We've covered a lot of different aspects of digital citizenship over the past few weeks: what it means, how students can become productive "digital citizens," and the consequences and etiquette surrounding virtual communication and participation. We've encouraged teachers and parents to talk with students about how their actions online can impact their future and the well-being of others. But there's another aspect of digital citizenship that's just as critical--how media and online interactions influence and shape a child's self-image.
A different world
Modern society has always been exposed to advertising. Even "back in the day" when we got our news from a newspaper, the local grocery store circular would be tucked inside, a 4x4 inch advert for the local lawyers next to the sports column. What we're experiencing now, however, is more influential, more pervasive. Want to read the latest from CNN? Hang on, you've got to watch this shoe commercial for 20 seconds, selected for you based on your browsing history. Models and actors are photoshopped, products presented with just the right amount of sportiness, sexiness, or "cool factor." And adults aren't the only ones bombarded by these advertisements--companies work just as hard to sell to the next generation of consumers.
This media- and advertising-rich culture is pervasive, and has helped to create a climate of constant self-promotion. Teens spend hours devoted to taking and choosing the best photo to post to Instagram, counting up their likes, comparing themselves to others. It seems that teens are increasingly focused on putting their face forward--a study from AP-NORC found that 76% of teens 13-17 use Instagram, and 75% use Snapchat--while Facebook and Twitter use has remained steady. Growing up is hard enough--add in this constant online competition for who's having the most fun with the most glamorous friends, and you've got another layer of added pressure.
What can adults do to minimize the effects of these platforms on a teen's self-esteem? According to the Child Mind Institute, it's all about focusing on life offline. "The gold standard advice for helping kids build healthy self-esteem is to get them involved in something that they’re interested in. It could be sports or music or taking apart computers or volunteering—anything that sparks an interest and gives them confidence. When kids learn to feel good about what they can do instead of how they look and what they own, they’re happier and better prepared for success in real life. That most of these activities also involve spending time interacting with peers face-to-face is just the icing on the cake."
A tale of two faces
Who are you IRL (in real life)? Who are you behind your device? We all have flaws, bad days, lulls in our social life. Online, however, it's easy to paint a much different picture, with perfectly arranged Instagram meals, Facebook check-ins with friends at an event. For most adults, it's easy to separate and acknowledge that this carefully curated fantasy is just that--fantasy. For teens, this dual experience during their formative years can be detrimental to shaping their identity. On one hand, it's great that a shy child can express themselves freely online, but it's problematic if it comes at the cost of abandoning real, face-to-face social skills and interactions.
This phenomenon is also significant on a much larger scale. "Sometimes it seems that the Internet has amplified the importance of “self” identification and identity to the point that the term has become a kind of acronym. SELF = “Showcase Every Little Fact” about me. Nothing seems too trivial to post, even a "selfie" photograph. With this increased "self" preoccupation, we may have entered a more narcissistic age, people increasingly entranced with admiring the Internet reflection they have created, treating it as a chance to star in their own and other people's eyes," writes Dr. Carl Pickhardt in Psychology Today.
Helping children navigate their online personas starts with a conversation about respect, representation, and reputation: