This article was first published 3/28/2013 by NewSavvyProduction.
“Hey guys. I just wanted to ask – just a random question. Uhmm. Am I – like – ugly or pretty?”
– You don’t have to dig deep into online archives to find a whole pageantry of kids as young as 10 years old unloading their most personal angst for complete strangers to comment on. And the more insecure they appear, the more likely they seem to attract trolls whose dubious netiquette allows them to filter through comments of this type: “DONT WANT TO SOUND MEAN BUT URE A F***ING DOG.” (censoring added). In other words, the ones who most desperately need reassurance from their faceless peers are the ones who are the most likely get bulldozed by the ‘Haters’. And rarely do any respondents care to unmask the more existential questions that simmer immediately underneath the Snow White narrative: “Am I likeable? Am I loveable?”
Not that adolescents objectifying themselves in their quests to seek outside validation is anything new. Or that the harsh words or painful ostracism that often ensue are new either. Poisoned apples will stick around for as long as our gene code is imprinted with biological competitiveness. The newness lies within the ever-evolving technologies that dissolve the natural obstacles that once stood in between vitriolic gossip and our own feeble minds. And the new cultures that coevolved with it. Reality shows and social networks put forward the idea that any personal matter can, and maybe should, be presented for the unequivocal judgment of the swarm. Facilitated by binary codes and wifi connections, a modern oracle has emerged, providing immediate feedback in the form of sometimes socially distanced, yet globally visible rank scores. Or as Bliss Hanlin phrases it: “Who am I?” is a perennial favorite for tweens and teens, but this generation seems to be trading introspection for crowd-sourcing, letting strangers’ comments be the mirror that reflects self.
Facebook ‘likes’. Thought SMO (social media optimization) was a job title confined to the world of business marketers? Think again. If there ever were a skill that is the most inversely correlated age it must be social media marketing. (Hmm, maybe I should hire a Gen Z’er to do business outreach for me..) For teens “likes” are directly correlated with social status, and they go through great lengths to optimize it. Beyond pouty mouths and hairdos are shrewd strategies in network building. Some kids will sit up until close to midnight to approach best timing of their profile picture uploads. Others are forming “tagging agreements” with friends (tagging is also timed) to make sure each picture gets maximum exposure on the newsfeed and receive the most likes. Not to mention all the Facebook pages of the type “Prettiest Tween” and “Most Beautiful Teenager” – internet’s unmoderated beauty contests for young users. Good luck keeping your self-confidence intact if all you receive is 28 likes and nasty comments from pubertal misogynists.
So while we parents may deride Honey Boo Boo’s mom, many of us remain oblivious to our own daughters’ vanity contests online. And the pillory of alpha queens, mean girls and internet trolls. For some of them the road from pageantry to Tumblr’s self-harm chambers might be short.
It is indeed ironic that these days when children are more sheltered and protected as ever, they are also exposed to some of the most sinister influences of modern technology. Compared to the iPad, maybe roller derby isn’t so dangerous after all.
Images: Flickr, Facebook (Note: mages have been altered)