I’m a mother of girls. Two fabulous, complicated, complex, wonderful and interesting girls. My joy at having little people to whom I can really, honestly relate as they grow is immeasurable… but this has been met by equal levels of worry about supporting their self-belief and self-esteem as I raise them in a world saturated by media that feeds them unhealthy, unkind and unsustainable messages.
Much of pop culture is fabulous fun (I’ve only just begun to investigate the world of online learning communities which connect people to every kind of popular interest you could imagine!), and yet I remain skeptical of the popular messages that are fed to our girls across any number of media platforms - common themes being that the ‘prettier’ and sexier they are, the better. These messages pervade television, magazines (what are they?!), gaming and social media. I wrote recently about selfie culture and whether it’s harmful, and in the process was drawn to an article I remember reading earlier this year about the extremes of editing that some young people went to before considering their photos ‘social media ready’. The pressure on young women to look a certain way is significant - and starts early. As I went through the photos from that article using the slide feature to see the ‘before' and ‘after’ of their images, I was struck by how almost cartoonish their edited images appeared. Large eyes, small chins, lots of makeup, very…
Yes, the multi-billion dollar marketing industry that is ‘Disney Princesses’ is a giant in the arena of popular culture. And not everyone is happy with the message they send. Despite getting a better rap in recent years due to the more feminist-friendly princesses to have graced our screens in Frozen (sort of), Brave and Moana, the latent popularity of old-school favourites like Cinderella and The Little Mermaid means that these hyper-feminine and stereotyped characters continue to exert significant influence. While studies have struggled to lay the blame for poor-self esteem squarely at the feet of our Disney princesses (hey, childhood is complicated and longitudinal studies which can isolate the measure of a single influence are hard to come by!), theories of gender development do suggest that one of the ways in which we learn about gender roles and society’s expectations is through modelling. Without time to go into the details of gender stereotypes here, I’m going to stick to body image. Disney has a habit of exaggerating the more feminine traits of its female characters (and masculine of its male) to give us doe-eyed, made-up, long-lashed, small-chinned, (sound familiar?) young women who incidentally always seem to get the guy in the end. The beauty-ideal is established early. And while we can't point the finger singularly at Cinderella, we do know that girls' body confidence is affected by images they see in the media, and that even though they may know that these images are unrealistic or unattainable, they still experience dissatisfaction with their own bodies by comparison.
When my eldest daughter started showing interest in movies I was resolute. No Disney! Ha! Fat chance. Trying to avoid Disney is like hoping you won’t see sunlight when you step outside in the morning… it’s everywhere. And these guys are good. All three billion's worth of them. My tree-climbing, dirt-finding, fun-loving six year old has hundreds of wonderful books on her shelves, and I’ll be honest and say that a little part of me dies inside each time she chooses Cinderella as her favourite. Because it doesn’t stop there. This fabulous kid also bats her eyelashes at the camera and tells me she loves Cinderella because she’s so ‘pretty’. Ugh. “What else do you like about her?” I ask through gritted teeth with my fingers crossed behind my back… “Uhm, she has blonde hair”… “And?”… “And she’s kind”. At least we got a personality trait.
But hey, here’s some good news. A study by (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson & Birkbeck (2016) found that while watching Disney films might reinforce gender-stereotypical behaviour in girls, it can actually work to increase more stereotypically feminine behaviour in boys and this might work towards dampening hyper-masculinity and encouraging a more androgynous self-view, and this can be beneficial for boys' development. Hooray!
Me to my six year old daughter: “No you can’t watch Cinderella (again)”.
Also me to my four year old son: “Hey, have you seen this great movie about a princess?!”
I recently watched a group of teenagers at the beach spend close to two hours taking photos of themselves. The coached each other, changed positions, changed angles, and checked and re-checked the results all in their quest for the perfect selfie. Initially, I just felt sad that these kids weren’t ‘enjoying’ a beautiful day at the beach, then I started to feel anxious about the online world my children would soon be entering, and eventually, I got to thinking about selfie culture in general, and what it really means.
