Social media: many teenagers grew up with it. Facebook, SnapChat and Instagram slowly became an important part of their daily lives. As an 18-year-old respondent mentioned during our interview: “Though it might sound sad, I think it’s true; I’m pretty sure we can’t live without it anymore.”
It is fascinating that many people are willing to share their lives on social media; sometimes even strangers are allowed to see what users are doing at a particular moment. I saw many of my friends (mostly girls) being constantly active on popular sites like Facebook or Instagram. This made me wonder about the influence of social media on their lives. If it plays such a big role in their everyday lives, then what is its impact on, for example, their self-esteem? Perhaps they experience insecurities when they don’t get rewarding feedback from peers when posting something on their profile, or they feel the need to change their behaviour and appearances when seeing beautiful pictures from other girls. How important is it for teenage girls to represent themselves well to others? Are others’ opinions important for them?
Social media such as Facebook are often perceived as an environment that provides social support and positive reinforcement (PsychCentral, 2016). But what are the downsides to these platforms? What happens when people do have bad experiences with it, such as negative interactions? What are the risks of using it? In this paper, I am specifically interested in young teenage girls in the age category of 16-19 years. To what extent do they feel pressure due to social media? And are the younger girls more likely to struggle with insecurities, or conversely, are the older girls more sensitive to that?
My first reason for focusing on this particular group, is that teenage girls can be seen as a vulnerable group. The teenage years are crucial for girls in developing an identity of their own. This process of forming an identity can be a difficult one. As Ollech and McCarthy (1997) point out, girls experience a greater increase in anxiety, conflict, shame and self-doubt when faced with choice, in comparison with boys. Besides, we often hear stories that the internet can be a dangerous place for these girls. Not only because they can get in touch with people they don’t even know, but also because of the fact that that they might experience bullying, misunderstandings and meanness. But is this even true, according to these girls? Maybe they don’t see any dangers at all.
Secondly, this group is most active on various forms of social media. According to CBS, the Dutch Bureau of Statistics, girls spend much more time on social media than boys. So, for many young girls, social media play an important role in their lives. Another important conclusion was that most girls are very sensitive to rewarding feedback from peers; much more sensitive than boys (CBS, 2015). In my research I examined whether it is really true that their self-esteem gets a little boost when they receive many comments or likes on a picture or video posted on their profile. And whether it makes them feel insecure when they get negative comments, or whether this doesn’t bother them at all. Another question I wished to examine is how they respond to perfect pictures of good-looking models, so-called ‘fitgirls’ and celebrities. There might be a potential influence of social media on girls’ body dissatisfaction, because of the fact that they compare themselves to these models and celebrities.
Finally, I am part of this specific group myself. So I think it would be interesting to find out what girls who are (more or less) of the same age think and feel about the power of social media. In this paper I will describe teenage girls’ experiences and perceptions of social media. How do they act and feel, when they are (not) happy with the amount of attention they received on a particular post? How do they respond to positive and/or negative comments? I will also describe how they respond to the constant exposure to beautiful pictures of others.
To collect my data, I interviewed five teenage girls. I wanted to get in touch with girls of different ages, to see if there are differences between them, so eventually I interviewed 16-year-old Emily (I use pseudonyms to guarantee their anonymity), 17-year-old Monique, 18-year-old Nina, 19-year old Hanah and 19-year-old Sophie. Emily and Nina live in a city; the other respondents live in a close-knit village. All the interviews took about 30 to 40 minutes. I wanted the interviews to take place in a private setting, so I invited my respondents to my place or I went to theirs, if they asked me to. I was able to do so, because I selected respondents whom I already knew. As this can be considered a sensitive topic, I made sure no other people were in the same room during the interview, in order to create a setting in which they felt comfortable to talk freely. I tried to let them tell me a story about their experiences, and not to interrupt. While I had prepared some questions beforehand, I chose not to work through these questions, but tried to have a natural conversation with my respondents. I think that it was to the benefit of my research that I already knew my respondents, because sometimes it is more difficult to talk to a stranger about personal insecurities or feelings, than to talk about this to someone they already know.
