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The Developmental Need to Feel 'Seen' and Social Media

I recently read an article from Screenagers Filmmaker Delaney Ruston, MD that got me thinking. It was titled "TikTok and The High of an Audience" and posed some interesting questions about what youth get out of massive numbers of followers and views on social media. Teens say (getting views and likes) makes them feel appreciated and being seen feels good. If so many people see what they post, it implies that what they are doing is worth the other person’s time — and that can feel great. 

During adolescence, along with body changes comes major brain development. Youth begin asking some huge questions: Who Am I? Do I matter? What do I have to offer? Do people like me?  Am I enough? They answer these questions typically based on input from others. This can become the foundation for their self-confidence and self-worth. When validation comes from others and not from within changes with it can be devastating. 

When we repeatedly compliment youth on their appearance, they answer those huge identity questions with all the wrong answers: I am someone people like to look at. I have my looks to offer. I matter more when people see me as beautiful. 

Real beauty is what you show with your words, your actions, and your fun and cool qualities. Our kids deserve to learn this important lesson earlier in life, and a good place to start is to change the way we notice them. 

Delaney shared two stories of teens that make for a good conversation with young people in your lives. I love the way they articulated the pros and cons of getting attention online. Take a look. 

A high school girl’s views on the pros and cons of online attention

Taylor Fang, a senior girl at Logan High School in Utah,  responds to the question: "What do adults not know about my generation and technology?"

 "Social-media platforms are among our only chances to create and shape our sense of self. Social media makes us feel seen. In our ‘Instagram biographies,' we curate a line of emojis that feature our passions: skiing, art, debate, racing. We post our greatest achievements and celebrations. We create fake "Finsta" accounts to share our daily moments and vulnerabilities with close friends."

She goes on to say, "When I got my first social-media account in middle school, about a year later than many of my classmates, I was primarily looking to fit in. Yet I soon discovered the sugar rush of likes and comments on my pictures. My life mattered! ...I was looking not only for validation, but also for a way to represent myself. ...Our selfies aren't just pictures; they represent our ideas of self. Only through "reimagining" the selfie as a meaningful mode of self-representation can adults understand how and why teenagers use social media."

Fang then writes about the cons of her online life. She says, "Yet by high school, this cycle of presenting polished versions of myself grew tiring... I was tired of adhering to hypervisible social codes and tokens."

So for her, she started to do more things to foster her self-identity like creative writing.

A high school boy’s experience of the pros and cons of online attention

A 15-year-old boy from Pennsylvania, Rowan Winch, had been an avid social media user since middle school. He had big followings on several accounts, including his Instagram account @Zuccccccccccc with 1.2 million followers.

It took many hours a day to create these accounts – he started at 6 am, continued on the school bus, between classes, at lunch, during study hall, he would keep his social media empire running with new, memes, images and videos trying to get to 100 posts a day. 

Rowen’s primary motivation for building these popular sites was to develop his "clout." 

He explained to the reporter that this social currency is useful in ways like opening doors for jobs, getting internships, meeting a potential girlfriend, and more.

Another benefit Rowen discussed was the money generated from ads hosted on his accounts from other teens looking to garner more followers. Some months he made as much as $10K. 

A third reason he said he loved the attention was "with @Zuccccccccccc, it felt like I had a purpose and was doing something that benefited a lot of people".

One night Rowan was trying to refresh his @Zuccccccccccc account when he got a message that it had been disabled. Instagram gave no reason other than the vague notice that he was “violating a policy.” 

Rowan was devastated when his account shut down. "A lot of my friends think I've become depressed, and I think that's right," Rowan said. "I've been feeling insecure about a lot of things, like how I look and act and talk. I talk a lot less than I used to. I'm a lot less confident. Losing my account is the main reason I feel like this."

These teen stories bring up rich discussion points. We, parents, worry about the many downsides of stories like these i.e., Rowan’s life was ruled by his obsession with popularity or clout, he wasn’t interacting much in person with people, mostly just online, and the list goes on. If you are looking for ways to discuss social media with your children try our I'm Internet and Social Media Savvy e-course or live parent-child programs to dive deeper into this conversation. 

So much of why teens are driven to post stems from the very basic human need to be seen. This reality warrants talking about personal values. For instance, what ways of being seen align with one’s beliefs and values and which ones do not? What can be done to foster a strong sense of self aside from social media?  What are the upsides and downsides of being popular online?  Why do some kids and teens spend so much time posting for online attention while others do not? 

Here’s what youth need: 

Sincere compliments. Look deeper; notice the things that excite them; watch for the victories that matter  - and start there. Grow their confidence in ways that are more specific and meaningful: For example: doing something well, pursuing a passion, taking healthy risks, and working toward a goal. Some other ideas:

Help them find their people! Everyone needs a tribe that creates a sense of belonging. True connections with others is another developmental need that can increase self-confidence and worth.  Keep youth involved in something: a team, club, sport, or anything that interests them and helps foster friendships. 

Quality time.  Carve out special time to spend with your children. Share stories, laugh and have fun together, have as many meals together as you can, whatever you can to create memories. Kids are more sociable when they sense that their parents value them and report higher self-esteem. 

The relationships in our lives matter. There are many ways you can set aside time for your loved ones without feeling the stretch.

Here are a few other ideas to connect quickly

  • Leave messages for each other - little notes or send texts
  • Talk in the car (try to make it a device free place except on super long road trips maybe). Listen to music you both love and sing or enjoy a podcast together
  • Volunteer or learn together
  • Grab ice cream
  • Go for a regular walk together or hike
  • Have family game nights
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