Teenagers, Monkeys, and Mirrors – Developing Self-Image in a Cyber-Addicted Society

Inside her classroom at Coral Springs Charter High School, Susana H. was in distress. The Florida teacher, seven months pregnant, was suddenly experiencing labor contractions. She sat down in a desk chair and struggled to endure the pain – her mouth open, her eyes wide, one hand on her brow. That’s when one of her students, junior Malik W., pulled out his mobile phone. It was time for a selfie. In dreads, cap, and big sunglasses, he flashed a big happy-go-lucky grin for his camera while angling the lens to show his grimacing, pain-stricken teacher in the background. “Selfie with my teacher while she is having contractions,” he tweeted.

Selfies. They bring new meaning to the word self-conscious. These quick, seemingly innocent self-portraits – typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media – serve many functions. They can be a preened vision of a public self, a bragging moment of accomplishment, a display of humor, or a declared irony to the world, almost a performance. The ubiquitous mobile phone with its mirror-image camera technology, makes self-portraits easy to take, delete, filter, or fix, and even easier to share.

Some kids would call what Malik in our example did, taking his own picture with a featured but unsuspecting person in the background, a kind of photobomb selfie. It’s a prank or joke. Photobomb moments are something like a tourist’s snapshot souvenirs. I was there. But this time, the background wasn’t Mount Rushmore or Niagara Falls. It was Malik’s teacher’s suffering. Whatever you call it, in the time it took for the teacher to reach the hospital to be examined by doctors, Malik’s pic was making the rounds on social media, first to other high school students at Coral Springs, and then quickly beyond. By evening, it was viral and had been retweeted by thousands. When asked later by local TV news reporters what possessed him, Malik said he was just hoping to record the unexpected event for himself and “for her.”

It went viral mainly because people found it funny. BuzzFeed raved: “Behold! The greatest selfie of all time.” Was it funny? Sure, if you don’t take a moment to consider this act in a deeper way – and what it means to use a human being in distress as a visual joke in the background of a curated self-portrait shared on a public social network. There are more troubling trends to notice here – invasion of privacy, breach of good manners, absence of empathy, not to mention a demonstrated lack of respect for pregnancy, motherhood, and classroom setting, and a teacher’s authority. Let’s be honest: Nobody looks to teenagers as role models of civility and decorum. They can be jokesters, disrupters, provocateurs. Pushing the limits is what they do best. Why? In psychological terms, they are said to be forming self-concept, or identity, and enjoy experimenting with boundaries and taking risks.

They also crave feedback, which helps them figure out, eventually, who they are – and what the world expects of them. So when teenagers take selfies and share them, what are they hoping to discover? Probably themselves. Prior to the Internet, this crucial time of identity formation was spent in the real world – a more intimate greenhouse where feedback, both positive and negative, was received from a real-world audience of friends, family, and figures of authority. The social norms and what was expected of these developing human beings was fairly consistent. Twenty or thirty years ago, would a teenager have been allowed to take a photograph of a distressed teacher in a classroom and, without permission, been allowed to publish it in a magazine?

The Internet is now a primary adventure zone where teenagers interact, play, socialize, learn, experiment, take risks – and eventually figure out who they are. This blog post will try to grapple with this shift, and look at the impact of this new environment on youthful identity formation. Could growing up in cyberspace change a teenager’s sense of self? Why not?

WHY SO HEARTLESS, SELFIE?

The same year as Malik’s cyber-celebrity moment, another controversial selfie was seen by millions. A lovely young woman with long blond hair, aviator sunglasses, white knit scarf, and matching hat was caught in the act of posing for her own selfie while, behind her, a suicidal man was hanging on the rails of the Brooklyn Bridge. What, aside from basic psychopathic tendencies, would cause a person to be so cold and unfeeling about another human being’s emotional crisis? Let’s stop and contemplate this. Just as Malik made a joke of his teacher’s  moment of physical crisis, the young blond (she would remain anonymous), whether she planned to share her selfie with a wide audience or not, was apparently making fun of a stranger who was so emotionally troubled and confused that he wanted to end his life. Yes, her selfie seems more heartless than Malik’s selfie, but aren’t the sense of disengagement and lack of empathy eerily similar? The day after the Brooklyn Bridge incident, an observer’s photograph of the anonymous young woman took over the entire front page of the New York Post with the apt headline “SELFIE-ISH!”