Are selfies simply a bit of harmless fun? Or the physical expression of an increasingly image focused society? Or are they in fact a dangerous obsession which threatens our children’s mental health? Selfie-taking is without a doubt, not only a polarising issue, but one which serves to clearly delineate the young from the old. Or does it? Are selfies an exclusive expression of youth culture, or have some older generations found themselves drawn in? Do you happily plaster pictures of yourself all over social media? Do you take the odd picture, albeit reluctantly, but secretly enjoy the level of control you have over the process? Or have you never ever flipped a phone screen and pointed it at your own face? Chances are, if you don’t belong in the first category, you’re either somewhat bemused, entirely befuddled or genuinely worried about the ‘selfie culture’ which has infiltrated our lives. So what is it about this trend which unsettles us? Is it just different from what we’re used to? Or legitimately concerning?
I wrote recently about pop culture, the evolution of language and the tensions this process sometimes produces for older generations. Similarly, do we react to selfie culture simply because it’s new, different and we don’t understand it? Just as I reacted at the beach watching the perfect selfie quest in action? And are we more confronted by young women taking charge of the expression of their public identity in this way than we are of young men?
Discussions about selfies usually find their way to questions of narcissism - after all, surely you must be utterly self-absorbed and self-promoting to engage in this type of behaviour… right? Well, despite the fact that research does suggest a correlation between taking and posting selfies and narcissism, especially in young men, it is also clear that this behaviour is not confined to the truly narcissistic. Indeed, young men and women tend to take and post selfies for a range of reasons connected to developing their own identity, connecting themselves to social groups, and seeking admiration and approval. And even though we know that the selfie trend has found its place among adults too, this behaviour definitely declines with age.
So is it even a problem then? If everyone does it? Unfortunately, research also indicates that taking and viewing selfies is not without potential pitfalls for our self esteem and general satisfaction with our lives. Specifically, viewing others’ selfies and by nature comparing ourselves to them is linked with lower self esteem and unhappiness, and these outcomes appear to be exaggerated if our desire for popularity is high. Is this because lonely people spend more time on social media? Or because social media makes us lonely? It’s not clear. The good news however is that these outcomes are actually reversed when we consider the effects of viewing ‘groupies’ which tend to make us feel happier and more included. So maybe social media isn’t the devil after all.
Enter - the sexy selfie. It’s here that the differences in the way that our girls and boys both take selfies and are viewed for their behaviour that more noticeable differences appear. We know that young women are more likely to edit their photos: altering their appearance, and cropping and filtering their images (take a look at these amazing sliding images of teens’ pre and post edited photographs). We also know that objectified images are often met with more positive responses on social media which leads to… more objectified images. Throw into that mix a healthy dose of media saturated with sexualised images and a good splash of adolescent anxiety and it’s easy to see why parents may be concerned about the impact that selfies might be having on their kids. Our girls in particular are being expected to walk a fragile line between the construction, ownership and presentation of themselves and a society which sends them contradictory messages. Validation of sexiness all around them, but not in the photos they share of themselves.
So… to selfie or not to selfie? We can agree I think that for the time being at least, selfies are here to stay. The product of an image obsessed society? Seems so. Just for the narcissists? As brilliantly self-serving as selfies can be, no, not just for them. Harmful? Definitely not all the time, but potentially, yes. So selfie at will (with a dash of perspective and a little bit of caution).
I'll confess that I’m one of those people who twitches when I hear words used in the ‘wrong’ way… but perhaps I’m coming around (if my use of inverted commas is anything to go by). We know that language evolves (Erard, 2017) and that we don’t speak or write the way that we once did (see my earlier blog post about why we should still study Shakespeare!). So why do we resist this change? Why do I react when I hear a kid call something ‘lit’ when they mean excellent, knowing full well that this definition will one day weasel its way into the dictionary? (It already has).
Over time, these words slowly make their way into mainstream vocabulary (thus losing their evasive pleasure!), and eventually their new meanings are officially recognised (just in time for young people to abandon them as decidedly un-cool). So why do young people use words in ways they weren’t meant for? Or make up new words entirely?
