“Do we know how important social media is to young people?”
A few weeks after writing my last blog post: “Why do we judge girls for imitating tropes of female sexuality?” I went back into my ever-growing video library to listen to what other girls had to say about body image and beauty standards. Listening to them reflecting on how the media portrays women got me thinking: had I underestimated the pressure that continual self-documentation creates?Especially for girls?
In my last post, I recounted an incident where I was with a group of parents watching teenage girls taking selfies. I joined in with the other parents, rolling my eyes and making judgemental comments – and have been thinking about my reaction ever since. It has been bothering me.
As I think about it now, I realize that I was doing exactly what the girls were doing: surrendering – even if only temporarily – to the dynamic of the peer group [be it adult or teen]. And then it occurred to me: the real shift only happens when you confront yourself. It’s almost as if I needed to “catch myself in the act” before I could fully appreciate what a deep hold cultural stereotypes have on us all. We, as parents, had effectively boiled the girls’ behavior down to superficial teen stereotypes and reacted from a place of little understanding and even less empathy. The girls, on the other hand, re-enacted “female” stereotypes for the camera in a bid to belong to their respective social groups. We couldn’t have been further apart. There we were, parents and children – a chasm between us.
So again, I’m asking: what kind of pressure does continual documentation create, in particular, for girls who are trying hard to live up to mainstream beauty standards? I found a lot of video material in my library but, for this post, I’ve chosen a clip of JP who shares her experience of growing up surrounded by a relentless barrage of airbrushed images. Beauty involves a strict visual vocabulary, she explains: tall, stick thin, tiny waists, flat stomachs and perfect skin. Working hard to be beautiful is culturally valued. The reward is belonging. “Likes”.
JP tells me that at 13, she was relatively new to social media and hadn’t yet seen “the lie.” It was only later, that she realized the beauty standard isn’t real. Even though she no longer buys into the beauty myth, she reflects: “It’s still a conflict within me – whether this stuff should matter to me or not.” I find the honesty and simplicity of her words compelling. And, as an adult woman, I can confirm that even when you know the imagery is NOT real, you can still feel an immense amount of pressure to look thinner, younger, or more beautiful as you grow up and age in our society.
But I don’t have time to change the beauty industry or fight a monolithic culture. The young girls who cross my path are growing up NOW. They need face-to-face, heart to heart conversations with mothers, teachers, mentors, aunts, big sisters, and grandmothers who take the time to acknowledge “the lie” – and all the confusion that comes with it. Because platitudes like: “be the best version of you” simply don’t stand up to the complex experiences on the ground.
We have to meet girls where they are. It’s time to jump across the chasm to their side.
In this interview, Inimini (13 years old) tells me that music videos often ruin the songs she likes to listen to. When I ask her why, she explains that no matter what the song is about, the girls in the videos are always doing the same thing: sexy posturing in minimal clothing. Inimini is clearly irritated by this and understands the implications of this imagery for her. She bristles: “I don’t need to be half undressed to be who I am.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard a young girl express confusion or anger about the images of women they encounter both online and offline. In my classes, I’ve had many young girls ask me why images of women so often look the same: half-dressed, large breasted, tiny waists, pouting lips, suggestive postures. Answering is hard – both as a parent and as a teacher. How does one begin to explain why these female body types colonize so much of our media and our attention? How does one tell a girl NOT to internalize the images around her? Is that even possible?
This reminds me of an incident when I was sitting with a group of parents at an outdoor café. From where we were sitting, we could see a group of young teenage girls taking selfies: sweaters were taken off to reveal tank tops, breasts were slightly arched forward and long hair released from ponytails. Their faces assumed similar expressions: wide eyes, pouting mouths, cheeks sucked inward, (this expression is also known as the “duck face”). We immediately began commenting on the way the girls were recording themselves. There was a shared sense of disbelief and a fair amount of eye rolling as we watched the young girls pose relentlessly for the camera.
Thinking about it later, I wondered why we had this reaction. Wasn’t it obvious that the young girls were mimicking the language of “female sexuality” they had internalized? Isn’t this the main message in our media culture for young girls – as Inimini had so clearly explained? So why were we judging these girls?
