You are an 18, 19, or 20-something year-old and you are an active social media participant. You have your own Facebook profile to check up on your friends, find out about upcoming events, and update your photos and statuses. But, admit it: a large part of the reason you have a Facebook is because everyone else has one and you don’t want them to forget your existence while they’re online. But what is the exposure to the content your friends post doing to you? How does it influence what you post and how you feel about yourself offline?
If you’re a teenage girl, your Facebook newsfeed could be sending you into a horrible, depressing spiral of negative body-image and nonstop competition among friends for the best body. In her article, Social networks have young women competing against each other for the best body, Amanda Enayati references one teen user, Amanda Coleman, who decided to leave Facebook because she was sick of being bombarded with images of her friends looking perfect and feeling the pressures to look as good. Coleman said that Facebook acted as a gateway-social-network that led some of the girls in her college sorority to become members of pro-eating-disorder sites. Apparently, images that these girls saw of their friends looking perfect on Facebook made them feel “not good enough” themselves. As a result, they turned to these pro-eating-disorder communities online “where users encourage one another in anorexic and bulimic behavior” since, in the minds of the sorority girls, “what they had the most control over was their weight.” Coleman says her sorority friends flew down “a slippery slope” from “normal” social networking sites to ones centered around encouraging eating disorders.
Additionally, Coleman seemed to think that feelings of body-hate among her teen friends were “contagious,” even among those who previously had a positive body image. This teen viewed her friends as being powerless against the forces of Facebook, unable to fight off the negative body-image-effect it seemed to have on them. But as Rebekah Willett states in her essay, “‘As soon as you can get on Bebo you just go mad’: young consumers and the discursive construction of teenagers online,” there is a “tension” between the depiction of “young people as acted on by societal forces and seeing them as independent actors in their own right.” These teen girls believe each other girl on Facebook is more perfect than them and feel they must try to post similarly perfect pictures. Meanwhile, they perceive themselves (or, at least, Coleman does,) as being completely unable to resist the pressures to post these perfect images and fall to negative consequences as a result (perhaps turning to an eating disorder). In this way, certain teen girls seem unable to avoid feeling negative about themselves by using Facebook.
In Willett’s essay, she discusses the social networking site Bebo, a social networking and blogging site popular in the mid-2000s. She states that young users enjoyed Bebo partly because it was easy to personalize. She says, “Young people appear keen to project an image of themselves through particular ‘lifestyle choices’ and have a desire to keep their image up to date as a reflection of their current self.” Much of what Willett describes about Bebo can be applied to Facebook. Enayati might call the constantly updated photos and information that make up a teen’s profile part of “the encyclopedia of beauty and status and comparisons” that Facebook has become.
Fascinatingly, though, this “encyclopedia” is not very diverse at all. It is made up largely of people taking part in the same activities and, according to Enayati’s article, of teen girls who all believe they have to look the same exact way as each other. As teen social media users, we are often eager to upload pictures of ourselves taking part in experiences with friends to show off our active social lives, but we all end up looking the same as each other and posting about the same kinds of events. Social media definitely exerts a pressure on its user to “have the best body” that might have not existed as strongly before. Previously, teen girls may have been able to avoid seeing the best looking girl in their community and, thus, avoid feeling badly about their own bodies. This is more difficult to do when these girls are showing up over and over again on your Facebook newsfeed. As Willett asserts, “adolesence is marked by an interest in peers…as a references point for personal preferences.” We cannot help but partly base our own decisions about our appearance according to our peers’ appearances. However, this is not as extreme as Enayati suggests. While some teen girls are pressured into dangerous behaviors, like eating-disorders, in an attempt to control their appearance, this is definitely not the norm.
The article includes advice to parents from Dina Borzekowski, who “believes parents need to be more aware of the messages reaching their children and adolescents” She says, “How many parents can really say they’ve seen the YouTube videos their teen has seen in the last two to three days? Parents need to be able to tell their kids to put their smartphones away.” But simply monitoring what kids and teens interact with on social media sites will not solve anything and keeping them from going on these sites after they’ve already used them will not take away the pressures they feel. As danah boyd concludes in her essay, “Why Youth ❤ Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” parents are meant to be “guides” and “not policeman” to their children on social media sites. Girls who fall into eating disorders or other dangerous behaviors after seeing their friends’ seemingly flawless photos on Facebook probably do not enter into these behaviors solely because of social media. Parents should guide their children to have healthy body-images long before they become active on social media.