The desire to be desired

So much going on in the news these days about young women facing dire consequences for their online presence. First, there has been a bit of media coverage of this research on pictures of teens being re-posted on websites without their permission. According to the article “The Internet Watch Foundation found that 88% of teens’ videos and photos are stolen, sometimes by a cottage industry of ‘parasite websites’ that exist for the sole purpose of harvesting candid teenage photos.”

While the startling percentage should be worth noting, it’s also important to note that only those photos that somehow were available to the public (either through low privacy settings on social networking sites, or through unfortunate theft/forwarding) were counted in this research. Also, the sample seems to be all pictures of teens, not just sexually explicit ones. No information as to whether sexually explicit pictures comprised a sizable percentage of the pictures analyzed, nor whether they were more or less likely to be found on those third-party sites.

And that statement about sexting “becoming the norm?” Well, the actual study states that 1/4 of teens have reported doing it. Which, if math serves me correctly, is not “norm.” And although over half did say that they have been asked to sext, that doesn’t seem surprising to me. Asking someone to “show me yours” has been tried since we all knew there was something “down there” we wanted to see.

Yet, there are consequences to having one’s picture posted on a random site — especially for girls, it seems. This article by Emily Heist Moss in Jezebel does a brilliant job of capturing that horrible tension between wanted and unwanted attention based on one’s looks. And sites like “12 Year Old Sluts” on Facebook, YouTube videos that ask “Am I Pretty?” as well as Amanda Todd’s story remind us that we still live in times where girls are told pretty early and consistently that they are to be beautiful and sexy so that others will admire them. But not too sexy (or beautiful) mind you, because then you are a slut, bitch, and will be told as much. Moss states that “shooting for appreciation without denigration” is the ultimate goal for many (young) women, a goal that requires careful negotiation while essentially balancing on a tightrope coated in Vaseline while everyone watches. Stay up there and you will earn the respect and awe of many. Slip and your fall will be recorded, posted, and ridiculed.

New Research Shows Teens Actually Like Each Other For Reals — Not Just Digitally

New research from Common Sense Media outlines some interesting numbers regarding teen media use. Sure, they use it a LOT, but do they prefer it to quality face time? Apparently not (phew!).

Here’s the cool infographic that sums up a lot of the results.

Stephen Balkam CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute writes a great editorial about it and his own observations in the Huff Po.

My favorite quote is this: “Intriguingly, teens do value face time over screen time, which seems wonderfully reassuring with good old-fashioned talking coming out on top with texting next. Teens express frustration with their friends when they pay more attention to their gadgets than themselves. As a parent, I feel your pain. And just over a third wished they could go back to a time before Facebook.”

I have a group of friends with whom I often dine. As a ritual, we stack all our phones in the middle of the table to show that we are here, now, for the present company. Would be neat to see young people do something like that too.

Teenage insecurities

I am dealing with my own struggles these days, and I find some are exacerbated by social networking. Note how I say that these issues are “exacerbated” not “caused” by social networking. I believe there is a big difference.

A November 2011 article in the Huffington Post brings it home for me. Titled Life is Not a Popularity Contest, it hones in on our desire to have more friends, see and be seen, but at the expense of true connection. Dr. Brene Brown distinguishes this as belonging (what we should aspire towards) vs. fitting in (what we end up doing when we simply collect people into our databases instead of truly getting to know them). Actually, Dr. Brown goes beyond this. She states that it is important to be true to yourself instead of always trying to please others, or at least make them happy. But our fear of being disliked, forgotten, or simply ignored pulls us into this pattern of simply being seen as someone who is nice to be around. Which ultimately harms are own senses of self and authenticity.

Social networking allows us to share and check in with so many people, but not necessarily connect with them. Connecting takes time, vulnerability, and mutuality. “Hoarding” friends, as the HuffPo article discusses, is no way to do that. All it does is fill a void with nothing cleverly disguised as substance. Much in the same way that junk food may fill, but never nourish.

But I don’t think this issue is unique. Back when I was a youth, before social networking, I still felt the need to be a part of something. THE party, the inside joke, the more desirable crowd. This yearning to “fit in” did not surface with Facebook (or even MySpace or Friendster); it’s always been there. Brown argues in her book The Gifts of Imperfection that our need for connection is innate. But social networking makes fitting in easier and easier, which further distances ourselves from real connection.

I remember getting to know people in the true sense of connection when I was in college. The all-night talks in a dorm hallway. Going up to the foothills for the day to just be with others. Those days are long gone for me, but it’s best if I remember them so I do not fall into the trap of collecting rather than connecting. Especially since connection is what I need most right now. So, bring on the walks, the Happy Hours (adults only, please), and silly times. And while I still make “like” your post, I will also try a little harder to realize that doing so does not mean I actually reached out to you that day.

 

Life as Constant Performance Art

I just finished reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which is both pleasant and horrible to read. It essentially breaks down how marketing defines womanhood from an early age (think princesses and more princesses), and how that impacts a woman’s sense of self and sexuality moving forward. The chapter on girl beauty pageants almost did me in.