I noticed that most of the girls found it an interesting topic to talk about, because social media is indeed an important part of their daily lives. Every day, they spend much time checking their Timeline. I was slightly shocked by what my 17-year-old respondent said. She admitted, while giggling, that social media is a very important part of her daily life: she spends four hours a day on social media. Her giggling made me think she was a little ashamed to admit that. Surprisingly, as it seems contradictory, this was also the girl who felt that social media has no influence whatsoever on her actions, thoughts and feelings. During the interviews I further noticed that, after the introduction and some easy and common questions, once I started to ask sensitive questions (for example about their insecurities and their self-esteem) some of my respondents, especially those I didn’t know very well, at first started to act a little detached. Some of them tried, for example, to avoid those questions. This reaction is of course understandable, and I had expected it beforehand. Therefore, I prepared vignette questions, in order to circumvent possible unease about sensitive issues. I told them to imagine a certain situation, and asked what they would do, or how they would feel if something like that happened to them. I noticed that it was easier for my respondents to answer these kinds of questions honestly, than answering questions which were about events that happened to them in ‘real life’. This method certainly helped to obtain information about situations which were considered awkward and painful.
‘How do you represent yourself?”
The first question I asked all my respondents, was what kind of platforms of social media they currently use. It turned out that all of them used Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. Second, I asked them how much time they spend on social media per day. How active are they exactly? What stood out to me, was the fact that social media play a bigger role in the lives of the younger girls; they spend much more time checking their timeline than the older girls I interviewed. For example, while 17-year-old Monique admitted that she’s active on social media about four hours a day, 16-year-old Emily said she checks her timeline about 3 hours a day. I see a significant difference when I compare this to the social media use of 18-year-old Nina, 19-year-old Sophie and 19-year-old Hanah; they all told me that they are active on social media for about 1,5 hours a day.
I was also curious what my respondents exactly post on social media. So I asked them if they only post pictures and video’s, or whether they also ‘inform’ their friends and followers what keeps them busy, and how they live their lives. In other words: in what way do they represent themselves to others? Most respondents answered that they only post pictures or videos. I also asked them what kind of pictures and videos they post on their profile. How do they want others to see them? Do they, for example, only upload pictures, videos or posts of nice and pleasant events in their lives? By ‘nice and pleasent events’ I mean, for example, pictures of themselves when having fun at a party, or enjoying a vacation. It is also possible that they do not only post pictures of nice events, but also show others their activities on a regular day. The former seemed the case with most of my respondents. As 19-year-old Sophie said:
“I only post pictures of special occasions and nice events. When I’m going out with my friends for example. You want others to think you’re living a nice life. Or at least, I do.”
This idea of ‘showing others you’re living a nice life’, can be linked to Erving Goffman’s theory about the Presentation of the Self (Ritzer, 2014). People try to influence (and even manipulate) other people’s opinions about them. They want to impress others and in order to do so, they try to present themselves in a good way. They are performing, and therefore constantly play roles, sometimes even try to show characteristics which they don’t even have. This is called ‘impression management’: they want others to like them, and so they modify (consciously and unconsciously) their behaviour according to the real or imagined audience (Ritzer, 2014). This can also explain why many girls edit their photo by, for instance, applying an effect to it, or using a filter; to make it look more beautiful than it really is, in order to make a good impression on other people. This brings me to my next concept.
‘What do you think of my picture?’
Although not all girls mentioned it explicitly, I noticed that most of them found other people’s opinions very important. Some of them explained that they sometimes ask their friends’ opinions before posting a picture or video on social media. They said they think very well before posting a picture or video, because they have to be completely sure about it. They don’t want others to talk about them behind their backs. They want social approval. As 19-year old Hanah said during our interview:
“I don’t want to be the talk of the town. That’s why I never post ‘risky’ pictures, like selfies, or other photos of myself. I don’t want others to think I’m full of myself or something. Typically, I only post pictures with my friends, and I only post it when I’m completely sure I look nice on it. I try to avoid gossip and negative stereotypes.”
These concerns can be linked to the problem of social pressure. In order to be accepted, and to be part of a group, individuals have to live up to certain expectations and judgements. If they fail to do so, there is a chance that they will be rejected by other members of the group. They can be excluded, and therefore no longer be part of the group; they become outsiders (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). This also relates to larger debates in youth cultures studies on the relevance of ‘sense of belonging’; whether people see themselves as part of a group, scene, community or subculture, to be part of a certain group entails living up to certain expectations. People want to form an identity of their own, and be able to distinguish themselves from people from other (sub)groups. They want to show who they are and what is valuable to them.
