By Debby Shulman
Every few months a devastating reminder of why social networking remains the biggest obstacle to teenage self-esteem rears its ugly head. It’s always a variation on the same theme: Otherwise good kids without the maturity to make good choices, post something regretful and barely live to tell the tale. The Scarlet Letter is back; the poor kid is a victim of her own destruction. Little does she know how awful every other young teenage girl feels about her choice, the sisterhood silently mourns the loss of another one’s innocence.
Without intention, Instagram has become the weapon of mass destruction among the little egos of the desperately insecure.
What their immature minds can’t predict is how someone will seek out their mistake, and for their own sick pleasure, blast a screen shot so far out into the stratosphere, there is no forgetting the indiscretion until the next one comes along.
Their underdeveloped frontal lobes don’t register that if you take an inappropriate photo, and someone takes a screen shot – you are Out There.
And Out There is a really scary place to be when you’ve bared more than your soul.
Instagram’s allure lies in its IMMEDIACY – the one thing we try and work through so carefully with our teens. The old saying, “Look before you leap” barely scratches the surface of said potential dangers to reputation and ego. Recognizing the raised bar of attention seeking behavior, we have to keep the conversation louder than the whispering words of a boy begging for a peek.
And I believe the girls have it worse than the boys. Teenage girls are preoccupied with the indulgent and shameless selfie phenomenon. The constant snap and post of their day-to-day lives, pouty-faced, duck-lipped and feigning surprise at the photo they have just snapped of themselves. Just last week, the New York Times ran a great piece on why young ladies have begun taking intentionally “ugly selfies.” Hail to the self-deprecating behavior when the pressure to produce a pretty selfie becomes too great. If you make an ugly face, the response need not hurt so much – after all, it was on purpose, right?
Talk about blurred lines.
So while we think Instagram is fun and games (I truly love seeing ‘Mayfaired’ pictures of my friends’ kids, glamour weather shots, puppies and great food) our kids are using Instagram to communicate their emotions through the lens of a cell phone camera. How distant and vacant can you get?
It’s as if Facebook has become so passé in the effort it takes to compose a post using words, just showing pictures of your joy, desperation, hope and fear speak louder than ordinary communication.
And now we’ve come full circle, because when our kids feel as if they need more attention from an unsavory source that might not have their best interests at heart, they speak through pictures that depict sad, desperate and topless longing; naked emotion, in the simplest of terms.
And perhaps this disconnect in how we use Instagram in contrast to how our teens perceive it, is where the critical discussion must begin. Yeah, yeah, we all follow our kids on Instagram, but do we? There have been plenty of times I have stalked, reprimanded, and had a photo removed per my request. That’s my prerogative: I pay the bill. But there are admittedly times I missed a sad face, a stereotypical, melancholy quote or an attention FOMO seeking photo intended to send a message to someone else. “Look at the fun I’m having now! Bet you wish you were here!” The overused exclamation point hinted at but not used on Instagram; the picture says a thousand words.
Sadly, I think we need to have that conversation earlier. It has become such the norm for our teens; the junior high kids biding time until they can secure a Facebook and Instagram account – long before they are truly ready for the responsibility it bears. Seeing pictures of beautiful girls baring their young bodies hurts too much. Every time another story surfaces and the picture reveals itself to me in the privacy of my dark closet by a 15 year old that cannot bear the embarrassment for someone she doesn’t even know, I realize we have to talk about it again. Those pictures and the images they portray replay over and over in my brain.
Please, please let’s help our girls feel so good about who they are, they never feel they must cave to exposing themselves in order to garner the attention of the one who whispers, “Just this once.”
We need to empower, engage and encourage our teenage girls to withstand the pressure to use their bodies and faces as tools in the unrelenting world of Instagram. We need to strengthen their resolve, boost their ego, and instill the benefits of staying true to their self-worth by controlling the immediate impulse to please someone else.
Instagram is but a moment in time, deleting the evidence of one’s transgression no longer wipes the slate clean.
Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois. She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois. Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Check out her valuable advice.