It seems the almost singular purpose of each generation to distinguish themselves from their predecessors. The language we use is a critical component of our identity and indeed one of the clearest ways in which we both establish and signal the social groups to which we belong. Thus, the language of young people both separates and includes - distinguishing them from older generations and marking their inclusion in particular social groups. If you’ve ever overheard a group of kids and genuinely marvelled at the fact that they’re speaking the same language as you - you’re officially old.
So where does that leave us? Do we brace ourselves in frustration against the evolution of language as we know it? Or do we bend with the winds of change and accept the inevitable? And why do we find this so hard? Perhaps the difficulty lies in feeling that something of ours is being lost and we have no control over it. Or perhaps in the ‘degredation’ of language we see echoes of the ways in which society is simply not ‘what it once was’. Is our opposition really just a yearning for the past and for a time when we were younger and more relevant?
Maybe this isn’t a thing at all, and you’re reading along wondering what on earth I’m so bothered about. Is it an English teacher thing? Perhaps you’re totes (agh!) comfortable with words like ‘extra’, ‘snatched' and ‘hunty’ (I had to look them up too). One thing is for sure though - even if you’re absolutely fine with all this - don’t ever cross the invisible line. We can’t see it, but I assure you that this line exists. There’s no better way to ensure that a word you’ve learned vanishes from your teen’s/student’s vocabulary as quickly as it arrived, than to try and start using it yourself. You may even understand how to use it in context (hats off to some of these parents who have an impressive handle on their kids’ vocabulary!), but never, ever go there. There’s no surer way to signal your age than to appropriate teen-speak. And if as part of your endeavours you're referring to websites for “new slang terms to memorise if you want to stay cool”… then trust me, you’re not - and that's ok!
Every now and again, someone secures their 15 seconds of fame by claiming that Shakespeare is no longer relevant and should be abolished from the curriculum. Debate is heated and passionate and eventually we settle back to smooth our ruffled feathers and the Bard quietly retains his place. So I ask instead - why are we asking this question?
I’ll happily state clearly and simply that I believe Shakespeare to have a legitimate and unshakeable claim to a place on every English literature curriculum. Should every child in every school study Shakespeare? Of course not. Is the canon of western literature unreasonably dominated by white men? Clearly. Are there myriad other authors who are worthy of our time? Without question. But would the study of English literature be complete without Shakespeare? I say no.
I say we’re asking the wrong question here. Which is not to say that it’s not good and right to question what we teach and why we teach it. The endurance of Shakespeare however speaks to his relevance across time and place and this endurance surely goes some way towards cementing his cultural significance. It is here however, that much of the debate swirls. Is Shakespeare just a vestige of the upper classes who should not be foisted on to hapless school students? I don’t think so. Our students are not hapless and yet I feel that often this argument stems from underestimating their abilities. And yet this is also where the question of Shakespeare’s relevance on the curriculum comes from - is he out of date?
The cultural status of Shakespeare has not been constant, and is likely to continue to change. Where his plays were once performed for the masses, then published in expensive editions afforded only by the rich, he now finds himself the basis of Disney films, as well as being performed by the faithful in theatres throughout the world as well as being adapted for any number of new contexts and mediums. Shakespeare’s plays have retained their literary clout whilst finding their way consistently into the realms of popular culture. That so often today we see people flocking to affordable seasonal outdoor productions of Shakespeare is telling of the ongoing relevance of, and interest in, his works.
Enthusiasm is key. Shakespeare is not a puzzle to be solved for its own sake. The writing is challenging, yes, but worth it! We tend not to shy away from the mental challenge of a complicated mathematical puzzle, and yet to unlock Shakespeare is not an end in itself, but a means to accessing the linguistic delights that he has to offer as a master of his craft. I remember as a student, the sense of accomplishment that came from slowly progressing from being the one confused when others chuckled during a reading of Romeo and Juliet (wasn’t it just a play about love and death?!), to genuinely appreciating not only the humour, but the masterful way in which Shakespeare plays with language in order to create it.
