THE BLOG

What Is Image-based Social Media Doing to the Lives of Teens?

04/27/2015 09:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

I hated having photos taken of myself as a teenager; my family photo albums albums are devoid of pictures of me from the age of 10 to 15. And this awkwardness seems fairly universal -- when someone digs out an old class photo from school and posts it on Facebook, it is so often greeted with universal groans of embarrassment. Our teen identity changes rapidly and we typically go through stages when we don't feel comfortable in our own skin. We are self-conscious at the time, and when we look back, it is as often with horror as well as with pleasure.

But today, the challenge of accepting your teen self is made that much harder because managing the way you appear online, your so-called "social media profile," is a full-time job. While I would go around to a friend's house to chat or perhaps use the home phone to natter about nonsense for hours after school, the rise of social media has changed the dynamic of teen interaction. And communication through social networks is largely based on image and appearance. Your profile is a photo, your content videos and your language reduced to acronyms. OMG. Lol. WOM.

Research shows that large numbers of women are spending three hours or more a day on these platforms, but perhaps the most worrying statistic is that three-quarters of Gen Y/Millenial women edit photos of themselves before posting them. Selfies have come a whole industry, one that has exploded recently thanks to the advent of the selfie stick. And it's not just the process of taking and editing the photo that counts; it's the period after posting, waiting for the response of one's friends to it. If no one 'likes' it, teen law dictates it will be taken down and replaced by another. Everything has to pass the scrutiny of friends. Thigh gap too small? There's an app for slimming. Skin too dark? Download an app to whiten it. There is no perceived flaw that cannot be righted by a filter or photo editing app. Rumor has it that Kim Kardashian has an editor for all her Instagram uploads, with an annual salary of $100,000!

If you thought that was bad, the launch of Twitter's new live streaming app, Periscope, has taken self-absorption to the next level. It enables users to live stream video of their lives moment-by-moment to everyone and anyone. I saw one example where an innocent-looking student filmed herself waking up, to which a guy had posted "show us your tits." Every and any moment of people's lives are offered up for comment, and the default privacy settings mean that almost anyone can view the content.

This narcissistic movement exposes already vulnerable teens to even greater pressures to be perfect. It has also given bullying a nasty sting. Commenting from behind a screen is often easier than saying something mean to someone's face, leading to cyberbullying. One trend is delving into the archives of someone's photos and reposting one less than glamorous kiddie pic to deliberately humiliate the friend. The other even darker trick is to threaten a friend or girlfriend to post unflattering photos if they don't submit to their wishes.

Some attempts have been made to campaigning for natural beauty and body images. The website herself.com proudly displays nude women, comfortable in their skin, for it is that skin that has clothed them and protected them throughout their trials and tribulations. The no makeup selfies for cancer were also a powerful statement for a while, b‎ut sadly, they didn't change habits. One friend's daughter told me she puts makeup on not to go out or see a boyfriend, but to do her daily selfie.

The question is this: What will be the cumulative effect of all this self-scrutiny on this highly-connected generation? A recent study has shown that phones have a dopamine effect, creating highs but lows, with the typical addictive downside of intense withdrawal symptoms. Also, many worry that so much of teen interaction is now online. They can find out details about friends without ever asking them. First dates are now ditched for online chats. Heaven forbid that the guy sees what you 'really' look like before a perfector app does its job. How will this impact of their future interpersonal skills? Are they at risk of losing their innate human ability to read social cues and handle conflict?

It is also understandable why image has become reality. Girls see flawless images online and are seeking offline options. A boob job or lip plumping is now a birthday request for an 18-year-old. Waist too chunky in real life? There's a belt that sucks it all in. Bum too flabby? Try a pumping party that gives the Nicky Minaj effect with dubious injections. The Internet is awash with new social media crazes. Last week, it was sucking on a shot glass to bruise your lips and give yourself a 'Kardashian-style super-pout.'

Some of the answers must lie with the providers. Instagram and Facebook need to set best practices by encouraging images of real, unedited life on social platforms. Brands, celebrities and opinion-formers have a moral responsibility to show the truth -- that NO ONE has unblemished skin and that cellulite happens to everyone (even sex symbols!).

It is high time for Adonis's mask to fall and for all to be freed to be what they want and let their true personalities shine through the artifice. It is time for everyone to have permission to be their own kind of beautiful.