Inimini’s words got me thinking: perhaps some of the girls had felt like Inimini but had posed anyway. Maybe they played along to be included in the group – partly having fun with the posing but, perhaps, partly alienated from or even apprehensive of the process: after all, now those images had been uploaded and were being assessed by their peers, by strangers, by themselves even, under the harsh light of stereotypical, Photoshopped beauty norms. Would their images be good enough? Would they get enough likes? There was so much at stake for each of those girls. Each of them had to make many calculated choices about their bodies, their behavior, and their peer group. They also had to process the critical gaze of adults nearby (whether they chose to ignore or absorb the disapproval). If I hadn’t had the opportunity and privilege to talk to so many young girls for this project, I might have easily walked away from that café without considering any of this. My heart goes out the girls. Inimini has helped me to “re-see” that incident. And it changes the way I will respond next time.
Inimini, you are right: a teenage girl should not need to be half undressed to be who she is.
I’m here and I’m listening.
In my last blog post, I shared a film interview in which my son, at age ten, recounts the story of how he was pranked (at age nine) into seeing a hard-core porn site by a friend. Four years later, I interviewed my son again. By now, I had become really interested in documenting children periodically, every two years or so, to see how perceptions of their online experiences changed over time.
We talked again about the porn site incident. I must admit, I thought, as a young teen, he might feel pressure to downplay the experience and not make it “a big deal.” But his reaction was the opposite. In this interview, it is clear that Joa feels indignant that he was exposed to such images in the first place. At fourteen, he was better able to describe what he had seen: a young woman who was threatened by an older man and pulled into a garage where they proceeded to have sex. He described it as “aggressive.” This really hit me. Not only had my young son been exposed to adult video material but also possibly violent content. I was stunned at how random our children’s experiences of online media can be. And left breathless, as a parent, trying to figure out how to respond.
Listening to Joa, in this interview, talk (both on and off camera) about the dynamics of his social life with his friends was eye opening. I could imagine scenarios in which they might send sexual images or videos to each other as pranks with a: “Can you take this?” kind of banter. Those who didn’t understand what they were seeing (did any of them at first?) would be left to process the experience silently to avoid being the object of ridicule. Would they ask their parents? I wonder. Joa didn’t say anything to me until I pressed him on that one occasion. Had there been other experiences I didn’t know about? Thinking about it from his perspective, I wondered: how would you start a conversation with your parent about things you sense are very taboo? Can we really expect children to divorce themselves from their emotions or the pressures of their friend group? Is it realistic? Is it fair? It strikes me that the deliberate act of approaching a parent requires the child to have, already, at some level, processed what they have seen.
It was really interesting hearing Joa assess his experience in retrospect as a 14 year old (see clip above). I was struck by how protective and kind he was towards his nine year old self. In this interview, he advocates, on behalf of other youngsters in the same situation and asks that parents take the initiative and talk to their children not only about sex but also about the situations in which they might see sexual images or videos online.
I learned from this that while I was worried about the actual images my son had seen, the context in which he had seen them was just as important. Understanding that very young children can be exposed to porn through pranks was important for me as a parent. It helped me to see there was no malice – just innocent, childhood exploration. But, of course, the child on the receiving end of the prank might have to pay a high price.
Another lesson learned the hard way – for both of us.
W hen my son was nine he saw online porn for the first time. His friend had arrived for an afternoon play date. I was at home and checking on them every now and then as they ran around the house. After a while, they ended up in our guest room that had a family computer in it. I put on a movie for them and decided to go to the kitchen to make them a snack. When I came back, I found them back on the floor rough housing and playing tag. Later that afternoon, Joa’s friend was picked up by his mother and I began clearing up. As I started making dinner, I noticed that my son was quieter than usual. He was walking around the kitchen table pensively.
“Are you feeling ok?” I asked.
“Not really” he answered still not looking up.
“I don’t know. I feel weird.”
“Are you feeling sick?”
“No. In my head.”
