Born between 1995-2012, iGen’ers experience the world in an entirely different way from their predecessors. They are “the most ethnically diverse generation in American history,” root for equality of all people regardless of race, religion, gender, and sexuality, and will live most of their lives through social networking sites.11 The pains of adolescence still exist, and for this generation they are recorded for eternity on sites like Instagram and SnapChat.
Twenge identifies ten trends that shape the iGen’ers--of those ten, this unit will focus on three: the internet, the decline of in-person social interaction, and the rise in mental health issues. iGen high school seniors spend approximately six hours a day on “new media,” defined as texting, social networking, and gaming.12 Most of their social lives occur online. In the book American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales, teens describe going on their phone to check SnapChat and losing track of time, spending at least an hour on the site.13 Gone are the days of house parties, unless they are using the social media app “House Party” which lets users create private rooms for friends to video chat by splitting the screen to accommodate everyone’s feeds. However, it’s not just partying that is on the decline; in general, teens are spending less in-person time together.14 “All we talk about all day is what’s happening on our phones, but we never talk about how weird that is,” explained a thirteen-year-old in the book American Girls.15 Critical social skills, conflict resolution and navigating conversations, are practiced through time spent in-person with friends, much of which is being missed by the iGen’ers.16
Even more concerning is the correlation between time spent online and unhappiness, loneliness, and its effects on mental health in general. Through her research, Twenge found that:
- Eighth graders who spent 6 or more hours a day online are 47% more likely to say that they are unhappy and those who spend more time with their friends are 20% less likely to be unhappy.
- Teens who visit social media sites daily or nearly every day are 11% more likely to be lonely.
- Teens who spend more time on-screens are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression, such as hopelessness and loss of interest in life.17
Twenge suggests that social networking sites boost social comparison, with users feeling like they are inadequate compared to their peers.18 Teens are failing to realize that their peers are only posting the best parts of their days. People do not generally share their failings with the world. Self-presentation and the careful curation of social networking sites leads people to believe that everyone else is having a better time, is more successful, and is more beautiful.
Self-Presentation and “Being Aesthetic”
The social lives of teens occur predominantly online.19 They are gauging their popularity through how may “likes” they get or “followers” they receive. In order to maintain a high social status, teens spend a lot of their time curating their Instagram feeds to make sure they are “aesthetic.” According to Victoria, a thirteen-year-old interviewed for the book American Girls, “It’s so much pressure to make your Instagram aesthetic. You can’t do anything wrong. And if you do, people could laugh at you, like, Oh, look at her Instagram, it’s so not aesthetic-it's so basic”20 It is because of this pressure that self-presentation is of utmost importance to social media users. To avoid ridicule, people want to present themselves online in the best way possible.21
So, how does one maintain the “aesthetic”? Follow these simple steps:
- Find an artistic location with good lighting. For example, the woods.22
- Take hundreds of selfies.23
- Find the best one and then alter the image using Photoshop to make yourself look as much like your favorite celebrity as possible--for example, Kylie Jenner.
- Apply an Instagram filter that complements the “aesthetic” theme that you have relentlessly developed for your feed.
- Plan when to post your picture in order to “hit prime time for getting likes.”24
Kim Kardashian is a professional at developing an “aesthetic” to increase her popularity through collecting “likes”. Using filters and photoshopping, Kim creates a glorified version of her realistic self.25 And she does this so successfully that she is now idolized by hundreds of millions of followers. Followers that compare themselves to her idealized self-presentation.
It appears to be a ruthless cycle. Teens perfectly curate their virtual identities for public consumption. And then they turn around and spend hours comparing their realistic selves to other people’s perfectly curated virtual identities. Teens are aware that this is what is happening. Riley, quoted in the book American Girls, comments, “It’s funny that it is called a ‘selfie’ because half the time it doesn’t even look like you. So, you are getting people to comment on this picture of you and it isn’t even real.”26
Social Comparison Theory and Social Media’s Effects
In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger introduced the theory of social comparison. This theory posits that individuals are driven to evaluate themselves through comparisons to others.27 These comparisons are a part of identity formation. Festinger argues that individuals use these comparisons to figure out where they fit in the world, and to determine their beliefs and values.28
There are three types of comparisons: downward,29 upward, and lateral.30 Lateral comparison is used for self-evaluation. Individuals employ this type of comparison to validate their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and choices.31 Upward comparison is when individuals compare themselves to someone who is thought to be better-off. Festinger suggests that this type of comparison is used to help an individual find motivation. However, this is a generalization. Depending on the person making the comparison, an upward comparison can leave the individual feeling inferior.32 Downward comparison is when individuals examine someone who is thought to be worse-off. An individual may employ this tactic of comparison when they want to feel better about the situation that they are in.
A study examining the types of comparison being made while on Facebook found that of 150 students surveyed, 88% made social comparisons while on Facebook and 98% of these comparisons were upward comparisons.33 Furthermore, this study used a survey to examine rates of self-esteem after using Facebook. They found that spending one hour a day on Facebook resulted in a decrease of self-esteem. Thus, there is a possible correlation between upward social comparisons on social networking sites and lowered self-esteem.
Another study in 2012 concluded that people who used Facebook the longest were more likely to believe that others were happier than they were. This same study found that when people had more face-to-face interactions with their friends, being able to see the whole person as opposed to a carefully curated online persona, they were less likely to believe that others were living better lives.34
The iGen is at “the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.”35 While it is not possible to pinpoint one direct cause for the rise in mental health issues, there is a correlation to screen time. Increased screen time is linked to more unhappiness and depressive symptoms. Furthermore, it is also linked to less in-person interactions, which in turn is linked to unhappiness and depressive symptoms.36