I just watched the PBS Frontline Generation Like. It was eye-opening in terms of how teens’ “liking” is becoming big business–how what teens call empowerment is really part of a giant corporate marketing strategy. But what I came away thinking about is just how much teens liking is about a desire for self-definition, and to be liked themselves.
Adults are certainly not immune to this. We all want to be liked. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping this post would garner likes, retweets, etc. But my self-esteem, my identity, and my social world aren’t on the line if that doesn’t happen. For teens, though, it can be. And that’s where the danger lies.
So what’s a parent to do?When I was a teenager, I know that I also liked deeply. Finding non-mainstream music, reading zines, wearing my black–all that felt extremely important to me, defining, even. It helped me connect with other people who defined themselves similarly, among other benefits.
So affiliation is one positive aspect of social media, and we don’t want to overlook it. The need to like and be liked is eternal. But what’s scary is the way that need intersects with technology. Teens can actually find out, in more or less real time, whether what they are likable–they can literally count it.
It’s almost like market-testing a personality. What do people like in me? What do people like in others? If I want to be liked, how can I be more like the people who garner the most likes?
When kids get into this cycle young, it can have a pernicious effect on the very formation of personality. That’s why it’s incredibly important that with younger kids, parents are active in knowing what their kids are doing and limiting the amount of time they spend doing it.
Sure, it can seem innocent: They’re trawling around, looking for things to like. Isn’t it better to like than to hate, after all?
But all that time spent finding things to like is time they don’t spend liking real people. It can lead to a superficiality in their friendships: We’re friends because we like the same things! Or it can mean that while they’re actually together, they’re spending their time texting other people or searching social media for things to like.
This means that they’re not as mindful or present in their own lives. And personality formation–true individuality–requires that kind of presence.
With younger kids, you can just set limits. As they get older, it’s important to help them understand in detail why you’re setting those limits. With teenagers, it can be advantageous to discuss your concerns and then they can design the limits along with you.
You might be thinking, “There’s no way my daughter would DESIGN limits! She wants full independence!” But that’s not developmentally true. On some level, teens fear being completely on their own; they do want some parental influence. They just want some say, too.
So what I’d recommend is viewing “Generation Like” with your child, if they’re old enough (so screen it first yourself.) I think that gives your child information on how they’re actually being used by corporations, all while they think they’re expressing their individuality. As one of the participants in the documentary said, the consumers are being turned into promoters.
Help your child consider whether he/she really wants to be a promoter for a corporation, rather than for their own ideas. And when I say “help them consider”, I mean that sincerely. I don’t mean lecture them, or decide the conclusion they need to reach. Use it as fodder for discussion. Raise their awareness.
Then have a separate discussion about what it really means in terms of self-esteem and social connectedness. “When 400 people like your picture, do they in fact like you? What does it mean to have 400 people view you? Who do you consider your true friends? What’s the difference between ‘liking’ and liking? Between being ‘liked’ and being liked?”
This should not be one discussion, by the way, but an ongoing one. I feel like if you can get your teenager to acknowledge that maybe it doesn’t feel good to post pictures of themselves and wait on pins and needles for the verdict of their worthiness to come in, then they’ll next be able to recognize the value of setting limits. Of turning off their phones when they’re with one friend they care deeply about. Of engaging with the world in a deeper, more meaningful way.
But maybe they won’t. Maybe they’re happy with what they’re doing, and then as parents, we’ll need to reflect on our own judgments as to what’s good and what’s bad. Maybe all the liking and being liked isn’t stifling their individuality, their creativity, or their socializing. Maybe it really is empowering to them, and then you need to respect that, regardless of your own biases.
Considering your child as an individual will help them to do the same.
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