It's easy to laugh at the endless series of duckfaces, peace signs, and other assorted poses struck in the bathroom-mirror that fill most teenage girls' Facebook feeds. But behind those kissy-faces made into laptop cameras in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon is a something darker: They're always in front of the camera, and, even when it doesn't end in a sexting scandal, it's changing their lives in ways large and small.
Teens have been primping and preening and worrying about what everyone thinks of them since before the word teen even existed, and, in more recent times, crafting public profiles and managing their online image has become yet another way to do that. But the advent of cameras in every piece of technology in the past few years has taken it to another level. Now pictures can be captured of every moment, large and small, and uploaded to Facebook—plus they're constantly available for video chats. This means they're constantly obsessed with how they look because they're always on display.
Randye Hoder wrote about this for the New York Times, and she talked to some girls about how they handle always being camera-ready. An eighth-grader named Grace told her,
Before a video chat, I'll fix my hair and make sure that I look good. If I just got out of the shower and my hair is wet, or I'm wearing my sweats, I'll cover the camera with a Post-it, or I just won't accept the video chat.
A little time off from being on view certainly isn't a bad thing, but what's sad is that she's only willing to present a "fixed up" version of herself to people who are presumably her friends. Jordan, a 13-year-old, gave a more heart-crushing assessment of the situation:
I feel like I have to look good all the time — at school, at parties, at the mall, whenever I am socializing out of the house. I want people to say, "She looks great." I'm not happy if I don't think I look good.
Oh goddd. First of all, that sounds exhausting. But more importantly, it's a shame that so much of this has been boiled down to just how we look. So much thought gets put into how you're coming off at any given second, but what about what comes out of your mouth? Or how you treat other people? Or whether or not your status updates make people think you're funny or kind or goofy or whatever else? You know, the things that actually matter when you have interactions with people in person over the long term.
But it doesn't just stop at passively being seen—they're observing themselves at the same time. They can see how they look during video chats; they can see how they look to everyone else in photos, and it makes them even more aware that they're playing to an audience. What's worse is that now, because of the advent of the insidious "like" button and the ability to comment on photos wherever they're posted, teens live in a world of instant feedback and validation. They put something up, and they learn from the reaction or lack thereof. It becomes a matter of always adapting and honing what they choose to present for maximum impact. And you know where that leads. Here's our friend Grace again:
When I choose my profile picture, I want people to ‘Like,' it. You get more ‘Likes' if it's a model shot and not a goofy picture with your friends.
Sex sells, after all. As another girl said, "If you want a boy to look at you, you do a bikini shot or push your boobs out." Words to live by... And it's not just about one boy, usually, it's about all of them. Lily, a 14-year-old, told Hoder,
Girls don't just want to get ‘Likes' from their close friends. They want to get them from boys, or older kids or kids from other schools who are popular.
It's like a giant online popularity contest with totally quantifiable results. And it can quickly turn into a total nightmare of self-esteem destruction if you're not winning most of the time. Of course, the girls understand there are limits to the game. If you go too sexy, it can backfire. Several of the girls told Hoder they hadn't put a bikini on for their profile pic because they worried it'd give them "a reputation." How old fashioned!
Basically, what these kids are doing is creating a constant stream of ads for themselves. As in any ad, you polish up the product—you don't show what a real Big Mac looks like if you want to sell any of them. And so the girls create some version of themselves that is meant to be totally "like"-able, and, not only does this drive them to become sexualized more quickly, it also means their sense of self-worth becomes wrapped up in whether or not the whole internet is buying what they're "selling." How's that for a depressing thought?
And, as Hoder points out, this kind of stuff is lower down the list of parental worries than, say, drug use and actual sex. But that doesn't mean it doesn't take its toll, both on the girls, and on minor things like the future of our civilization. My God. Is it too late to just undo all of this technology? I mean, it'd be nice to keep some of the stuff, like air-conditioning and email, but when you think about the ways it's reshaping the brains of kids and making us all so superficial and fucked up, it's hard not to think we've made some serious error along the way. At the very least, maybe we need an age limit to be able to use technology—like with drinking and voting and porn? Yeah, if only. Well, I guess if we can't undo it, we might as well do our best to enjoy the new reality. Quick, make a duckface. You're on camera!
For Teenage Girls, Facebook Means Always Being Camera-Ready [New York Times]
Image via Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock.