17 May 2015
by Dr Jamilla Rosdahl
Many young people use chat and image-based forums such as Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to connect by sharing photos and ideas. We often hear statements like, "teens are communicating faster and differently now" and "parents just need to get with the times". However, not all 'new' social practices are neutral or harmless. The world of technological media impacts on a developing teen's sense of self and their understanding of the world.
Because we're part of a beauty and youth-obsessed society, social media is saturated with images that emphasise stereotypical, and often incorrect, ideas about identity. The face and body are increasingly central to a teen's understanding of self. Dominant ideas of beauty are set by celebrities and media representatives and these are propped up by forums such as Instagram. Here, teens' self-management of identities are highlighted, disseminated and intensified.
As a social educator, I speak to hundreds of teens who worry about their looks, struggle with identity or have been victims of online bullying. Social media delivers powerful stories about trends or fitting in. One of the latest examples is the Kylie Jenner challenge that saw teens sharing photos and videos attempting to achieve pouty lips like Jenner. The results were disastrous. Some teens used bottles or vacuum cleaners. Almost all attempts resulted in swelling, bruises and pain. The marketing industry instils an ever-changing impulse for teens to refashion and reinvent themselves. This also trains them to be unhappy with their appearances, ensuring even the youngest consumers keep spending.
As parents, we must assist our teens to navigate around these challenges.
Here are some ways you can help:
1. What do my images say about me?
Posting images can be a fun way for teens to express themselves but images often hold other meanings than those intended. Encourage your teen to ask questions such as: How do I want others to perceive me? Are there other ways that I can express myself? How might others perceive me?
2. Beware of unrealistic beauty standards
Many teens experiment with looks by posting 'selfies' online. Popular beauty ideals are usually stereotypical, one-dimensional and linked to media portrayals. Remind your teen that perceptions of beauty change and some ideals are harmful to the body or mind.
3. Unplug and unwind
Spending time online can be relaxing but it's not the only way to unwind. Arts, music, sports, crafts, reading and writing stimulate the mind and body in different ways. Ensure your teen finds a healthy balance between the online and offline world.
4. Encourage self-confidence
Receiving attention online can feel good. One of the main concerns for this self-directed mindset is the idea that to be accepted, we must gain acceptance from others. This can lead to teens sexting or posting inappropriate photos online with detrimental effects. Ask your teen if they are seeking social acceptance. Children who are confident and secure, are less likely to worry about what others think of them. Remind your child that when they receive online comments or 'likes', these don't always carry value.
5. Stay cyber safe
When we communicate online, we may say things we wouldn't normally say. Because no one can see us, it creates a false sense of security. Speak with your child about cyber safety and the consequences of sharing information online. Cyberbullying is a very real issue that can affect a child's developmental years.
6. Foster empathy
There's a lot of online information that can be educational. However, it can be more difficult to relate to people or world events if we're not physically or emotionally connected. Speak with your teen about empathy, care and compassion by introducing them to the physical world. For example, encourage your child to volunteer at a local charity event or introduce your teen to a community organisation or sporting club.
When we share critical dialogues with our teens, we encourage them to challenge common sense attitudes and assumptions about the world around them. Start now to help your teen gain valuable tools for negotiating future social relations.
About the author:
Dr Jamilla Rosdahl is a gender an interdisciplinary researcher and lecturer in sexuality and gender studies at the University of the Sunshine Coast.