This slap of disapproval only encouraged a new trend. In 2014, when traffic was stopped on a Los Angeles freeway due to a man threatening to jump from an overpass, a group of drivers left their cars to pose – big smiles – for group shots and selfies with the suicidal man in the distance behind them. The same year, a policeman in Istanbul was called to the scene of the Bosporus Bridge, where a desperate individual was clinging to the rails. The suicidal man jumped three hours later, but before he went, the officer took a selfie. The bridge and the jumper were in the background. More recently, in March 2016 – in perhaps the ultimate example of this trend – a hostage on an EgyptAir flight posed for a bizarre smiling selfie next to a hijacker in his suicide vest.

Let’s try to consider the mind-set of these people – not the distressed suicidal individuals, but the selfie-takers. Were they conscious of what they were doing? Or were they so lost, so separated from ethics and empathy, that they weren’t able to clearly consider their actions? Are they emotionally impaired, or has cyberspace impacted their judgment? A condition that results in lack of empathy toward another person’s distress is narcissism. This is a personality trait that exists to varying degrees in almost all human beings and can be facilitated by cyberspace. A little narcissism can be a good thing. Actors are famously perceived as the ultimate narcissists, and the psychologically healthier ones even crack jokes about it. They aren’t necessarily heartless people. But a narcissist’s desire to be noticed and become a focus of attention can override a concern for other people – and result in callousness about their suffering.

As with so many personality traits, psychologists have defined a spectrum of narcissism – generally assessed by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). Individuals with high scores demonstrate an inflated sense of their own importance, grandiosity, extreme selfishness, enormous self-regard, and a deep need for admiration. Behind the mask of ultraconfidence, their self-esteem is very fragile and vulnerable to criticism. Why get into all of this? Because teenagers (as well as children) can display narcissistic-type traits due to the simple fact that their sense of self, or “self-concept,” is still being formed. They can seem to be uncaring about others because they are distracted by the work of creating an identity. Teenagers will try on new selves and new clothes and new hairstyles to the point of total disengagement with anything else going on in their family life or home. For a teenager, this sort of experimentation, along with risk-taking, is one way that identity is formed. Going too far is part of the process – almost a requirement.

Who am I today? Who do I want to be tomorrow morning? They look for answers in the feedback they receive from their peers. And today, to a greater and greater degree, this feedback happens online, not just from their friends but in free online astrological profiles, personality questionnaires, and a plethora of phone apps that will analyze their handwriting, music tastes, food preferences, and even bathing styles. Teenagers are consumed by their own reflections, in other words, hoping to figure out who they are. What happens when the bathroom mirror, where teens used to state at themselves, is replaced with a virtual mirror – a selfie that they just took with their phones?

MONKEYS AND MIRRORS

In a famous study done forty years ago, great apes – chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas – born in the wild were placed before a full-length mirror on a wall. At first, the wild chimps reacted as if another chimp had appeared in the room; they vocalized and made other threatening gestures at the mirror. After two or three days, they began to understand the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves in some way. Interestingly, they began exploring their own bodies before the mirror – studying parts of themselves they hadn’t seen before, or couldn’t see without use of a mirror.

In psychology, one way to describe what happens in front of a mirror is called mirror-image stimulation, referring specifically to “a situation in which an organism is confronted with its own reflection in a mirror.” An animal that shows signs of recognizing the image in the mirror as it own is said to have “passed the mirror test,” which is strong evidence of having developed self-concept. This is not innate, but learned. Self-concept is used in human social psychology to describe how people think about, evaluate, or perceive themselves. The actual definition is “the individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.” A monkey that has self-concept demonstrates an awareness of a self that is separate and distinct from others, as well as constant.

What are teenagers learning about themselves by looking at their own selfies? Could this impact the development of self-concept? The study also raises this question: Could young people who have grown up with too much technology and not enough face-to-face interaction with peers remain more isolated, retreating to the comfort of their own digital reflection rather than turning to their friends or family for comfort and physical interaction? Could this cyber effect encourage children or young teenagers to lose interest in others – or never develop it in the first place? Since there hasn’t been time for proper developmental studies in this area, we just don’t know.

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers’s work is valuable in terms of illustrating how a young person develops identity. He described self-concept as having three components: (1) the view you have of yourself – or “self-image,” (2) how much value you place on your worth – or “self-esteem,” and (3) what you wish you were like – or “the ideal self.” Given the advent of social media, perhaps we need to add a fourth aspect of “self” Rogers didn’t consider. In today’s technology, identity appears to be increasingly developed through the gateway of a different self, a less tangible one, a digital creation.

