By Katie Adema.
Debra* knew her son was active on several social networking sites and had never found a reason to feel concerned about it. However, one afternoon she decided to take a sneaky peek at her 13-year-old’s Tumblr account, which he had left open on his computer.
She was horrified to discover that her son had been posting drug and sex-related images. What shocked her the most was that those images did not reflect what she knew about her son and his personality.
“I didn’t know if I was getting the real him, or his Tumblr friends were,” says Debra. “It really affected my trust in him.”
Express to impress
This scenario may be familiar to other parents of teenagers. Social media is Gen Z’s second playground where they are largely free to express themselves and experiment with their identity.
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Even adults are adept at presenting the best bits of their lives online. Dr Amalie Finlayson, a lecturer in Journalism at Charles Sturt University who specialises in online and social media, says: “I heard a great quote the other day, that we all want to show the highlights reel of our lives, not the bloopers and blunders.”
And like most of us to varying degrees, teenagers also want to be perceived positively. But in a teenager’s world, positive perception usually equates to being ‘cool’.
“I have posted things for attention. Sometimes the outcome is good but sometimes it’s a complete, embarrassing failure”
“[Teenagers] use [social media] to portray a false image of themselves, because they are trying to make people like them and be ‘cool’,” says Natalie*, a 16-year-old high school student.
Natalie’s friend, James*, also 16, believes that those wishing to gain access to the ‘popular’ group are usually the main culprits of creating attention seeking posts and photos.
“Although many would not admit it, I definitely have [posted things for attention],” he says. “Sometimes the outcome is good but sometimes it’s a complete, embarrassing failure.”
Debra would agree that her son was probably one of those teens trying to impress.
“His initial defense was ‘everyone does it’,” she says. “It seems that even if a kid is not personally interested in something, they are still aware it is cool among certain circles. Online, you can post ‘cool’ images without explicitly endorsing them. It’s a very easy lie.”
The pressure to keep up a certain image online can influence offline behaviour too. Some teens may be motivated to engage in behaviour or activities in the real world, in the hope that it will gain them attention online.
Jocelyn Brewer, a school counsellor, provisional psychologist and co-founder of NIIRA (Network for Internet Investigation and Research Australia) says:
“Sometimes people take more risks and do more crazy things so that the photos get posted and then liked.”
She says not all of these posts necessarily stem from a desire to fit in.
“Some [posts] are really ‘poor me/pity me’ attention seeking, and others are much more ‘woo hoo, look at me being awesome,” she says.
‘Pity’ posts could possibly be a side effect of widespread online identity ‘editing’. With a steady stream of posts and photos appearing on their Facebook feed of ‘friends’ having fun or wearing fashionable or expensive clothes, it’s no wonder some adolescents are left feeling that their own lives are lacking.
“I can sit there with my finger hovering over the enter button for ages thinking of what everyone else would think”
“I think kids are not valuing themselves,” says Ms Brewer. “They use [social networking sites] to create a form of comparison via the number of friends, comments photos, likes, etc.”
James confirms this: “When you see someone’s post you form an immediate impression, whether [it’s that they are] cool, lame or just plain weird.”
It’s a pressure that reflects back on James’ own social media use.
“When I’m in doubt of a post, I can sit there with my finger hovering over the enter button for ages thinking of what everyone else would think,” he says.
Is there an upside?
Dr Finlayson believes social networking sites can provide a good opportunity for teenagers to share information and learn from others.
“If used wisely and mindfully, social media can be very positive in the ongoing development of a teenager’s identity,” she says. “There is a wonderful element of creativity and freedom of self expression, as well as the opportunity to share information and learn from others.”
Mum Debra doesn’t condone presenting a false identity online, but understands why some teens, including her son, choose to do so.
“Perhaps you could argue that the Internet is a safer place to try out different personalities than in real life, where you might be under real pressure to participate in things,” she says.
When identity experimentation is not taken too far it can be a healthy way for a teenager to explore their personality and further their self-development. Parents should talk with their teenagers about how their friends portray themselves online and how it is most likely a favourable and possibly even unrealistic representation.
“Perhaps you could also argue that the Internet is a safer place to try out different personalities than in real life”
After her discovery, Debra allowed her son to keep his Tumblr account, but made him remove the inappropriate images. She spoke with him at length about what he was trying to portray and why.
“I just wish kids could just be honest about who they are and be proud of themselves, without having to pretend to be anyone different,” says Debra. “But I understand that for many teenagers that’s too much to ask at this stage.”
* All names have been changed.
About the writer
This article was written by The Kids Are All Right intern Katie Adema. Katie is a third year Journalism student at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, NSW, and she hopes to be a writer at a women’s magazine. Read more about our internship program.