In an era where our language is so easily reduced to a minimum of fuss and effort and we will happily communicate in emojis instead of words, surely there is something to be gained from seeing language used in beautiful (if complicated) and ultimately profound ways which shed light on the human experience. For me, the beauty of great literature has always been the ways in which it is actually able to illuminate my own experience of the world - providing clarity to pictures until then blurred by the limits of my own linguistic skill. If language has the ability to shape our understandings of the world, then surely we are remiss not to seek out our most skilled practitioners. Is Shakespeare the only writer we should study? Of course not. Is he one of the very best? Without doubt. In the same way we marvel at elite athletes who demonstrate the extreme capabilities of the human body, so too should we find a sense of continued admiration and appreciation for the flexing of literary muscle.
I'm taking off my teacher hat for a moment here and looking at this from a parent's perspective. This is not to say that the issues raised are not highly relevant to educators of adolescents - namely identity, safety, privacy and relationships.
All images from Pixabay
In an era where the intersection between youth culture and media is enormous, parents face a unique challenge: how to best protect and guide their children in the digital age. How to walk the line between supervision and respect for privacy. How to teach necessary skills and allow autonomy. How to embrace the benefits of social media whilst arming their children with the tools to navigate it safely. This question speaks to issues of youth culture, identity, safety, privacy and relationships. Navigating these murky waters is no mean feat for parents who in general terms, want the same things for their children: for them to be safe, and for them to develop sound decision-making skills as they creep ever closer to independence. Using these basic tenets as a framework for this investigation, this essay will examine the question of parental access to children’s social media, taking into consideration the purpose of these children having social media accounts, parental concerns surrounding their account use, the range of options available for monitoring children’s social media use, and likely outcomes of employing these options.
Young people and social media
In 2019 youth pop culture is now fully immersed in digital technology. Since the advent of the viral social media platform MySpace in 2004 (Watkins, 2009), young people have flocked to social networking sites. A report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA, 2013) found that 92% of 10-11 year olds have used social media with this number rising to 99% of 16-17 year olds. While much public reporting about the effects of social media use highlights the potential pitfalls and dangers of its use (Johnson, 2005), platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Instagram boast member numbers in their billions (Statista, 2019), and young people report using these sites to connect with others, feel good about themselves (ACMA, 2013), feel validated, and increase their social status (Siegle, 2010). The age of adolescence is also a time at which young people are most actively engaged in the investigation and construction of their personal identities, which are sourced through interactions with both digital and non-digital sources (Hughes, Morrison & Thompson, 2016). Thus, social media is now a critical part of the fabric of our culture from which young people draw their sense of self (McGraw, 2017). The choices that they make regarding their use and engagement with social media are heavily influenced by their social groups (Siegle, 2010; McGraw, 2017), and their online friendships are critical in that they often work to create a relational, or ‘open-source’ identity which is dependent on online interactions (Larson, 2016). Indeed, the offline persona that may be presented to parents is often, although connected, different to adolescents' online identity which is in turn more carefully crafted as they experiment with ways of understanding and expressing themselves (Hughes et al., 2016). Thus, young people tend to view their online activity as both personal and private (Hessel, He & Dworkin, 2017). Young people’s resistance of adult intrusion into this personal space is evidenced by the continual evolution of social networking sites that tend to lose their appeal once they become more ‘mainstream’ and hence lose their ‘evasive pleasure’ (Fiske, 2010). As a result, parents often tend to feel on the outer of their children’s social media experience (Hawk, Becht & Branje, 2016) which can lead to anxiety about the potential influences, implications and safety of their online activities.
The risks associated with social media use may well constitute the ‘moral panic’ of our time, with stories abounding about potential consequences for young people. And despite the fact that many lament the lack of promotion of the positive effects of media use (Johnson, 2005), there are established links between media use and a host of social, emotional and cognitive problems (Padilla-Walker, Coyne & Collier, 2015). As such, it would appear that parents’ concern about their children’s media use is warranted. What is unclear however, is how they should best manage this issue. One suggestion, and that which is being considered here, is that parents should have access to their children’s social media accounts. If ultimately, what parents desire is to keep their children safe, and encourage them to make positive independent choices, the value in adopting this approach must be considered, along with its alternatives. Thus, this paper will consider the implications of parents’ access to their children’s social media accounts both with and without their permission, as well as alternative monitoring practices.