Let’s call this “the cyber self” – or who you are in a digital context. This is the idealized self, the person you wish to be, and therefore an important aspect of self-concept. It is a potential new you that now manifests in a new environment, cyberspace. To an increasing extent, it is the virtual self that today’s teenager is busy assembling, creating, and experimenting with. Each year, as technology becomes a more dominant factor in the lives of teens, the cyber self is what interacts with others, needs a bigger time investment, and has the promise of becoming an overnight viral celebrity. The selfie is the frontline self, a highly manipulated artifact that has been created and curated for public consumption.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FEEDBACK

To understand feedback more deeply, we need to go way back to the work of sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in 1900, decades before the advent of the Internet or when monkeys were stuck in front of mirrors. Cooley came up with what he called the looking-glass theory. Cooley used the concept of a person studying his or her own reflection as a way to describe how individuals come to see or know themselves. In the case of Cooley’s looking glass, the information that we use to learn about ourselves isn’t provided in a mirror’s reflection. It is provided by others – their comments about us, the way they treat us, and things they say. In the looking-glass self, a person views himself or herself through others’ eyes and in turn gains identity. In other words, the human self-concept was dependent upon social feedback. Philosopher William James, the so-called father of psychology, expanded this idea by pointing out that individuals become different people, and express their identity in different ways, depending on whom they are with.

Now let’s fast-forward to the next century and do the math – and consider the psychology of this effect in cyberspace. If you have a repertoire of many selves – potentially as many as people who know you – social media could exponentially expand the number of selves you create. Is your “self” environmental-specific? Are you the same person on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, SnapChat, and LinkedIn? Does this new explosion of selves cause a splintering of identity or, particularly for teenagers, who are going through critical stages of identity formation, cause developmental problems? And what about critical feedback? Presenting yourself to the whole world is a risky business. It’s hart to imagine an individual alive who hasn’t experienced some form of rejection, subtle or strong, embarrassing or humiliating. But you can also be accepted for the self you present – and feel rewarded by pleasant feelings of pride and affection.

Let’s imagine you have just turned thirteen. The five years ahead of you are a natural time for questioning and seeking. You’ll be trying new clothes, mannerisms, friends, interests, and pastimes. You’ll probably begin experimenting with what you think of as adult behavior. This helps you make sense of the self within, as you unconsciously piece together an identity, like a collage. You are working to create a constant, steady, reliable, knowable, and familiar self. What kind of information – or feedback – is the virtual mirror going to give you? In this regard, the cyber environment may be much more overwhelming than the real world. To begin with, the sheer number of “friends” has grown, and therefore the volume of feedback will be far greater. Prior to the Internet, a teenager would have a limited number of social groups to juggle – family and extended family, schoolmates, maybe neighbors. Now the number of social groups is potentially limitless.

The cyber self is always under construction, psychologically and digitally. Even while the real you is sleeping, the cyber you continues to exist. It is “always on” – evolving, updating, making friends, making connections, gaining followers, getting “likes,” and being tagged. I started this blog in December 2014. To date, I have 181 regular followers; however, 9,840 people from 93 countries have visited my blog since its inception. The constant source of feedback we receive today can create a sense of urgency, a continuous feedback loop, a sense of needing to invest more and more time in order to keep the virtual self current, relevant, and popular. This is especially true of a blog.

This may explain the obsessive interest among teens in curating their selfies. When the process of identity formation in real life becomes confusing and difficult to control, as it is for most teenagers at some point, what could be more satisfying than being able to perfectly calibrate and manage the portrait that the online world sees? To some extent, we all engage in image management, but it now begins at an earlier age, and in some cases before identity has been properly formed. This may lead to identity confusion. After all, which matters the most: Your real-world self or the one you’ve created online? Probably the one with the greater visibility.

CYBER MIGRATION

Amazingly, plastic surgery among teenagers is another area that has been impacted by the norms online. The easy curating of selfies may be linked to a rise in plastic surgery. According to a 2014 study by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), more than half of the facial surgeons polled reported an increase in cosmetic surgery for people under thirty. There is also a rise in children and teenagers requesting teeth whitening and veneers reported at dental clinics. “Social platforms like Instagram, SnapChat and the iPhone app Selfie.im force patients to hold a digital microscope up to their own image and often look at it with a more self-critical eye than ever before,” explains Dr. Edward Farrior, president of AAFPRS. “These images are often the first impressions young people put out there to prospective friends, romantic interests, and employers, and our patients want to put their best face forward.” Sadly, surgeons have reported that bullying is also a cause of children and teens asking for plastic surgery, usually as a result of being bullied rather than a way to prevent it.

