I was sixteen when I first signed up for Facebook. My parents didn’t really know what it was, and they trusted me enough to allow me to use the site freely. As the site tended to skew older at the time, there was relatively little media coverage on the dangers of Facebook for its younger users. Now, there is rarely an occasion when extended family members or family friends don’t bring up Facebook, and their concerns with their preteen children (or nieces and nephews) using the site. Often I serve as a point of reference, explaining what the site actually functions as and cluing them into what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate in that sphere so they can better understand their kids’ involvement in it. The media discourse surrounding youth practices online has become increasingly prevalent and critical as their practices have shifted in more recent years.
In her article “For Teenage Girls, Facebook Means Always Being Camera-Ready,” New York Times blogger Randye Hoder addresses some of these concerns. Hoder mentions the desire to shape one’s online profile to demonstrate the most attractive (not necessarily positive) image of oneself in these tricky teenage years. She further explains the prevalence of these technologies in teenage social life (one can take a photo and upload it with little to no warning or time to reapply lip gloss), and how it affects young girls who “feel like [they] have to look good all the time” and even go as far as to block the video recorder on their computers (with post-its of all things) when they feel they don’t look as good as they would like.
Hoder touches on an important aspect of teenage life when demonstrating how important physical image is to girls of this age, in particular. The whole notion of being socially present and popular for youth ties into Boyd’s claims in her article “Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” where she argues that the online sphere is one where teens have a more comfortable space in which to communicate and “hang out.” Since these online spheres and social networks are individually constructed, teens can form their own spaces where they feel more welcome than physical ones that are better suited for people of different age groups. But the inherent nature of these online spheres is ultimately what causes so much pressure surrounding the online presence and how it affects the interactions these youth have in the physical world.
In an age where we are constantly connected, the pressure to be “on” all the time is more present than ever. For teens, there is the added social pressure to be popular, or, at the very least, accepted. Hoder finds that for teenage girls, this social need translates to their posting photos that are highly sexual, from accentuating their cleavage to making kissing faces (some of us so affectionately call them “duck faces”) even to posing seemingly innocent in bikinis, just to appear scantily clad to garner “likes” and, as a result, popularity among their peers both offline and online.
How then are teens expected to navigate this social scene? And how do parents react when they find out that their daughters are posting sexualized images on their SNS profiles in order to feel confident in themselves? Boyd & Marwick, in “Social Steganography: Privacy in Networked Publics,” express that parents want their children protected from online entities that could harm them. However, that is often focused on the threat of strangers or predators online and can ignore the emotional impact that these sites can have on their youth users. And although Hoder’s article brings up these issues, it frames them as a now-inevitable aspect to growing up that teenage girls must face and does little to provide a solution to it. The examples she uses are stated very matter-of-factly, when they really have a deeper social impact than is addressed (until very briefly in one quote from child and teen development specialist Robyn Silverman who points out the dangers of sexualizing girls at such a young age). I would have liked the post to have expanded more on that last point, as it seems so culturally relevant today, especially with the discourse surrounding teens and sexting. Is this pursuit of popularity through an attractive profile a stepping stone to more graphic and explicit and potentially dangerous interactions online? Or is it simply a part of growing up that has developed with the technologies surrounding those growing up? Is it something that parents should be more concerned about, or is it okay so long as the pictures are never outwardly explicit? With how difficult of a transition teenage years often are for girls, I can only imagine how stressful and confusing it would be to have to manage two social presences instead of just the physical one.