One interesting finding of my research is that there seemed to be much more anxiety for exclusion and gossip with the respondents who live in a close-knit community. I saw clear differences among the respondents who live in a village, where everybody knows one another, compared with the respondents who live in a city. This anxiety for exclusion and gossip resulted from the strong social cohesion and social control in these communities. During the interviews, the respondents who live in a close-knit village talked more about gossip and stereotypes than Nina and Emily, who live in a city. Hanah, and the other respondents who live in a village, told me that they don’t want others to talk about them. This, for them, is a strong reason to be careful about their social media performance. They only post a picture when they are completely sure about it. The two respondents who live in a city did not even bring up this topic. Thus, feelings of anxiety differ among my respondents, depending on the community they live in.
This made me realize even more that the expectations of people close to a person determine (in a certain way) how one behaves – whether in real life or on social media – and what kind of behaviour is or is not considered permissible in a specific context. The difference I noticed corresponds to Elias and Scotson’s argument in The Established and the Outsiders, in which they analyse the differences between two communities. The one is a close-knit community, in which everyone knows each other (comparable to the village); the other community, or ‘zone’ as they describe it, is completely different, as people with many different ‘roots’ live here. There is no such thing as social cohesion in the latter type of community (comparable to a big city); many people don’t even know each other, and they all have different values. According to Elias and Scotson (1994), this accounts for the difference in the amount of gossip in these two zones, and also what social control can accomplish.
‘Can you like my picture, please?’
What I also tried to find out, is how the girls respond to the number of likes and comments they get. Is it really important to them, to have many likes on a post? And do they delete their post when this is not the case? 19-year-old Sophie came with an interesting answer to this question:
“I don’t think it is very important that you get as many likes as possible on a picture you post on Social Media. Like what is the difference when you have 60 or 70 likes? Nothing. But when I get less than 10 likes, I’m asking my friends if they want to like my picture. Like, otherwise it’s kind of shameful. But I would never delete it, once I have posted it. Then everybody has seen it already. That’s even more embarrassing.”
Most of my respondents, irrespective of their age, had more or less the same opinion about this; getting many likes is nice, but it is not their main goal. It is not an obsession for them to get as many likes as possible. But, like Sophie also mentioned, getting almost no likes at all on a post is kind of embarrassing. Sophie told me that she has a way to fix this problem. She sometimes asks her friends for ‘help’. She does this, to avoid ‘these awkward and embarrassing situations’. So she asks her friends to help her (by liking her picture) in order to not make her look like someone ‘who doesn’t have an interesting life’, as she puts it. This made clear to me that Facebook is not just about individual self-presentation. Actually, real-life friends can help with one’s self-presentation. So what I found is that in order to impress others, some girls ask their friends to ‘help’ them. In this way, these friends enable them to present themselves in a ‘better’ way.
Getting few likes or comments can also be a learning process. They wouldn’t post a similar picture in the future, because then it is clear to them that others don’t pay much attention to these kind of posts. As 17-year-old Monique explained to me:
“I’m definitely sure that I wouldn’t take the risk again, if such a situation [getting few likes] occurs. I just wouldn’t post such a picture again.’
The same applies to the number of followers on Instagram, or friends on Facebook; it is not that they very badly want to reach thousands of people; they just want to keep in touch with people they know. However, they think it is nice and interesting to have many followers, and a bit painful (and embarrassing) to have only a few followers. This is just ‘not done’, as 17-year-old Monique claimed. In other words: having many friends, followers or likes is not considered necessary, but still it is important to them, because having few is perceived as embarrassing.