Towards the end of the book, author Peggy Orenstein comments on how social networking plays into this trap of womanhood = constant need to uphold an image of perfection and beauty:

“I don’t mean to demonize new technology. I enjoy Facebook myself…Yet I am also aware of the ways Facebook and Twitter subtly shifted by self-perception. Online, I carefully consider how any comments or photos I post will shape the persona I have cultivated; offline, I have caught myself processing my experience as it occurs, packaging  life as I live it…part of my consciousness splits off, viewing the scene from the outside and imagining how to distill it into a status update or Tweet.” p. 166

I wonder if this is how youth today constantly process their lives. What should I wear? Will there be cameras? Will this end up on Facebook? What will people say about me? What if I am there and people *don’t* say anything about me? Is what I am doing right now worthy of a post or Tweet? As Orenstein notes, life becomes performance, not process. In other words, our days are lived for others’ entertainment, comments, and approvals — not the self. This is frightening to me. For how are we going to truly discover who we are and want to be, if we are not allowed to fail and flounder, lest we be judged by our “friends” and “followers”? Young women certainly want their 15 minutes of fame to be something worthy of celebration, not embarrassment. The trick is to make it safe to feel vulnerable with so many watching.

Straight from the Source: A Youth View of Social Networking Woes

I love reading essays published by youth. In fact, part of my job consists of working with young writers and getting their work published either online or in print, and it’s extremely rewarding and educational. So I could not resist sharing this post (on Huff Post High School, but originally on TeenInk) from a young person who discusses how her addiction to Facebook interferes with her daily life as a student. While scholars continue to debate on the issue, it’s nice to actually listen to a narrative about experience rather than generalities every once in a while.

The author discusses her struggles with time suck — being drawn into social networking at the expense of getting her assignments done efficiently:

“When I sit down to write an essay, it can take me almost an hour to start my work. “Just one quick look at Facebook,” I think to myself. I then end up on the website for an extended period of time.”

She also gets even more serious when she discusses the need to maintain popularity, but in a way that is essentially false camaraderie:

“These websites are addicting because they give a false sense of community. Users are tricked into believing that they are part of a close group…People become addicted to the high they get when someone acknowledges them on these websites.” 

Even as an, ahem, “older” adult, I can fall into this trap. I sometimes wonder why a particular post of mine goes unnoticed, when I find it highly amusing and/or inspiring; it disappoints me for that moment (I think that’s the strongest word I can honestly write about my reaction, though sometimes my reaction can increase to “bummed”). Conversely, I can feel giddy when I see lots of people responding to something that I posted, especially when I didn’t expect anyone to really notice (So why even do it? That’s a question for another time).

While this story is not meant to infer that all young people suffer from these issues, I think it’s important to be reminded that there are young people who are struggling with, not always embracing, social networking.  And since socializing online is an integral part of the ways in which communities are formed and maintained, it’s important to understand where and when frustration and disconnect exist for youth — those whom older folk often assume celebrate such connections the most.

The Need to Connect

This weekend is my 25th High School Reunion. For many reasons, I decided not to go — mostly time, cost, and distance. But there is another reason: To some extent, thanks to social networking, I already feel that I am caught up enough with my classmates, those with whom I was not close, but in whose well-being I am still interested. I see their lives flash before my eyes in the form of baby pictures, complaints about work, news posting that reflect their ideals.

My class even set up a “private” group in which we share more specific memories and photos (I put “private” in quotes, because I really feel like I can’t trust the privacy of anything online, but boy I sure hope most of those pics stay behind closed doors!). In many ways, this group made me even more excited to attend the reunion, while at the same time sated my desire to. All in all, I am sure I will miss some laughs, but I am OK with not attending.

I wonder how reunions are going to be perceived among the younger generations. Will they even be seen as necessary? Will they be conducted remotely? Or will they be even more important because no one will have lost touch in the first place?

The idea of connecting via social networking, especially when Facebook and other sites first launched, was an abrupt, novel experience. Within minutes of setting up a profile, I had several friend requests and I was suddenly being (re)introduced to people from my past who were reaching out. And I had a great time thinking of people I wanted to reach out to and thrilled in perusing their pages when they accepted the connection.  This sudden onslaught of faces and memories is not really a part of younger people’s experiences. The people they know will be connected to them online from the very beginning. There will be no online “reunion” with the initial establishing of a social networking presence. The whole concept of “hello” and “goodbye” has changed.

This can be seen in the decline of the yearbook. What was once an essential piece of nostalgia may become nostalgia itself. Why reference an old book when you can see pictures old and new on a screen?

Writing this post makes me sad that I am going to miss sharing stories and creating new ones at our old-town watering hole. But I know that I’ll at least be able to see what’s going within minutes of it all happening. Question is, will that be enough, or will it make me feel even more isolated from the group? And, to draw the parallel to youth today: When they see pictures of an event from which they couldn’t attend or were excluded, where does that leave them?

Comments of Passion

I love that term — it pretty much captures the reasons for flaming, sexting, and other regretful internet sharing moments. I read this phrase in a post by Margarita Tartakovsky, where she pretty much shares the work of Dr. Tristan Gorrindo.

The overall message: Think before you post something that might not be so smart to have forever captured in cyberspace. What should a person think about is summed up in the acronym “WAIT” — for Wide audience (who and how many might read this?), Affect (what emotions am I feeling right now and am I able to make a rational decision?), Intent (will I be understood properly?), and Today (Can this wait a day?).

While I see the benefits to this brief series of considerations, some don’t seem to fit. The main one being “today.” The answer to the question “Can this wait a day?”, for the most part, will always be “no.” The internet and social networking are so immediate, that waiting a day to post a comment is akin to saying something in an empty room — no one, including the immediate recipient of the comment — will ever see it. While I am all for thinking about the consequences of posting something before actually doing it, perhaps the “T” should really be for “Tomorrow” as in “How will I feel tomorrow after everyone reads my post?”

And I totally agree with Tartakovsky’s statement that adults can benefit from following these steps just as much as youth. In my own Facebook account, I have read posts about drunken vomiting, pubic hair, and baby poop. Wonder how many of those posts I would have read if someone WAITed before they broadcast those news items?