A couple of weeks ago I came across something on the internet that made my heart and my head hurt. It made me hurt for the awkward, unpopular, misunderstood, lost teenage girl that I was oh so many years ago, and it made me hurt for all the awkward, unpopular, misunderstood, and lost teenage girls that are doing this THING today.. The thing I am talking about is a YouTube phenomenon called, " Am I Pretty or Ugly?". Girls, many of them young teenagers, upload a video of themselves and ask the collective opinion of the brutally honest (read: cruel) YouTube commenters to tell them if they are, you guessed it, pretty or ugly.
I am simultaneously saddened that hundreds of girls are doing this (There are almost 600,000 results when you search for "am I pretty or ugly" on Youtube) and I am curious as to how this phenomenon differs from our culture of sharing/oversharing/liking/+1'ing/RTing and so on that we do everyday on all our various social media sites. If you really think about this, have we actually progressed that far from that insecure teenager looking for some kind of validation?
And if we are also being brutally honest here and the answer is not really, then why is that?
We post multiple different kinds of selfies all over the internet. We post pictures of cakes we have baked and delicious meals we have prepared. We post before and after pictures of our house cleaning. We post pictures of our fancy new nail polish application. We post our #NewDo pics. We post our sweaty faces after a good workout. And then we wait. We wait for the validation of our efforts. We wait for the likes, the <3, the fancy emoticon hearts. We wait for the comments. We wait to be told from friends and strangers alike that, "Yes, yes indeed, you are pretty, talented, organized, creative, sparkly, strong, brilliant, hilarious!" We would all be lying through our teeth if we didn't admit to feeling that validation, that sense of "they like me, they really, really LIKE me" every time there is a new like or comment or favourite or RT on any of the different ways we broadcast ourselves each and every day.
I think we are all guilty of doing a bit of the "am I pretty or ugly" game. We just frame it differently now that we are grown-ups and are, of course, fully confident in ourselves and our lives (ha!). For the most part, we also choose our audience better too (although I suppose this is debatable depending on your followers or friends lists).
Is it any wonder that our children are now using these tools and these sites to seek validation about themselves? Think of the examples we are setting for them all the time. We record all of their special moments and tell ourselves that we are going to go home and make a wonderful video montage of their lives for posterity and what do we do instead? We upload it to Vine or Instagram or Facebook and wait for the "OMG!! So much CUTENESS!!!" comments. We lose the pure thrill of the moment and wait for the thrill of "sharing" that moment with everyone else. We are essentially showing our children that they exist for others entertainment, for mommy and daddy to broadcast to the world and we are telling them that the internet gets a say in their lives. So, it begs the question then, why wouldn't they then take control of this into their own hands once they are able to and seek that validation on their own?
Look, I am not trying to be a hypocrite. I post A LOT of pictures and videos of my kids online. As they get older though, I am becoming more and more aware of how this can and WILL affect them in the future. They will see their photos on the internet and they will see the comments. They will see MY comments and they will read what others have said about them too, the good and the bad.
Something in all of this brings me back to what I learned from Gordon Neufeld last year at his "Raising Kids in a Digital Age" lecture. I went back and had a look at my notes and his slides and found the one I was thinking about.
Dr. Neufeld calls this diagram the "roots of attachment". These roots are the things that all children, all human beings, need to feel like they belong, that they are loved, that they have a strong home base that they are attached to. It's our job as parents to provide all of these things, to ensure that these "roots" have a good strong hold in the ground before the "plant" can grow to its full potential. Yet if you take a closer look at all of these things, most of them can be associated with or superficially fulfilled by one form of Social Media or another. Contact and connection - Friend Request and Follow. Approval and significance - LIKE and RT. Belonging and loyalty - Groups and Lists and Circles. Warmth and Love - comments and <3 and :-) faces!
Listen, you don't have to be a renowned child psychologist to figure out that the internet in all its glorious connectivity, is actually removing us from true human connection and attachment. That in our attempts to give our children all they need to be independent and "successful" in this world, we are actually letting them loose into a world that, for the most part, does not CARE about their best interests, that can and will judge them anonymously for every flaw and every wrinkle in the pattern of their being. Unless we really start to think about how we are raising our children (and how we ourselves are behaving and using Social Media) in this digital age, we are running the risk that our children will see themselves through the distorted and superficial lens of something that, try as they might (through asking questions like "Am I pretty or ugly?) will never fill up their basic human need for connection and attachment and a true sense of self-worth.
I realize that Youtube and social media and the internet are not going anywhere. I just hope that I am setting a good example for my children about how to use it responsibly and also making sure that overall, the roots of their budding trees are getting all the watering and nutrients that they need to thrive in this world, both online and off.
*For more information about the 'Am I pretty or ugly?' phenomenon, check out the website and project that performance artist Louise Orwin has started about it.