I knew immediately that he had seen something online. We sat and talked. This is what I pieced together from our conversation: As soon as I had left the room to make sandwiches for the boys, Joa’s friend had quickly typed in the url of a porn site and ran into the bathroom. It was a prank. Joa told me he had stared at the screen. He saw something “weird.” Seconds later, his friend ran back into the room ready to play more tag. Joa just clicked out of the site and went back to playing. That’s all it took. A few seconds.
That evening I cuddled him. I told him that it was a site with films showing adults having sex. I also told him I didn’t like the site because of the way the films had been made. They made sex look aggressive and scary which it isn’t. (I remember very different images from the site than my son does today. I will do a follow up post in which my son reflects on this experience as a 14 year old.)
A year later, I began documenting children talking about their experiences of screen life for the project Friends Like Me. When I filmed my son, we got into a long and very interesting conversation about video games, guns, and onscreen violence (which I will share in future blogs). So when I asked about the scariest thing he had seen so far, I was expecting him to talk about the games he had been describing to me. But he took me by surprise. It was a really interesting moment for me as a parent as well as a filmmaker. He was calm and deliberate. He asked me first to turn off the camera – which I did. He then explained to me that the porn site was, so far, the “biggest” thing he had seen. After that, he was open and very willing to talk on camera (see clip above). I had chosen the word “scary” in my question but he explained, in his own words, that this incident had left the biggest impression. In our short conversation, I found it amazing that he was able to distinguish between feeling fear and feeling confused. It was a short exchange and I didn’t push for any further explanations than what you see here. But it taught me that even very young children are sometimes able to describe their feelings with immense precision. And it also taught me that listening to them express their unease can be a powerful way to reassure them that they have a right to feel what they feel.
I winced when I heard this young man express how upsetting he found the Netflix drama series 13 Reasons Why. I winced because I’m his mother and I had never spoken to him about it. And I can see, from this interview, he needed to talk. 13 Reasons Why is the story of a young woman who is viciously bullied and raped in high school. It ends with her suicide and distribution of suicide “letters” (audio recordings) to all those she felt played a role in her final act of desperation. I didn’t know my son had seen the series. He never came to talk to me about it. As a parent, it made me think: how many times have I missed the chance to connect with him about things he has seen or experienced that made him feel uneasy or upset? Why didn’t he come and talk to me?
It brings to mind an experience I had as a child. Well, not me – my sister. When we were young, my father used to like showing us BBC productions of the classics on TV. One night, we watched Madame Bovary adapted from the Gustave Flaubert novel. The bleak story of Emma Bovary, unable to find happiness in her marriage had, for my 14 year-old eyes, an ominous feel to it. Unable to save herself from the shame of extramarital affairs and financial ruin, Emma takes poison thinking to end her life quickly. What in fact followed in the dramatization were graphic scenes of violent, retching and vomiting before the young woman, pale and haggard, died with wide-open eyes. That night, my sister didn’t sleep. She tossed and turned frightened that something horrible was going to happen. Over the next few months, her fear seemed to gain a momentum of its own. At school, in the afternoons, as the light began to fade from the winter sky, I remember I would watch my sister with a heavy feeling, anticipating the night ahead. And each night, it was the same: trembling, shallow breathing, telling me bad things were going to happen – all signs of how affected she had been by that horrible, protracted death scene. Six months later, when things hadn’t changed, I, fleetingly, thought that perhaps I should mention something to my mother. But I didn’t. And neither did my sister.
It was 1979 and we didn’t have access to Netflix from private screens. We often watched television sitting together next to our parents. In fact, we watched Madame Bovary together as a family. The program was aired at eight o’clock in the evening when many young people would be watching. We had loving parents. Yet we said nothing to them. Why didn’t I say anything? Did I feel that they would judge us if I did? Or was it that I was just trapped in the emotional experience and didn’t have the resources to move into practical action? The night panic attacks did eventually stop after about a year. My sister and I never mentioned them to my parents.
