seemed more involved in the discussion, rather than waiting not very patiently for me to finish talking. I’m already fairly certain that everything I say is rejected by her ‘blah blah blah’ filter.
I’m monitoring M’s need to post the perfect selfie, as well as how much time she spends online, gaming and what social media sites she’s on. However, I fully accept that hubby and I are on the back foot when it comes to technology. We are both tech savvy, but nothing compared to the average 16 year old and it’s one of the reasons we set boundaries for her and try to build up her digital resilience. What I keep a sharp eye on is M’s need for validation and the effect of her social media status on her self confidence and, ultimately her self-image and mental health. I’m not linking self harming and teen suicide to taking selfies, but it can add another layer to an already vulnerable teen struggling with self doubt, cruel or thoughtless comments and social isolation.
It’s worthwhile noting that once children move up to secondary school the pressure to conform and be part of an accepted peer group grows stronger, but that most of the popular mobile phone apps have a minimum age recommendation of 13 years. These include Facebook, Instagram, Whisper, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, ooVoo, Yellow and Kik.
We’ve had to have a large learning curve when it comes to technology and teenagers, and the best thing that parents and carers can do apart from talking to their children about the dangers posed online, is to get knowledgeable and to keep up with changes.
* PAPYRUS prevention of young suicide annual report 2017