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The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance

illustration by Kristian Jones

The Dangers of Pursuing Self-Esteem on Social Media

Social media. It’s all around us. Everyone knows what it is, how it works, and how each and every one of our individual lives is affected by it. At this point it’s almost unavoidable as it clearly has permeated every aspect of this modern world.

But the big problem I see lies less with older generations, and instead with children and teenagers; kids who grew up never knowing the analog like the rest of us have. Today’s kids are navigating a world of already complex social situations, accompanied by a device that provides a window into the lives of every other kid around them, in a way that was never possible previously.

Within the last 10 years in the United States, we’re seeing extremely startling rates of depression across all ages and diversities, but when we look at kids and teens, these numbers are even more dramatic. Depression and suicide rates are up over 30% each just between 2010 and 2015, and other sources say that rates just in the last few years are 60% higher for teens in 2016 than they were in 2013.

major social media platform releases

Despite an inability from the scientific community to produce direct evidence (just due to the amount of time it takes to make a claim of this magnitude), much of my reading seems to link these dramatic changes, in large part, on the rise of social media. The ever growing number of different platforms and resources which have become available since the creation of the internet have overwhelmed the population with ways to connect, share, and discover. We now have the chance to share things remotely and in no time at all, things that would have originally taken far longer.

Think back to high school and how rough it was for so many people. Now imagine trying to navigate that experience again, but in a world where you always know who is at what party, if that girl you have a crush on is spending lots of time with someone else, or if your friend didn’t invite you to hangout even though they said they would. In the past you had to confront these problems literally face to face, but now social media instead becomes a digital buffer between kids and the real world.

So the question then becomes, how has this directly been affecting us, and how is it affecting the kids? Unfortunately if you ask them, they already know it’s an issue.

quotes from anonymous teens ages ranging from 13–18

Above are quotes from teens I’ve spoken to over the last year about social media and how it’s affected their lives. There’s clearly a problem.

So why has this become such an issue so quickly? Addictive app design, or habit-forming product design, is a widely discussed topic within the design community and is often the scapegoat (I say scapegoat now, only because I do believe there is a deeper cause to all this, but I’ll have more to say on habit forming design later) for why teens won’t put their phone’s down. It clearly does play a key role in keeping teens active on social media, but we can’t truly understand the problem until we take a step back and ask why people are on these platforms in the first place:

Ironically, we all scroll to feel better about ourselves and grow our self-esteem.

Addiction vs self-esteem.

Most people are familiar with addiction as a concept, but let’s look real quick at how it works, because there’s a clear similarity between the way addictions and self-esteem can affect an individual and it’s worth understanding. Please remember that I’m explaining this through the understanding of someone who is clearly not a psychologist, scientist, or expert in this field, but my research has led to the following understanding.

There are substance addictions (such as smoking or alcohol) and there are behavioral addictions (such as gambling or shopping). Both function essentially the same way, only a substance addiction is attached to a substance that physically affects our brain chemistry, rather than behaviors that cause similar levels of excitement or relief without the substance. Internet addiction is another topic that is beginning to be considered a behavioral addiction in many circles, and within this category we can easily place the use of social media.

The addiction process, simply put, always follows a predictable pattern: use or action, experienced high or rush, increased stress due to a lack of that use/action, and eventual physical withdrawal from the substance or behavior. Our emotions are directly affected by this process and are physical reactions to these external actions or events. Unfortunately, each time we do these things, the excitement dulls, and requires increased use or action to receive the same rush as before, meaning, the less you do these things, the more depressed you can potentially become. This process works the same for everyone, but the severity changes from person to person.

You can probably see the issue then when it comes to the way that we spend time on social media, and it can be even more difficult for the younger generations, often without understanding the consequences of what they’re doing. It’s for that same reason teenagers have been banned from smoking and drinking and a number of other activities.

Self-esteem.

Now what does this have to do with self-esteem? Self-esteem is defined as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities.” It’s a phrase that we grew up hearing, but I feel like it doesn’t quite hold the same amount of importance in today’s world as it should. Every single day we are working to build our self-confidence, whether or not you’re conscious of it. Here’s how it works:

  1. We go through life with goals, desires, and aspirations, all created unconsciously as children in the most simple form, and we are guided by beliefs about who we think we need to be and who we perceive ourselves as.
  2. While performing tasks, we either are successful or we fail in completing this thing, as is life.
  3. Success or failure inherently makes you say to yourself, whether consciously or not, I’ve succeeded or I’ve failed.
  4. Depending on the importance you have unconsciously assigned to the task, the results may have heavier implications on your self-image, causing it to rise or drop.

Notice a pattern? The process of attempting to grow our self-esteem runs in a very similar pattern to the way addictions work, always looking for a boost in our self-image, but with the constant risk that it could drop much lower.

Now obviously some tasks can be far less important, like forgetting your lunch at home on your way to work. To some, this is only a minor inconvenience, but if you’re someone who is trying not to forget things (possibly motivated by a history of negligence and forgetfulness), then it might be a more upsetting moment and seen as a personal failure. Everyone has unique personal struggles related to their past, and that makes it impossible to predict what could cause a problem.

