by Tara Stamm, Ph.D.
When I was growing up in the mid-nineties, I collected pieces of my self-esteem off the cigarette littered sidewalk where smokers discussed their latest SAT score, the parties they attended, and the blisters caused by their newest pair of Doc Martens. At that time, my self-esteem was a pathetic collection of opinions from the people in my immediate circle. My parents had a pretty low opinion of me—smoking, skipping school, and kissing boys definitely did not help. My friends were nineties burnouts who had nothing kind to say about society or each other. However, my brothers had different ideas about me—thank goodness. The youngest thought I looked “like a princess” every time I left the house; the one closest to my age thought I was decent enough to put on a club door guestlist. I was seen by my siblings, and probably thanks to this I survived adolescence—self-esteem intact.
Compare my 90’s version of adolescent self-esteem to now; the scope of self-esteem, or individuals’ attitudes about themselves, in adolescence has evolved (Bailey, 2003). This is demonstrated in a Facebook, now Meta, research team’s study—which actually wasn’t publicly released but was exposed by internal whistleblower and data scientist, Frances Haugen (Pelley, 2021). Like other research in this field—found here, here, and here—the finding was that Generation Z adolescents piece together their self-esteem from the thousands likes, follows, and mentions on their social networking platforms. Oof. This is definitely worse than a few nineties grunge kids offering a marijuana clouded perspective on my outfit.
While growing up in the age of social media, Generation Z constructs their self-esteem by integrating the opinion of thousands of people into an identity. Except there’s a twist. If you’ve spent even 30 minutes on social media, you know that opinions diverge quickly, and that consensus is a joke. There’s no way to form a stable identity from a place that’s a rapidly changing dissensus. So, it’s no wonder that the identity that adolescents are forming is anxious, depressed, and unable to sleep. The whiplash is real.
According to Carl Rogers, the self-concept is made up of three parts: ideal self (who you want to be), self-image (how you see yourself), and self-esteem (how much you like and accept yourself) (McLeod, 2014). If a child feels at any point that they have to earn love, they may end up with low self-esteem. Social media complicates how adolescents build their self-concepts which influence their self-esteem. It adds another layer onto previously studied identity theories like identity theory (IT)—which explores how individuals organize concepts about themselves and how they enact those concepts in social settings to receive real-time feedback on their self-concepts–and social identity theory (SIT)—how intergroup association and comparison impacts who an individual is and how they act (Stets & Burke 2000;Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995).
Teens no longer build their self-concepts based solely on how others, like parents, siblings, and their homeroom teacher perceive them. Likewise, immediate, in-person group associations no longer completely define teens’ generalized social identity. This self-concept construction can occur digitally through social media platforms. Social identities could be based on what online groups adolescents follow rather than which clubs they are in.
Even the platforms themselves could have a part in how adolescents view themselves through data collection. Using patterns in the data, built-in algorithms categorize users into different groups, and social media researchers can use these algorithms and data to decide who gets to see different types of promoted content. Haugen’s exposed study revealed that the algorithms apps create from this data serve to amplify adolescents’ insecurities—this was especially apparent in teenage girls. For example, if an adolescent happened to be struggling with their skin, Instagram could pick up on this based on their activity within the app. Taking note of this, Instagram would then push ads for skin creams and toners to reduce the “appearance of acne” on that individual's feed. Sometimes these ads can even use dramatized images to sell these products—you have seen these; those zits are other worldly.
Haugen’s warning is that powerful social platforms like Instagram and companies like Meta are making profits knowing that their products are harming young people. And? Lots of companies, not just Meta, make a multitude of money by diminishing individuals’ collective self-regard. But, put away the pitchforks and unclasp your pearls. Look at the kids, who are overall alright, and tell them, “I understand the need to create and construct an identity with the available online tools. But let’s see if we can use these tools in a way that will reduce harm and increase creativity. Let’s do this together.”
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