Apparently, young people don’t want to feel ashamed. Shame is considered an ugly, negative and painful emotion; an emotion that we often try to avoid (Kristjánsson,2014). When I asked my respondents indirectly (by using a vignette question) if their ego, or self-esteem gets a little boost when they receive many likes or comments, all of them said yes. Sophie mentioned during our conversation: “You get an idea of how other people look at you at that particular moment”. Self-esteem, as Gray and Bjorklund (2014) explain, is one’s feeling of approval, acceptance and liking oneself. They illustrate that we experience self-esteem as deriving from our own judgements about ourselves, but these judgements actually derive primarily from our perceptions of others’ attitudes toward us (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). This could explain why getting many likes, or positive comments, could be valuable for these young girls. They develop certain perceptions and images of others’ attitudes towards them. And when they get many likes and positive comments on a post, they get the idea that others like them, or find them interesting. This could give their self-esteem a boost, and could help them with developing a confident attitude (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). But what happens when they get negative comments? How do they feel about that? How do they fix those situations?
I asked the girls to imagine a situation in which they received a negative comment from a friend on a picture. I asked them a vignette question: what would they do? And how would they feel? Most of them answered that they wouldn’t delete it, except when it’s too embarrassing, and don’t want others to see it. Almost all of my respondents answered that they would feel a little uncomfortable, and some of them answered that they even would feel a little insecure. 16-year-old Emily describes:
“I wouldn’t delete it, but I think, depending of course on how ‘bad’ this reaction is, that it can make me feel a little insecure, especially when I wasn’t really sure about that picture or video in the first place. And besides, I really think it depends on who posted that comment. When it is, for instance, not a friend but someone else I don’t know very well; that would make it even more awkward.”
What I also found interesting (and didn’t know before I started this research) is that some of my respondents think carefully about whose picture on Social Media they like and whose not; they have a so called ‘like-strategy’ (an exception of this is 16-year-old Emily, she told me she likes everything she sees). So it is not the case that they only like pictures they actually enjoy. Like Monique explained to me:
“I only like posts of people I know personally, sometimes even without really enjoying it. I just think they deserve those likes. And maybe they will like your picture ‘back’ in the future, as some kind of return. I never like posts of famous people. Like, I think that feels useless; they already have so many likes. You don’t make a difference or something.”
This made me aware of the fact that girls do want to achieve something with their ‘like-strategy’; they use it as some sort of ‘agency’. Like Monique mentioned, she wants to make a difference, so she only likes posts of people she knows personally, who actually ‘need’ it. 18-year-old Nina also told me about this:
“I never like, or post a comment on a picture of someone I don’t like. Those people just don’t deserve it, even if their picture is very beautiful. But when I see a post of one of my friends, I almost immediately like it; that is just what friends do, you know. Besides, I know that they also like my picture most of the time, so I just feel like I have to do that.”
This ‘like-strategy’ reminded me of a psychological phenomenon; the reciprocity norm. As Gray and Bjorklund (2014) explain: “people everywhere feel obliged to return favors. This norm is so ingrained that people may even feel driven to reciprocate favors that they didn’t want in the first place” (p. 555-556). As someone likes these girls’ pictures, they feel kind of obliged to like their picture ‘back’, as some kind of favor.
Models and celebrities
I also wanted to find out what happens when girls are constantly exposed to pictures of good-looking girls. This could be models, but also celebrities, or ‘fitgirls’. Maybe their style inspires them. What is the influence of those pictures on their behaviour and their body satisfaction? Do they try to copy them in a certain way? And what happens when these girls compare themselves to others who live a ‘better’ life? Perhaps this comparison could lead to changing their actions. Or do they become, at a certain point, painfully aware of their own situation?
I realized that many girls mentioned that those pictures of videos of fitgirls give them motivation. What stood out to me, was the fact that older respondents (18 en 19 years old) admitted that they do feel the influence of these pictures and videos. This was different with my 16-year-old and my 17-year-old respondents. 16-year-old Emily even told me that she doesn’t even ‘follow’ all those models en celebrities, and 17-year-old Monique told me that those images don’t bother her at all.
Some of my older respondents catch themselves, sometimes unconsciously, comparing themselves to famous girls like Kylie Jenner or Gigi Hadid, and sometimes even (although they realize it is impossible) try to copy them. 19-year-old Hanah said:
“Of course I know that I can’t afford their way of life, but I do think it is nice to see how they live their lives. Sometimes their style inspires me. Then I think: wow, I want that too.”