But that’s not really something that we can fix, so what can we do?

The pursuit of self-esteem.

While self-esteem itself is a very important aspect of our growth as healthy human beings, it’s in the pursuit of our unconsciously created self-esteem goals that we can fall into unhealthy habits and pitfalls; trying to define what our worth is to the people around us. It all depends on why we act in the first place.

For example, while in school you learn about new and interesting things, that’s the entire point, but why are you paying attention in class? Are you listening to get a good grade, show it off to your friends or parents, for that outside validation that you’re smarter than everyone else? Or are you paying attention so that you can learn something new, expand your view on life, and grow as a person? Not to say that one of these is better than the other, but the first reason for going to class (just to get the highest mark) can have far more damaging effects if you don’t get what you’re hoping for.

Life is about managing expectations and shifting your perspective from looking outward, to looking inward.

How do we shift perspectives?

Quick recap: Self-esteem is the underlying goal that drives any behavior. Success or failure in these self-assigned areas is where our self-esteem is derived. So if our happiness is based upon whether we succeed or fail, we need to be sure that we view the things we’re doing in the right frame of mind.

Making the change from pursuing outside validation to pursuing personal growth is to be the key, but how does that work with social media? Is it even possible? How does the current space need to change and how do our own actions need to change?

Why are we posting and who are we posting for?

The evolving digital landscape. Quantifiable problems.

In order to completely understand what this shifted behavior or mindset needs to look like, we need to fully understand the current landscape as it exists. Examining popular social media platforms through the lens of addiction and the pursuit of self-esteem helps to reveal key insights as to why people might not always happy on social media. Interestingly enough, anyone could guess exactly what these are. Quantifiable results and endless content. And despite the fact that each of these areas differ from platform to platform in terms of how exactly its manifested, the problems they create are the same.

Quantifiable results refers to any place where someone can clearly see results from posting, i.e. likes, shares, views, retweets, etc. When these statistics are available to us, it’s easy to be focused on what they mean and devote your efforts to satisfying those imaginary social standards, rather than spending your time using the platform for it’s original intended purpose; to share content and create a conversation. Coupled with an endless stream of content, lack of breaks in your feed, and a never-ending supply of new content from suggested influencers and accounts, it’s no surprise that teens are hooked on social platforms and so unsatisfied with the normal lives they lead at home.

Although we could just rid the world of social media and fix a lot of these issues, it’s an established institution that isn’t going anywhere. Because of this, I’ve been asking a question for the last little while. These elements seem to play a big part in the issues with self-esteem, whether or not we have actual proof, so why do we keep them?

illustration by Kristian Jones

Actual progress.

I originally started this body of research with two hopes. First, with the hope to design some sort of intermediary solution, something that could help bring these issues to the forefront of the designers’ minds, ideally to start making change within the industry itself. And second, to begin to educate the public about this problem, and ideally show them there is a better way to interact with others on social media, that doesn’t totally distract from your experience on the platform.

Obviously these are lofty goals for a mere university student, and some have said even a bit naive. I completely understand this. But as I was working to put out my design work in April 2019, there was a TechCrunch article written that showed plans from Instagram to begin to phase out certain aspects of their platform that they saw to be potentially harmful to their user’s mental health: removing the visible number of likes on a photo, and removing the “following” activity page (the page that showed what all of your followers were doing).

These are small steps, and ideally they will help actually begin to change people’s frames of mind and move things in the right direction. I’m hoping other social platforms will continue to get onboard with this same train of thought. Josh Constine, the TechCrunch reporter who wrote the article, framed the move by Instagram in a wonderful way:

“Narcissism, envy spiraling and low self-image can all stem from staring at Like counts. They’re a constant reminder of the status hierarchies that have emerged from social networks. For many users, at some point it stopped being fun and started to feel more like working in the heart mines. If Instagram rolls out the feature, it could put the emphasis back on sharing art and self-expression, not trying to win some popularity contest.”

Conclusion

I couldn’t agree more. And I sincerely hope that this is a start to a new world of on social media. A world where teens and adults alike can begin to regain control of their impulses instead of searching for the immediate gratification of likes. One where we are present in the moments that we live in and not focused on the competition. One where it’s entirely up to the individual to determine their own worth, the value of their identity.

That would be amazing. The only scary thing is adults seem to have an easier time at recognizing these things, but teenagers and kids don’t. They’re still learning, and we as designers need to keep them in mind.

Long term, the only acceptable goal for social platforms should be not only happy, but healthy users.

As a graduate student currently enrolled at the Royal College of Art and the Imperial College of London studying Global Innovation Design, my goal is to continue to pose these questions, seek to understand how we’ve ended up where we have, and begin to look for a solution. If no solution exists, at least we’ve taken note, not only as designers, but hopefully as people who are all unavoidably involved and — in turn — have a responsibility to do something about it.

I’ll let you know when I’ve made progress. In the meantime, if you think I’ve missed something, please let me know, always looking for more.

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Christian Pugsley

Christian Pugsley

Designer — MA/MSc Global Innovation Design @ RCA / Imperial College, just a grad student trying his hand at writing. See more of my work at www.cpugsley.com