This piece originally featured in issue 4 of Digital Parenting magazine.
What happens to children’s identities when they share details about their lives incessantly on social media and what’s it all about? By psychologist and author Dr Linda Papadopoulos.
Social media has become as much about defining who we are as it is about connecting with friends and family. The need to establish a presence – an identity that people take note of – contributes to how we see and value ourselves. Our likes, retweets and posts act as a barometer not only of how others perceive us, but perhaps, more worryingly, of how we perceive ourselves.
Of course, concern about how others see us is nothing new. Other people’s opinions have always affected us in some way. But we now have the ability to ask for these opinions as never before. This may explain why we feel it necessary to share details about our lives so incessantly: I post therefore I am. When the line between the “self” and the “selfie” – our private and public selves – becomes blurred, identity stops reflecting individuality. Instead it becomes a means of approval and status.
As we tweak and edit who we are so that we can appeal to others, there is a danger of coming to believe that we’re not yet worthy of being “liked”. Many young people trying to establish an identity are also running a campaign to promote themselves, and the danger is that they may begin to feel that they can’t really live up to the “self” they’ve created. The more information we have on other people’s views about ourselves, the more likely we are to see our identity as being dependent on traits that we would like to have or we assume others want to see in us – rather than being an expression of our beliefs and values.
We start to view ourselves in the third person. We effectively step outside ourselves and become observers of our own lives, constantly wondering how we measure up in the eyes of others, ready to edit who we are in order to conform or please. The need to know oneself makes way for the more pressing need to manage what others think – basically, to self-promote. There is an increasing body of research that suggests this is making us feel, well, not so “liked”.
Constructing identity out of others’ expectations can leave us uncertain as to who we really are. Seeking validation and acceptance is normal, but this needs to happen offline as well as online. Young people need mirrors to reflect their developing attributes back at them, rather than scripts to follow. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that social networking is bad. But I do think that it’s time to acknowledge how profoundly our online identities can affect us.
As online and offline become more intertwined, it is important to learn how to disconnect from our “constructed” identities to remember who we really are. Once we lose the ability to engage with our identity internally, it becomes something outside us and so it is more easily manipulated. Philosophers and behavioural scientists point out that a desire for authenticity is central to our sense of wellbeing, a cornerstone of mental health. Being true to who we are is correlated with self-esteem, vitality and self-determination. Young people need a chance to rewrite their scripts on their own terms, looking inwards for what feels right and ignoring those would-be editors who don’t really know who they are.
This article was originally written in partnership with Parent Zone.