She is realistic, and immediately says that she is aware of the fact that she won’t be able to copy them; she can’t afford to do so. She is well aware of her situation. But, as she added, that doesn’t mean that she also wouldn’t copy them if she did have the resources; then she probably would act the same as them. 18-year-old Nina admitted that those girls inspire her:
“I do think I see those famous girls as some kind of role model, because I definitely feel some influence. They give me new ideas, about clothing, or make-up for example. But also those fitgirls; I want to look the same as them, so sometimes I watch the videos they post on their profile, and then I try to copy their sport exercises.”
Nina admits that those pictures and videos of good-looking girls do have an influence on her body (dis)satisfaction; she isn’t completely satisfied with her own body, because her goal is to look as good as them. Thus, late teenagers are still very sensitive to those images on social media. Beforehand, I would expect it to be the other way round; it seemed more likely to me that the younger girls were more sensitive for these images on social media. I had this idea because these young girls still have to form an identity of their own. Besides, I thought that they would be less realistic and more sensitive to this kind of images. One reason for this surprising outcome could be, that the older respondents are more likely to compare themselves to famous girls like Kylie Jenner or Gigi Hadid because these models are more or less the same age as them. They see that other girls their age live their lives completely different (with much more glamour). This does impress them; some of them even want to copy those models. This in contrast to the younger girls, who told me that those images don’t bother them at all. Maybe the younger girls are more focused on themselves and their own life stage right now. Perhaps they will also experience these feelings of pressure when they get a little older.
All the girls I interviewed during my research told me that it makes them feel good when they receive many comments on a post on social media. They do appreciate it when people make an effort to post a positive comment on their post. They explained to me that their self-esteem does get a little boost, because they think it is important that others like them. Some of them even found it important that others think they’re living a nice life. The same applies for the number of likes they get; it is nice to have many likes on a post, and a little awkward to have almost no likes at all. Sometimes, in order to avoid those awkward situations, they even ask their friends to like their picture. This feeling of awkwardness, which most of my respondents get when they receive only a few likes on a post, would prevent them from posting a similar post in the future. This made me aware of the fact that many young teenage girls find others’ opinions about them very important. They want to be socially approved. As a result, some girls think carefully before they post a picture on their profile. They have to be completely sure that they look nice on it.
Furthermore, most girls think it is kind of painful when they receive negative comments from peers. It is even more embarrassing when these comments come from people they do not know very well. So in this sense, they sometimes do experience insecurities due to social media. Still, most of them wouldn’t delete these comments, except when it is too embarrassing, and they don’t want others to see it. Many girls also talked about a ‘like-strategy’. It turned out that they think carefully whose picture they like, and whose not. Most of the time they only like pictures of people who, according to them, ‘deserve’ their like. And of course they hope that these people will like their picture ‘back’ in the future, as some kind of return. It was also interesting to find a difference between respondents who live in a close-knit village, and respondents who live in a city. Those who live in a village talked more about the risk of gossip and exclusion, than those who live in a city.
I do think, when hearing the stories of these teenage girls (and observing their attitudes and facial expressions while talking) that social media, sometimes without them realizing it, does have an impact on their self-esteem, and their need for approval by others. However, the extent of this social media influence differs among my respondents. And interestingly, an unexpected finding was that the older girls I spoke with told me that they sometimes do feel pressure, or experience insecurities because of the fact that they’re constantly exposed to all those beautiful pictures. Some of them explained that those images of fitgirls give them motivation to work out hard; they want to look the same as them. In this sense, social media does have an influence on their body (dis)satisfaction. Some of them also mentioned that pictures of models and celebrities inspire them. They try for instance to copy their clothing or hair style. However, they were aware of the fact that they couldn’t live their lives in the same way as those girls, whom they sometimes even see as their ‘role model’. This stands in striking contrast with the answers of the younger respondents, who told me that they hardly feel the need to change their behaviour due to social media exposure, while they spend much more time on social media than the older girls. However, they did admit that they sometimes experience insecurities due to social media.
In conclusion, I think we should all be aware of the potential impact of social media. This research made me aware of the fact that girls, who are more or less the same age as me, can experience a huge amount of pressure, sometimes without even realizing it. Because they have access to many different websites, they are constantly exposed to all those pictures. And what happens when they become very insecure, because of the negative feedback they receive from their peers? We should not underestimate the influence of this phenomenon, not only the lives of young teenage girls, but on many other people as well.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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