Okay, so let’s put all these trends and technological developments together – from teenagers using apps to filter and “improve” the appearance of their selfies, to the  rise of plastic surgery among young people, the escalation in provocative self-presentation, and the quest for the perfect body. What do these developments tell us, given that we know human beings look to feedback in order to develop identity? Imagine for a moment the shy thirteen-year-old who feels uncomfortable speaking to others. For this child, posting a selfie will be easier and more rewarding – no actual contact! Now imagine that child progressing through the stages of identity formation and never having to practice being a human being on the stage of real life. This is what causes isolation in adulthood.

SELF-ACTUALIZATION

The cyber self, while it offers glimpses into who you are, is a literally detached self. This cyber self is like a hand puppet that is speaking for you but isn’t really you – and can actually be quite different from the authentic real-world you. In other words, the real you has turned the cyber you into an object: The selfie is proof of this objectification. By posting a selfie, you are required to experience yourself as an object that is presentable or not. You judge your selfie from a detached distance, even if it is posted impulsively. This self-objectification, and the sense of detachment from true self, could explain many of the negative behaviors seen online. It feeds disassociation. Detached from your cyber self, you can feel detached from your actions – and come to believe you aren’t truly accountable. Now let’s think about a teenager in the process of identity formation from the age of ten, eleven, twelve to late teens, a crucial window of time to create a strong foundation and sense of self. This process is critical to development, and can have an enormous impact on the rest of an individual’s life and sense of self-esteem.

Carl Rogers described “self-actualization” as an ongoing process of always striving to be one’s ideal self. A “self-actualized” person is one whose “ideal self” is congruent, or the same as, his or her perceived actual self or self-image. Rogers believed that this sense of being, or having become, the person you want to be is a good marker for happiness, and a sign of a fully functioning individual. If you accept his description of happiness, then it’s troubling to see the results of a survey of children and teens, ages eleven to sixteen, in which half agreed with this statement: “I find it easier to be myself on the Internet than when I am with people face-to-face.”

The transition from childhood to adulthood is a critical developmental phase, what psychologist Erik Erikson described as a “psychosocial stage.” For an awkward adolescent or teen, it may be a lot easier to avoid painful experiences performed on the stage of real life, but these are often important developmental milestones and come with consequences if missed. Identity may not be fully developed – and what one wants to do or “be,” in terms of a future adult role, may not be fully explored. Social coping skills may not be acquired. Learning to navigate the tension or lack of comfort that the real world sometimes brings is necessary for the developmental process, as youth explore  possibilities and begin to form their own identity based on their explorations.

Failure to successfully complete a psychosocial stage can also result in a reduced ability to complete further stages. For Erikson, the next stage is intimacy versus isolation, occurring between ages eighteen and forty, when individuals learn how to share more intimately with others and explore relationships that lead toward long-term commitments with someone other than a family member. Avoiding intimacy for fearing relationships or commitment can lead to isolation, loneliness, and often depression. This is why we need to talk more about the repercussions of teenagers failing to establish a sense of identity in real life as well as cyber life. The result of such a failure can be what Erikson calls “role confusion,” when young people become unsure about themselves or their place in society. Some experts believe contemporary boys are in crisis due to excessive use of technology. The digital self tends to become less and less like the real-life operator.

The cyber self is a masterful creation – funnier, wittier, better looking than the real self. But the problem lies with the vulnerability of this split-self existence. And it’s a serious problem. If you look at all the studies done over the past ten years on cyberbullying, you’ll see that few of the solutions and awareness campaigns have worked effectively. Each year, more teenagers are devastated, even destroyed, by experiencing bullying online. Why? Think of the time and energy that teenagers put into their cyber selves – the self-portraits they’ve painted. When the cyber self is attacked – called “stupid,” “ugly,” “a loner,” “a loser” – then this could cause a catastrophic inter-psychic conflict, an emotional clash of opposing impulses within oneself. Look at it this way: If the best version of you that technology can produce is rejected, how does that make you feel about the only self that’s left, your real one?

THE PRIVACY PARADOX

In real life, would a teenager girl walk around with a photograph of herself naked – and show everybody at school? Would she undress in class and pose suggestively? That’s what happens, potentially, every time a sext is sent. Besides impulsivity and narcissism, what are the other possible explanations for this disinhibited behavioral shift online? Teenagers exhibit a lack of concern about their privacy online. It’s an interesting shift because so often in the real world, many teens are self-conscious and tend to seek privacy. But online, something happens. Even teenagers who are well-versed in the dangers and have read stories of identity theft, sextortion, cyberbullying, cybercrimes, and worse, continue to share as though there is no risk.

