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.

Isolating Our Youth

I wanted to reflect on danah boyd’s opening paragraph in her commentary on internet safety in the Boston Daily:

…” four generations of parents have slowly eliminated children’s freedom to roam in physical spaces. In turn, children and teens have turned to the Internet to reclaim social opportunities they’ve lost. In interviewing teens, I consistently find that they would prefer to get together in-person, but that parental fears, over-scheduling, and lack of viable transportation often make offline socialization difficult, if not altogether impossible. For many young people, social media fills this gap, and allows them to ‘hang out.'”

This is horrifying to me. As boyd articulates, this idea is nothing new. Joel Best in his book Threatened Children, discusses similar issues in the over-sensationalization of kidnapped children and how that spreads fear among parents. Are we really shutting our youth away from social experiences in the name of their safety? What long-term impact will that have on their relationships, sense of self, and confidence as they venture out into the world?

What I find somewhat ironic is that while we are simultaneously trying to “protect” our children from the big, bad, world, we are also dismayed by the amount of time they spend in front of media — especially television and video games — and how this contributes to an increase in obesity. Adults also bemoan the amount of disclosure and maltreatment that happens in social media (though boyd in her commentary tries to debunk some of that).

We can’t have it both ways. Either we need to trust young people to frequent social spaces in the physical world, or we need to allow them more freedom in the digital world. Or, ideally, both. Learning to trust young people and allow them to make healthy decisions is, in my opinion, the best thing we can do to support them in both the short- and long-term. As USC Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts  Henry Jenkins has stated:

“Kids don’t need us watching over their shoulders; they need us to have their backs.”

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.

 

“Am I pretty?” Questions better left unasked

I am not so sure this is a new trend, but it is one that the media have picked up over the last few days. Most of the articles and blog posts say pretty much the same thing: Middle-school aged girls are posting videos on YouTube asking viewers if they are pretty or not. Then let the responses begin…

This is not unlike Hot or Not, the web site specifically created to answer the question, which has since morphed into a dating site full of risque pics and cleavage. And given the focus on dating, this site is not really meant for the younger set. So, for tweens and early teens, YouTube, in their eyes, will suffice.

My thoughts on this were featured on the amazing Anne Collier’s blog post. Anne and I exchanged thoughts over whether these videos are more harmful than a site like Hot or Not. I think the jury is still out. What I want to add, however, is that although I did say that many of the comments under this one particular video were “stupid” — and by that I mean irrelevant and off topic, there were also ones that were quite harmful and disturbing. For example, one person replied that the poster was “pretty enough to rape.” No one should ever read that.

Making the Move

Hello WordPress! I have migrated my blog to this venue due to technical difficulties with my old host. I want to polish myself up and make me look all purdy before I really launch back into my editorials. Heck, I may even change my focus somewhat!

I really want to keep writing and contributing to thoughtful dialogue as to how technology — mostly the internet — has impacted relationships. Given my background, I usually focus on teens and sexuality, but I think there is a lot more to be considered. I also have come up with some instances where I want to process some personal things as well, so readers be warned! This blog may take an interesting turn.

Or not. I may continue on my merry research-y way. Who knows what 2012 will bring! I hope you stay tuned to find out.

Defining "Vulnerable" Children

A report from EU Kids Online (a research group which studies the online behaviors of youth from 25 different European countries) finds that about half of 11-16 year olds at least somewhat agree with the idea that it is easier to be oneself online than it is in a face-to-face environment; 12% say the statement is “very true.”

This finding is interesting in and of itself, though in some sense not that surprising. Behind a screen, it can be easier to share feelings, disclose information about oneself — the computer provides somewhat of a protective shield (at least temporarily) from the potentially negative reactions of peers. In a nutshell, this is what the disinhibition effect of social psychology is all about. In the long term, however, with the prevalence of cyberbullying (and online communication in general), this apparent protection can break down quite easily as one’s disclosures in the form of posts, texts, and pictures can more easily and quickly be spread, making a secret public knowledge in no time.

The study’s researchers frame their findings in a somewhat fear-based framework. They state that the 12% who more strongly believe they can be themselves online are:

  • “more likely to have problems with their peers, suggesting that they are seeking online relationships to compensate for offline ones;
  • more likely to look for new friends online, to‘add’ people or send personal information to people that they haven’t met face to face, or to pretend to be a different kind of person.”

What is not known, however, is why those youth have difficulty with their peers in the first place, which I believe is the key to all of this. And the researchers acknowledge their own uncertainties:
“Is it because they have personal or social difficulties in relating to people face-to-face, so the internet compensates in some way? Or is it because they spend a lot of time online and this leads them to feel more at home in an online environment?”

My own hunches lean me towards the former possibility — there is something about their social environments that drives them to seek acceptance online. After all, it isn’t hard to believe that 12% of youth find it difficult to be accepted in the social circles they encounter on a regular basis. In fact, that number might even be low if we are simply looking at feeling included as a youth, possibly demonstrating the resilience of young people.

Yet, this publication makes the assumption that stronger connections online are not to be desired and tries to further examine what is special about the youth who are more comfortable being themselves online than offline. Age and gender aren’t huge factors. But peer problems are — those youth who report more problems with peers are more likely to “find it easier to be myself on the internet.”

Solutions? None that are easy. Promoting acceptance of all youth regardless of their attractiveness, “coolness,” sexual orientation, gender identity, mental and/or physical challenges, would be ideal. But is it possible? As much as I want to say “yes,” I fear the immediate answer is “no.” But that should not stop us from working towards that goal — ever. In the meantime, let’s not assume that youth who find it easier to express their true selves online as opposed to offline are “vulnerable.” Perhaps, given their social environments, they are being resilient and finding communities and persons who welcome them as they are with open arms and monitors.

Note: To access the report, look for the link on “Risky Communication Online” published 2/8/11.

Internet communities: Strengthening the global or local?

I found this post (please excuse the numerous editing issues, as recognized in its own disclaimer) extremely interesting in the way it challenged how young people use the internet to form community. I have read quite a bit speculating (there is so little research and not much anecdotal information either) on how sexual and gender minority are reaching out online to form community. Most of this information discovers how these youth use the internet to reach out of their isolated communities to find others “like them” in other places.

This is not the case here.

Mary Gray, of the Communication and Culture dept. at Indiana University, gives an example of how rural youth use the internet to strengthen their LOCAL community of LGBTQ youth. It’s a neat case study that makes me wonder how widespread it is.

Another point I appreciate: the fact that these youth feel safer in public venues rather than hidden in their own identities, or online. To me, a supporter of these youth, it is reassuring that they are trying to make themselves visible and part of the community.