Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 31 October 2020

Why I'm glad Instagram wasn't around when I was growing up

Being a teenager is confusing enough without social media's distorted representation of reality

Popularity was once measured by how many friends you had in school – now it is benchmarked against the number of strangers vicariously consuming your content. Unsplash / Gian Cescon
Popularity was once measured by how many friends you had in school – now it is benchmarked against the number of strangers vicariously consuming your content. Unsplash / Gian Cescon

I was a terrible teenager – full of angst and misplaced rebellion and the belief that I knew everything about everything.

I rallied against the constraints of my stuffy private school and felt disconnected from my parents, as is a teenager’s wont.

I was able to make my mistakes without an audience of hundreds, or even thousands, of social media followers

I struggled as my body morphed into something that didn’t feel like it belonged to me, and became increasingly conscious of what I looked like – and of how much, as a young woman, that shaped how I was perceived by the rest of the world. When one of my best friends made the same realisation, she took to making herself throw up after every meal.

At the time, we compared ourselves to the women we saw in issues of Just Seventeen or Cosmopolitan, or on the three television stations that were then available in Cyprus, where I grew up. Even with such limited exposure to society’s narrow ideals of female beauty, we became fixated on all the ways we didn’t add up.

We made mistakes. In the grand scheme of things, they were tiny (except for my predilection for smoking, which lingers to this day), but at the time, tiny mistakes felt all-consuming and took on end-of-the-world proportions.

We were conscious, as all young women must be, even in this “enlightened” age of equality, of getting a bad reputation.

Luckily, I was able to make my mistakes without an audience of hundreds, or even thousands, of social media followers. My mistakes were quickly forgotten by my peers, rather than living on in digital form.

Life in a fish bowl

I used to play squash competitively, at a national level. And as I proceeded through my teenage years, I grew to hate it. I remember being on court and feeling like I was in a fish bowl – all those spectators peering at me through the glass walls, watching and scrutinising my every move.

I imagine that’s what daily life feels like for teenagers in this social-media-fuelled age. Viewed through the lens of Instagram, or other social media platforms, life becomes a sporting event, your every move out there to be judged and commented on.

Teenagers need space to make mistakes, which can then be relegated to the footnotes of history. They need the freedom to discover who they are, without being judged for it.

When Instagram is telling you on a daily basis what your 'best self' should look like, reality invariably pales in comparison. Connor Olson / Unsplash
When Instagram is telling you on a daily basis what your 'best self' should look like, reality invariably pales in comparison. Connor Olson / Unsplash

With a platform that single-mindedly promotes aesthetics, the focus becomes entirely on the visual. Self-worth is measured in likes and shares, distorting an already confusing paradigm. Bombarded with doctored pictures of perfection, and snapshots of lifestyles that are entirely unattainable, there’s a huge chunk of Instagram that peddles in making people feel “less than”.

Bullying shifts from the playground to a battleground that’s permanently attached to the end of your arm

And so the quest for validation becomes unending, played out daily over hundreds of scrolls, clicks and uploads. Bullying shifts from the playground to a battleground that’s permanently attached to the end of your arm.

Popularity was once measured by how many friends you had in school – now it is benchmarked against the number of strangers vicariously consuming your content. Finding your angles is a rite of passage and predatory behaviour is socially sanctioned. Everybody wants to become an "influencer", with no real thought to the responsibility that comes with the role.

In my day, you could at least retreat into the safety of your home; today, social media follows you in to your home, meaning there are very few safe havens left for young adults battling their insecurities.

Young women are brainwashed, on a daily basis, into believing their worth is entirely linked to what they look like. The women we used to see on the pages of Cosmo were skinny and beautiful, but at least they weren't, for the most part, distorted by filters and fillers and implants. When Instagram is telling you on a daily basis what your "best self” should look like, reality invariably pales in comparison.

That’s dangerous enough for the 39-year-old me – I can’t even begin to imagine what impact it would have had on my teenage self. It’s no coincidence that many of the people responsible for building these platforms won’t let their children anywhere near them.

Updated: October 6, 2020 11:41 AM

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