Parental access to children's social media
Central to the question of whether parents should have access to their children’s social media accounts, is the notion of privacy. As our children grow and mature, they slowly gain independence from us and manage their lives themselves. Throughout this process therefore, the boundaries and understandings around privacy are constantly evolving. Critically, during adolescence, as young people assert their desire for autonomy and independence (Bell, 2016), this is one arena that is often hotly contested, with young people and their parents frequently holding differing views about where the boundaries of privacy lie. Domain theory provides one way of understanding the privacy issues which surround the question of parents’ access to their children’s social media (Hessel et al., 2017). This theory holds that our lives are mentally organised into moral, prudential, conventional and personal issues and that tensions arise when there are perceived transgressions by parents into the personal domains of their children (Hessel et al., 2017). Importantly, research suggests that while adolescents and their parents generally agree that parents hold some sway over the moral, prudential and conventional domains, they view their online activities as part of their private domain, and as such, they resist intrusion into this space (Hawk et al., 2016). Whilst we know that parental monitoring of children’s media use can be effective in that it may mitigate some of its negative effects (Padilla-Walker et al., 2015), parents nevertheless must tread carefully as research also suggests that perceived invasions of privacy are linked to a range of negative outcomes for young people (Hawk et al., 2016).
Another critical factor in trying to determine whether parents should have access to their children’s social media accounts is age. Although most social media platforms have a 13 year minimum age for joining, many young people sign up (often with their parents’ consent), well before this marker (ACMA, 2013). As adolescence is a time of significant change and development for young people in their feelings, their behaviours, their bodies, and their brains (Bell, 2016), it seems reasonable to suggest that what may work for one age group may not be suitable for another, and indeed the monitoring processes that are suggested here, have different implications for different stages of adolescence.
So how do parents gain information and better understand their children’s social media use? Active monitoring assumes that parents should have access to their children’s accounts, but qualifies this by suggesting that parents and children use the platforms together. This approach is commonly used by parents of early adolescents as it is defined by a high degree of parental involvement (Padilla-Walker et al., 2015) which is unlikely to be welcomed by older adolescents. Children’s social media use in this case is guided by parents and their activity discussed and analysed in order to facilitate a better understanding of the implications and meanings of their actions (Siegle, 2010). Proponents of this approach argue that it works to develop children as more critical consumers of the messages and ideas that they encounter on social media, and in this way that it can ‘inoculate’ them to a degree against some of the potential dangers they may encounter (Padilla-Walker et al., 2015). Developing a conscious consumption of media may also be one of the advantages of using social media in this way, with it acting as a cognitive workout for our children (Johnson, 2005). Thus, allowing, but having access to our children’s social media in this scenario would appear to be both justified and beneficial with research pointing to added benefits of this approach including increased self-regulation and empathy which in turn may lead to more prosocial behaviour and less aggressive and externalising behaviour (Padilla-Walker et al., 2015).
As mentioned however, having access to children’s social media and actively monitoring their accounts is an approach which becomes less viable as children get older because of their increasing sense of intrusion into an arena they perceive to be personal and private (Hawk et al., 2016). Unsurprisingly, as adolescents get older, their parents’ anxiety about the potential dangers they face online increases. It is during this time that accessing their children’s accounts without permission, or snooping, actually becomes more common (Hawk et al., 2016). This approach, while it may garner the information that parents desire, is highly contentious and perceived by most young people as a gross breach of trust. While there may be obvious evasive pleasure (Fiske, 2010) in the cultivation of a private identity online (Hughes et al., 2016), many young people also enjoy positive relationships with their parents and are willing to share information about their social media use and experiences. Importantly therefore, the unpredictability of snooping also fails to afford young people autonomy around disclosing information about their social media use (Hawk et al., 2016), which may only add to their sense of the inappropriateness of this behaviour. In addition, attempts to restrict use as a result of information gleaned by snooping, again through a sense of unreasonable intrusion into a private arena, have been linked to negative outcomes for young people, including depression (Hessel, et al., 2017).
