By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S
An alarming new trend has begun to emerge via YouTube. Teens and tween’s have begun posting videos of themselves asking “Am I pretty or not?” These teens are receiving disturbing feedback from the online community. There is a solid mix of responses to these videos ranging from supportive to down right curel, and the shear number of comments posted is staggering.
So the question becomes…”Why?” Why would people do this? Many online writers have been speculating as to the answer to this question. Some say it is simply because they can, while others say this online generation is narcissistic and attention seeking. While I see some validity in those statements, I fear the problem is much more complex.
To answer why a teenager would log onto the internet, create a video asking questions like, “am I pretty?” or “do I look like a fag?,” post said video and then monitor the responses, I believe we need to see the world through the teenager’s eyes. To do so we must think back to our own teenage years, and as heartbreaking as this new trend may be, it’s actually not new at all.
Sure the modality is different. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, or YouTube when I was growing up. The only message board I saw was hung outside my high school cafeteria. While the opportunity to seek out validation from others wasn’t as “at the touch of a button” as it is now, we still managed to do it. We would ask our friends what they thought of us, seek the approval of parents and authority figures, try out for sports teams, fight for a better band chair, and run for student leadership positions. We loved validation, even if we weren’t getting it in the overdoses that it comes in now.
This need to feel wanted and part of the group is also not new, nor do we grow out of it. Acknowledgement from those around us will always feel good. The difference however is how we use that and to what level we are dependent on it. As adults, we have established a pretty solid idea of who we are as people. Most of us know ourselves, what we stand for, and our values and goals. As teenagers, I would doubt that was the case. At least is wasn’t for me. I, like most teens, struggled to carve out my own identity. I wasn’t genuinely happy until I had established my own view of myself, independent from others opinions and judgements on that identity. Teenagers have not yet had that opportunity, and many may not even have the maturity level required for this.
Here’s a little Psychology 101: Eric Erickson created the theory of Life Span Development. He was the first psychologist to suggest that we never really stop growing and maturing. He also endeavored that during our life span we go through stages (it sounds pretty common sense now, but it was kind of a big deal back then). During each stage we are met with a conflict. To move on to the next stage successfully, we must overcome the conflict in a positive way. No worries if this sounds confusing, I’ll explain.
Let’s take the adolescent phase of our development. Erickson would say that during that stage, we are all met with the conflict of identity vs. role confusion. During this stage in our development, life is getting more confusing and complex. We are no longer children having everything done for us, yet we are also not quite adults. This is a time of extreme transition, not only for the teenager but for their parents as well. Knowing how to give your child enough freedom while protecting them at the same time is very difficult for parents. They often don’t understand what their child is going through, and they feel their is a distance between them that was not previously there. That distance you are feeling is the child transitioning into an adult. To do that, they must learn for themselves who they are as individuals.
Developing an independent identity is very hard work. The process can be scary and filled with doubts for these teenagers. Imagine how much easier it is to simply let someone else tell you who you are allowing others to make those difficult decisions for you. That is what many teenagers do. They look to their parents to tell them what role to play. They listen to coaches and teachers tell them the kind of person they are currently. They seek out friends’ opinions of their place in the social hierarchy. That is essentially what we are seeing when we look at the YouTube videos of these teens.
They are people seeking an answer to who they are individually. Are they valuable, are they needed, and are they worthy? They are asking us (the random internet viewing public) because they don’t know themselves. They ask us because no one has taught them how to define themselves on their own. They ask us because they can’t move on until they know.
As parents and community members who effect the lives of these children, we have an opportunity to help them move through this difficult time. We can teach them how to show compassion for themselves. We can model positive behavior and self care. We can ask them probing questions rather than defining answers.
YouTube, Facebook, Tumbler…they are all filled with teenagers looking for who they are and what their place is in society. Social media may have changed how the game of self-development is played, but the rules remain the same.