I’m a parent now. I often ask my children to share their media with me and I do my best not to judge the content of what they watch. I don’t always manage, but often I do. We have spent many an evening sharing media, laughing, enjoying and learning from each other. But in this interview, Joa reminds me that communication between kids and parents is complex – whether we are talking about 2018 or 1979. There isn’t a one-size fits all protocol or a 10 step plan to fail free parenting. Of course, it’s good to connect because it builds trust and openness. But that doesn’t mean that your child will always seek you out when they are in distress. We, as parents, will miss moments. Either because we aren’t there or because we are but our children don’t cross the line, for whatever reason, to invite us in. Accepting that, I suppose, is part of our journey as parents as well as our children’s journey into adulthood.
I was recently attending an Internet safety conference in Brussels and one of the youth representatives put up his hand and asked the speaker: “You’ve given a lot of advice in your speech about how adults can protect children online. Do you have any advice for young people who want to talk to adults but don’t want to be made to feel stupid?” I was really struck by this raw, unapologetic question in such a public forum. And it isn’t the first time I’ve heard it. When I filmed Inimini (in the video above) she described the judgments often made about her generation (often referred to as “Gen Z”) and the destructive stereotypes that characterize young people as “wasting away online.” In our discussions, both on and off camera, I got the sense that, too often, she has felt belittled by her elders simply by virtue of the fact that she belongs to a generation that has grown up with smart phones and Internet. After all, living in and coming of age with one’s generation, is something we all must do. We don’t have a choice in the matter.
These conversations remind me to resist describing, judging or decoding the behaviour of children and teens solely based on my sketchy understanding of the communication platforms they use (No, I don’t know all the ins and outs of Snapchat).
Thinking about the reaction of Inimini and the young man in the conference (as well as many others to whom I have talked), I’m left with a lot of uneasy questions: do some young people feel stigmatized or even blamed for having grown up with the digital communication tools that their parents have put into their hands? Can we, as adults, have double standards when it comes to our use of the very same technology? And does it really help the quality of our cultural debate when we use broad simplifications to stereotype an entire generation and its interaction with digital communication tools? How do these generational attitudes affect the way we approach children in our own homes or students in our classrooms? Do they help or hinder our ability to communicate and connect with them?
As someone who works on the ground with young people, I’m becoming more and more wary of terminology (e.g. digital natives vs digital immigrants) or apocalyptic arguments (e.g. screens are destroying a generation) that separate us or insist on irreconcilable differences between generational experiences and use of digital communication. It worries me because I think it then becomes more culturally acceptable for a parent or educator to just say: “I don’t understand their technology, therefore I don’t understand my child or my student.” Isn’t that a missed opportunity?
As Inimini says: “We do want to reach out to our older peers but an environment gets created where we feel like we can’t do that.”
In the early years of teaching media camps, I would sometimes ask students if they would like to share their favourite Youtubers with the class. We would watch clips selected by the students (with my input to ensure the media was safe for the group to watch) and then just talk. I asked questions and the children would explain who the Youtubers were and generally orientate me. Students enthusiastically participated. I was, in fact, a little surprised at how much time and energy the children gave to these classes. I tried it at home with my own children (then 12 and 9 years of age). Same reaction. In the following ten years working with students in my media camps, I’ve never had a student not want to share some aspect of their Youtube/online life. Same goes for my children. This taught me that: Many children want and need to share their media with adults.
By sharing media, they are, in fact, revealing something about themselves. But sharing a favourite Youtuber, video, gif or gaming environment with an adult might sometimes feel like risky business. It can open that child up to comments, criticisms, ridicule, rejection, perhaps even punishment. It makes me wonder how many quietly loaded moments have passed by with my own children without me even noticing. No, I still don’t always manage to keep my mouth shut.
What if we don’t like what we see? What if we feel threatened, angry, ashamed, confused, or embarrassed by the media coming from our child’s social media feeds? What if it confronts our values or ideas of social decency? What if it looks and sounds dangerous? What if the tone of the media totally contradicts the image we have of that child’s personality? Do we want the media to reflect who we think our child is? How polite or smart should it be? Do we understand what we are seeing?