Obviously, allowing unfettered use of social media, and snooping behind young people's backs are not the only options available to parents. If parents choose to respect their adolescent’s privacy and decline to access their accounts, they may still be able to learn about their online activity through opening up dialogue with them. While, ultimately, it is adolescents themselves who are the “gatekeepers of parents’ knowledge” (Hawk et al., 2016 p 443) about their online activities, parents can encourage their children to disclose information and it is perhaps here that the benefits of positive relationships and, indeed, of active monitoring may be seen. Who initiates conversations about online activity appears to matter, with more positive outcomes being correlated with discussions led by children, than those led by their parents (Hessel et al., 2017). Therefore, though speculative, if open channels of communication are developed through active monitoring in the early stages of adolescence, young people may perhaps be more likely to continue to voluntarily disclose information to their parents as they get older.
As a parent of young children on the cusp of entering the world of social media, this is an issue not only highly relevant, but also very important to me. As with many aspects of parenting, I feel anxious about adequately managing the task of gradually guiding my children towards independence, particularly as concerns their experiences and activity online. Providing guidance in the digital world is unique in that it may be the one area of parenting where many of us are not leading with the benefit of experience. Our unfamiliarity with many of the platforms that young people engage with is symptomatic of this issue. In this sense, I can empathise to a degree with those parents who choose to access their children’s social media accounts without their permission (Hawk et al., 2016).
Particularly interesting to me however, is the indication that while parents generally prefer not to ‘snoop’, when they feel it is necessitated, they also perceive it to be more justifiable than do their children (Hawk et al., 2016). Perhaps this is because of a sense that adults are more realistically aware of the potential dangers of social media than their adolescents, and this justification comes from a place of perceived protection. Regardless of intention however, I have only to look to my youth to understand the intensity of the feelings of betrayal that I imagine young people feel when their parents transgress their privacy. I once threw away a diary I had kept rather than risk a well-intentioned, but curious, parent looking at it, so intense would the sense of a betrayal of trust have been. While this example may appear to differ from the issues of social media because they stand in a more public arena, the core issue to me is trust, and the critical need to maintain it.
Equally important however, looking back also reminds me of the distinct and delicious pleasure as a teenager that came from deliberately breaking rules and defying expectations (Fiske, 2010). The pleasure of which now translates into fears around knowing that my children will feel exactly the same at some stage of their lives, with the added complexities of the digital world thrown into the mix. I am however reminded that this is nothing new and typical of the way each generation tends to feel about those following. In much the same way that young people in the days before social media worked to experiment with and cultivate their identity among friends and beyond the parental gaze, young people today perform versions of the same “identity-in-practice” online (Lemke, as cited in Larsen, 2016, p 23). The difference appears to be that today this performance is recorded (Siegle, 2011) and so parents have the ability to access this area of their children’s lives, which is nonetheless still perceived as private (Hessel, et al., 2017). Ultimately, I don’t feel that having the means justifies this intrusion.
If an understanding exists between parents and children that their social media accounts are private, my personal stance is that they should remain this way. This is despite my residual fear of the risk that increasingly sophisticated technology poses to their safety. What has resonated for me throughout this investigation is the importance of the maintenance of trust, which is something I feel can only be built through strong relationships between parents and their children. The development of open channels of communication throughout a child’s life, which manifest in an acceptance of active monitoring (Padilla-Walker et al., 2016) of their social media accounts appears to be both acceptable and beneficial for early adolescents. If in turn, active monitoring progresses towards the entrustment of social media accounts to young people who are armed with the ability to critically engage with what they see, and this is coupled with frequent and honest discussion, I would hope that parents would feel confident that this approach best adheres to their design to grow independent young people who are critical consumers of social media.
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I'm a teacher, student and advocate for better education through ongoing questioning, thinking and learning.