Pornified normative: our children and the constant hum of social media anxiety

‘We have never had more mentally unwell or unhealthy children'

“Liking how you look” has taken on a whole new meaning – particularly for teenagers who turn to social media for guidance and affirmation about their appearance.

Before posting pictures in "full-on" clothes and make-up, appearance and photographs will be tweaked until approved by all involved, says Fidelma Beirne – senior social worker with Crosscare Teen Counselling – who spoke to Health and Family recently about the conflicts caused by clothes between parents and teenage girls. However, what she finds more concerning, is that appearance has become central to how young people develop their identities around social media.

“They all stand in a particular way and look in a particular way. It’s all around earning perfection on social media, and all that is more damaging for our daughters than the clothes they are wearing. Then they don’t get the ‘likes’ they expect on social media, and that does terrible things to their self esteem.”

Former teacher Paula O'Connor facilitates internet and cyber-bullying workshops in schools entitled, Don't be Mean Behind your Screen. She believes, "it is 100 per cent about appearance, particularly in relation to Instagram".


She sees differences for boys and girls.

“Boys won’t be under social pressure to post beautiful images,” says O’Connor. “Boys have to look physically fit. They don’t go on looking for affirmation and validation that they’re beautiful. They just post to say, ‘hey, look at me. I’m looking mighty fine today’. For girls the pressure is to be beautiful and to be relevant.

“If you’re going to a party, and the other girls are posting pictures with their Inglot or Mac make-up, you feel like you don’t fit in, even before you arrive. If it’s not relevant, they don’t get enough ‘likes’. And ‘likes’ are popularity, and popularity is social acceptance. It’s looking for constant affirmation that, ‘yes, I am loved’ and I conform to what society today says I should look like. Not enough ‘likes’ changes how you feel about yourself.”

In O'Connor's experience, it is girls who are most confident about their looks and shape – "the size 0s and 6s" – who post most on Instagram. "The less confident younger teens stick to Snapchat, which is more fun and less pressure."

Psychotherapist Colman Noctor, author of, Cop On: What it is and why your child needs it, agrees the emphasis for boys' appearance is now on physique. "I see more and more 15- and 16-year-olds going to gyms, and going for cosmetic reasons, to sculpt their bodies."

Noctor also sees an additional pressure on girls to “display” themselves. “Young girls feel a pressure to live up to a pornified normative, which attempts to portray a maturity beyond their years,” he says . “This pressure can create anxieties. I would see a lot more youngsters who are developing maturity fear. They fear maturation because of the level of expectation that comes with it. I do think this is influenced by the culture of social media which sets the trend of how we should look and be. The girls who are in the high heels and short skirts going off to discos are doing that because they think that’s the way they have to look, as opposed to them necessarily feeling good in those clothes.

“Image has always been important to young people,” he adds, “but social media now means that expectations of how they should look are higher, and every choice they make with their appearance is broadcast, so the potential impact of a faux pas is far greater. If we dressed well and went out and three people said to you ‘you look well’, that’s feedback. But this is like carving a statue of yourself in front of 600 people as they all comment ‘I would do the nose differently’, or ‘would you not try a different hairstyle’, so the feedback is overwhelming.”

By posting on social media we seek “validation and recognition and ‘likes’, notes Noctor. “However, the gamble is we put yourself out to the judgement and threat of the mob as well. We’ve always seen ourselves in the eyes of the other. We’ve always compared, but the feedback is now so pervasive, and it can be measured, and it’s the measurement that makes people so pre-occupied and anxious. Children, no more than adults, are not able for that level of feedback and connectedness. It becomes overwhelming.”

Just last month an inquest in Dublin was told that an 11-year-old girl, who was unhappy with her physical appearance, posted on her Instagram account that she intended to die.

Students Cliodhna Doyle and Freyja Hellebust from Kinsale Community School won an award at the 2016 Young Scientist for their project, Does Using Social Media Affect Body Image?

"We chose this subject because we noticed that there was a lot of focus on being 'skinny' and 'muscular' on sites such as Instagram and Facebook, " explains Freyja.

“And we found that social media really did have an accumulative effect on one’s body image,” adds Cliodhna. “The more time that someone spent on social media per day, the lower their body image. Among teenagers, 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds had the highest body image, and boys had a higher body image than girls.”

O’Connor, meanwhile, believes parents can sometimes dismiss teenagers’ concerns about their appearance because we don’t see the importance of “likes”. “As a parent, I tell my girls every day how much I love them, how pretty they are, and how proud I am of them, and I don’t see why they need to go online and have other people tell them. However, it’s important for them in their social circles. They get together as groups and “likes” are compared and contrasted and counted.”

Hundreds of selfies may be taken and analysed before one photo is chosen for posting, she notes. “And then it’s almost social addiction. They keep tapping in to see how many more ‘likes’ they’ve got and they even remove photos if they don’t get enough, especially when compared to more popular kids.”