I read an article in my hometown newspaper, The Daily Item, published online on May 7, 2017 regarding the Netflix mini-series Thirteen Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same name. I watched the show, which follows the final weeks of a high school girl who commits suicide. The writer of the Daily Item article interviewed local educators regarding Thirteen Reasons Why, specifically focusing on whether the young girl in the show justified her suicide and blame others, and whether the final scene was an unnecessarily graphic depiction of the act. The topic of teen suicide is one that is emotionally volatile, and is currently of much concern to educators.

Olivia Masser, director of the Milton Public Library, believes Asher’s story Thirteen Reasons Why unwisely portrays Hanna Baker as a martyr. Masser admits that the story raises awareness of the serious issues of sexual assault, cyberbullying and teen suicide. As Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) indicate, “…there exists a ‘quiet desperation’ that drives humanity to think about the question, ‘Does life have meaning?’” This question is faced by every teenager growing up in America. Certainly, when Hanna is sexually assaulted and bullied, and photographs are posted online that make her look “easy,” she is already struggling to find her way at a young age. She asks the ultimate question, “Why am I here?” What meaning was left in her otherwise meaningless life now that she’d been raped, bullied (including online), and labeled a “slut?”

According to Danah Boyd, the TED Talk celebrity and visiting professor at New York University, most teenagers scrutinize what they post online very carefully. In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Boyd argues that teens adjust what they present online depending on the audience they want to impress Everything is calibrated for a specific purpose – to look cool, or tough, or hot. When it suits them, teenagers can be enormously savvy about how to protect the things they want kept private, mostly from their parents. For example, they might not care if Facebook knows their religion, but they do care if their parents find out about their sex life.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

We just might owe teenagers an apology. We are failing to protect and defend them in cyberspace. Period. We are failing to understand and therefore protect their developing selves. Tech companies have made billions of dollars while looking the other way. Opportunistically, they have jumped in to offer solutions to emerging obstacles, creating social platforms such as SnapChat, Wickr, Confide, and the German-based Sicher, where risqué images can be sent and viewed. While they supposedly can disappear almost as soon as they are posted, in fact there are many ways they can be saved. Do teenagers need to explore and have adventures? Yes. And we should let them. But the risks in the cyber environment are real.

And what about the more nuanced and much-harder-to-study risk of harm to a developing identity? Juggling two selves, the real one and the cyber one, is a lot to expect of young individuals who are still figuring things out, about themselves and the world. We are likely a decade away from seeing the cyber effect on psychological and emotional well-being and the formation of a sturdy and sustainable self. We can see signs and clues coming already in the new norms of sexting, the obsession with the cyber self, premature sexualization, the plastic surgery among younger people, the escalation of body and eating disorders, and the rise of narcissistic behavior (if not true narcissistic personality disorder). These trends should be cause for alarm. Narcissism and excessive self-involvement are both known attributes of those who suffer chronic unhappiness.

A teenager may think he or she is creating a better “self,” a better object with each selfie. Every selfie taken, and improved upon, causes an erosion or dismissal of the true self. With each selfie taken, and invested in, the true self is diminished. In a way, it’s similar to the phobia in Amish tradition that each portrait photograph robs the soul. Adolescents are naturally prone to “storm and stress,” during which kids will often experience mood swings, fight with parents, and engage in risky or dangerous behavior. We can’t blame the Internet for that. But we can wake up and see that it’s even more important to protect them there.

And, parents of teenagers, if you find a sext, sit down and talk about it. Resist the urge to shut down or confiscate all your son’s or daughter’s devices. The point at which you banish your teenager to his or her bedroom – hating themselves, hating you, and hating their lives – and take away their phone and computer, you are depriving them of their entire support system. That can be too hard. They need to vent. They need to reach out to friends. Let them. And finally, if anything goes wrong in their cyber life, tell them not to try to handle it on their own. That’s what parents of teenagers are for.

References

Aiken, M., PhD. (2016). The cyber effect: A pioneering cyberpsychologist explains how human behavior changes online. New York, NY: Random House

Asher, J. (2007). Thirteen reasons why. New York, NY: Razorbill

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making sense of your world: A biblical worldview, second edition. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

 

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