And this has got me thinking: if we, as parents and educators, can’t tolerate the media our children and students are consuming – especially when it confronts us – how on earth are we going to interact with and guide our younger generation? I remember watching a video from my son’s feed featuring the Youtuber KSI as he accosted girls in the street asking them obscene questions about their sex lives. I didn’t like it. As KSI laughed about the long line of women he had bedded and then rejected, I didn’t like it. But something in that media was speaking to my 14 year-old son – even if it was just a chance to exercise cynical voyeurism, a kind of “laugh out loud” at this guy’s crazy antics. This made me realize that not only did I need to stick with the media long enough to understand the broader context of its design (repeated, short, prank cycles to get views and reinforce a persona, all incentivised by Youtube’s business model and testosterone culture) but also to understand how my son was seeing the media: what did he think of the way the media was put together, the attitudes towards women, KSI’s persona and the line between pranking and invasion of privacy? And then the hard part: to let my son continue watching it. Because I had no power to close the door and disinvite KSI into my home. He was sitting in my son’s pocket on his Youtube feed.
This could have caused considerable conflict between us (ranging from me lunging for his phone to just walking away with the idea that my son was clueless) had it not been for our conversation which helped me understand that my son was, indeed, quite capable of reflecting on what he was watching and able to see many of the issues I had pointed out – whether he disagreed with me or not. In fact, throughout that conversation and subsequent ones, I learned that my son watched a lot of media that dealt with social justice issues: a fact I wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t talked about the very things I felt uncomfortable with in KSI’s content (at least the content I had been exposed to). The conversation gave me access to a side of my son I had no idea existed, helped me understand my son and his Youtuber in a broader context and gave me new ways to share media with him.
I filmed JP when she was sixteen (see video above). Her words often ring in my ears when young people share their media with me: “Embrace your child’s media.”
Thank you JP. Oh, yes, and thank you KSI.
Over the last decade, I have been running media literacy classes in a wide variety of schools and educational programmes. I teach parents, educators and students how to make media, assess it, and use it responsibly. The students range from 7-17 years of age. I’ve learned the most from them. One of the key lessons they’ve taught me is that: Young people are emotionally invested in their media.
This isn’t a throw away point. Its crucial. Because if we really understand that, then we might approach discussions about media with our children a little differently. It makes sense when you think about it. Media touches every part of their daily lives. It is structurally integrated into their worlds at school and often, at home. Social media tools allow them to connect, collaborate, work, learn, play, support, fight, prank, hate, hurt, love, obsess, confess, perform, hide, accuse, make up, etc.. – everything that humans do in their daily interactions with each other. And young people are no exception. In fact, they are just starting to explore the bigger world and search for their place within it. Do we remember what that was like?
Parents often express to me their worries about screen time, addiction, lack of reading, or face-to-face socialising, predators, pranking, violent or sexual online content, social isolation, immediate gratification, sedentary lifestyles and a host of other issues. This is often the frame of mind I encounter when I talk to parents or teachers. And yes, these are concerns – I am a parent too. But it seems to me, the discussions often frame our children’s use of social media from a hierarchical place in which we privilege our adult concerns and fears and forget that our children are dealing with a complex array of daily human interactions that might not always be visible in our field of “attention”. And this has got me thinking: are we missing opportunities to nurture and engage our children by relating to their media? Especially given that it encompasses things they are so emotionally tied to?
A few years ago, I decided to start documenting young people in order to learn more about how they experienced childhood, screens, parents and school. I’m a filmmaker so I picked up my camera and began interviewing children ranging from 9-17 years of age. I filmed children with whom I had worked for many years and whose parents I knew well. I’m also a parent of two wonderful teenagers so I filmed them and many of their friends.
The interviews were more like regular conversations – the kinds we would have in class or at home. The children decided what they wanted to talk about. I would then film as we talked. Afterwards, I cut clips from the interviews and had both parents and children “green light” the content. All the children chose random usernames which is their identity for this project, which I call “Friends Like Me”.
In this blog, I aim to share what I’m learning from children with parents and educators because I have been blown away by so much of what the children have to say. I really and truly believe that by listening to them, we can build a more nuanced, gentle, intergenerational dialogue about the fact that we are ALL living in a media saturated culture and we are ALL looking for balance, meaning and connection. Wouldn’t it be amazing, if we could pull resources and do this together?
Friends Like Me Project ©2018