“When a young person takes a selfie and puts it up and it gets 100 ‘likes’ in the first 10 minutes they are delighted,” explains Noctor. “Then they put the next one up and it only gets 50 ‘likes’ in 10 minutes. So they take it down. They get concerned about why that second image is not achieving the same ‘likes’ as the first. What is happening causes them to ruminate and think about these things far more because there is a currency involved.”

Many teenagers, he explains, now exist in a “pseudo-celebrity culture” constantly broadcasting and selling their “brand” on social media to “followers” “However, like real celebrities the pressure of living up to an online image means that their deficits cannot be exposed, and their self-compassion can be compromised as a result,” he warns.

Parents often don’t realise the negative fallout from the heightened expectations generated by social media, adds Noctor.

“Expectation – reality = unhappiness. So the bigger the gap between your expectation and reality the more unhappy you will be. We have never had more mentally unwell or unhealthy children, and it is because our expectations are being driven at one pace and our reality is chugging behind.”

Noctor believes we have no idea yet of the full impact social media is having on our children. Teenagers have described “an almost constant hum of anxiety” when they are represented on social media, he says. However, young people usually don’t notice any “hum”, because it’s “normal” for them.

“Identity”, he says, is the biggest crisis facing young people. “‘Who I am’ becomes ‘who you want me to be’, or ‘what I think you think I should be’. Knowing ‘who I am’ is hugely important to the way in which you establish self worth and self belief. Without that sense of self we’re incredibly vulnerable to adversity and becoming devastated.”

So how do you bring up confident kids with a positive identify and body image?

“The role of instilling a value system in our children is more important than ever before,” says Noctor, “because your value and ethical system is competing with a barrage of value systems that are completely nonsense-driven. If they know how to prioritise what is meaningful then they will know to not sweat the small stuff.

“Let me use a metaphor to explain: A lecturer comes into a philosophy class with a jar and he fills it full of rocks and asks, ‘is it full?, and the class says, ‘yes’. Then he sprinkles pebbles between the rocks and asks, ‘is it full?’, and they answer, ‘yes’. Then he takes sand and sprinkles it between the rocks and the pebbles and says, ‘now that’s a full life. The rocks are the meaningful things like your family, your health and your sense of who you are. The pebbles are how hard you work, the grades you get, your job. And the sand is the superficial rubbish, the ‘likes’ and all that.’ Children are growing up in a culture that sells them sand, sand, sand. We as parents have to teach them, what is a rock, what is a pebble, what is sand.”

A Facebook profile picture has to be taken before a night out. You'd be wearing heavy eye make, fake eye lashes, fake nails, dark fake tan, block heeled shoes and a revealing outfit, short skirt or dress, low cut top or body suit. You take multiple photos to choose one. To get everyone in a group taken before a night out could take up to an hour.

Outfits have to be revealing to live up to the pressure of society. Everyone’s else’s outfit is revealing so yours has to be too. I’d prefer if clothes weren’t supposed to be as revealing as they are.

For a girl’s appearance, big lips, big eyebrows, long eye-lashes, good cheek bones and a structured face are attractive. For boys it’s broad shoulders, tall and muscular. They also see hair as very important. It would be short on the sides and long on the top.

If you get less likes that usual it’s a bit disappointing. I’ve taken down photographs before if I didn’t get as many likes as I’d expect after 24 hours. The number of “likes’ a photo gets is definitely a reflection of popularity? I would get a lot but there’s a few girls in my class who would get 600 or 700 likes on Instagram photos, one girl who comes to mind is very pretty. Usually it’s girls rather than boys that like the photos.”

OSCAR (16)
I feel that people are becoming more generic and everybody has to be the "same". The same haircut, the same clothes, the same make up. I think that people need to be different and everyone shouldn't dress the same way and have the same short back and sides and long on top haircut.

There is pressure on teenagers to look a certain way and have a fake tan going out. Guys and girls these days are becoming to obsessed with the way they look, and how other people see them.

I don’t care about “likes” because I barely use Instagram or Facebook but a lot of my friends do really care about them and they wouldn’t like it if they were two “likes” off 200.

I'd put up a photo on Instagram only every few weeks. On Facebook, you post photos after an event, and I'd be on Snapchat every day.

If I find a photo that I really like I’ll want to post it. You can get stressed finding the right photo, especially after a night out. I would know I looked good already before I posted something. I wouldn’t post it unless I thought I looked good. Usually, friends would send a few photos of themselves before they post it to see which one should they post. I always give an honest answer.

If I couldn’t post pictures any more I don’t think I would think about what I look like so much, because people wouldn’t be talking about what I looked like.

I don't want to go on Instagram because I know it's really competitive. There are girls in my class who are always bragging about the amount of followers they have. They get into fights about it and accuse each other of buying followers.

Everyone in different schools is connected and if you have loads of followers you are popular. You can also get nasty comments on photos.