Last Sunday my Grade 6 son went with a friend’s family to a Vancouver Whitecaps game. It was his first time at a professional soccer match. Before going, he asked if he could borrow one of our cellphones so that he could post game shots on Instagram. Pretty harmless entertainment and nice for him to be able to share a new experience with his friends in real time. He went, he clicked, he posted. In doing so he was part of an Instagram network of almost 700 million users who post almost 100 million photos a day. Having had a Blackberry for 20 years (which, until my new KeyOne, took the world’s blurriest pictures) I never got into Instagram. My Twitter habits keep me quite busy enough and, besides, my life really isn’t interesting enough to share globally! But for many of our students, Instagram is an on-going visual conversation through which they keep their friends constantly close at hand (or in their hip pockets!) Should we be concerned? Maybe.
Lost in all of the public conversation about cyber-bullying is the fact that people in general (students, parents and educators) do a generally lousy job of communicating electronically. Cyber-bullying is, in essence, an extreme form of our day to day, cyber-foolishness. Over the years I have arranged countless sessions for students centring on the very public nature of “private” communication on the internet. We explained to them just how exposed they really were in their emails, texting, tweets, and especially on social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. What they were beginning to grasp was that the actual audience for their comments was far broader than their intended one. Instagrammers, for example, quite regularly cut and paste or forward personal images and comments to people who were never intended to see or read them. And, once they are hung out there on the line for everyone to see, it is virtually (and physically!) impossible to reel them back in. After much discussion and sharing of experiences, I had begun to feel like the kids were getting it, and in some small way maybe we were helping them to self-edit what they were willing to share with the world. Having said all of that, I feel now that I may have missed the mark and in fact, all of these years I have been directing my efforts at the wrong target (or rather at only one of our at-risk groups). And also, perhaps, misreading their motivation for sharing.
Last May, the U.K.-based Royal Society for Public Health recently named Instagram and snapchat the worst social media apps for mental health. Its study of almost 1,500 Britons ages 14 to 24 found that young people were most likely to associate Instagram with negative mental well-being and feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. The report observed:
“Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.”
The crux of the problem seems to be one of self-image. Instagram users are bombarded with images of people wearing the right clothes, travelling to exotic places, and taking part in cool events. Vicariously sharing the “great” lives that other people appear to be enjoying, children and young adults can often self-amplify their own feelings of inadequacy as they reflect on the boring or mundane nature of their day to day existence. While most of us can sit back and recognize the basic disconnect of what people are posting from “real” life, for others those lines are blurred or non-existent. A recent story in the New York Post highlighted the case of a young woman (26) who had run up debts of over $10,000 in order to create an online personna on Instagram. She bought high-end clothes she didn’t need, took trips to exotic locales that she couldn’t afford and tried to cultivate an image that she couldn’t maintain. Now, six months later, she is broke, in debt, and somewhat wiser.
With a casual search I found a number of coaching sites that instruct neophyte users how to have the greatest impact and build their personal brand and “story”. One even shared the optimum days and times to post to reach the widest audience (hint: more than half of the times are between 10 pm and 3 am – are you still wondering why your child is on their device late at night?)
A study published five years ago by the American Psychological Association concluded that millennials were almost twice as fixated on wealth and fame as baby boomers were a half a century ago. Online platforms have become the medium to generate celebrity and, for students in B.C., Instagram is the vehicle of choice.
At present, my son is far more interested in hockey and baseball than in Instagram and Snapchat and so now is probably the time to gently monitor his habits and become one of his Instagram followers. It’s kind of for my own protection, because if in the future he begins to post about haute cuisine or high-end travel, he’ll probably be using my credit card to pay for it!