As a mum of 4 sons, my biggest concerns about the era of social media is the impact of the ‘like culture’ on our children’s mental health. The need to generate likes online has become a biological compulsion for many teens and let’s be honest – adults too! The rush of dopamine that surges through one’s body when a new like has been received can make this like culture understandably addictive.
Research Shows Likes Can Make You Feel As Good As Chocolate!
The reason why our offspring (and even us) just can’t give up social media is because it can make us feel just so damn good! In fact, the dopamine surges we get from the likes we collect can give us a true psychological high and create a reward loop that is almost impossible to break. Research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows the brain circuits that are activated by eating chocolate and winning money are also activated when teens see large numbers of ‘likes’ on their own photos or photos of peers in a social network.
Likes and Self Worth
Approval and validation by our peers has, unfortunately, always had an impact on our sense of self-worth. Before the era of social media, teens may have measured this approval by the number of invitations they received to parties or the number of cards they received on their birthday. But in the digital world of the 21st century, this is measured very publicly through the number of followers we have or the number of likes we receive on our posts.
But this is dangerous territory. Living our lives purely for the approval of others is a perilous game. If our self-worth is reliant on the amount of likes we receive then we are living very fragile existences.
Instagram’s Big Move
In recognition of the competition social media has become for many, Instagram has decided to trial hiding the likes tally on posts. Instagram believes this move, which is also being trialled in six other countries including Canada and New Zealand, will improve the well-being of users and allow them to focus more on ‘telling their story’ and less on their likes tally.
But the move has been met with criticism. Some believe Instagram is ‘mollycoddling’ the more fragile members of our community whilst others believe it is threatening the livelihood of ‘Insta influencers’ whose income is reliant on public displays of likes.
Does Instagram’s Move Really Solve Address our Likes Culture?
While I applaud Instagram for taking a step to address the wellbeing and mental health of users, I believe that it won’t be long before users simply find another method of social validation to replace our likes stats. Whether it’s follower numbers or the amount of comments or shares, many of us have been wired to view social media platforms like Instagram as a digital popularity contest so will adjust accordingly. Preparing our kids for the harshness of this competitive digital environment needs to be a priority for all parents.
What Can Parents Do?
Before your child joins social media, it is imperative that you do your prep work with your child. There are several things that need to be discussed:
Your Kids Are So Much More Than Their Likes Tally
It is not uncommon for tweens and teens to judge their worth by the number of followers or likes they receive on their social media posts. Clearly, this is crazy but a common trend/ So, please discuss the irrationality of the likes culture and online popularity contest that has become a feature of almost all social media platforms. Make sure they understand that social media platforms play on the ‘reward loop’ that keep us coming back for more. Likes on our posts and validating comments from our followers provide hits of dopamine that means we find it hard to step away. While many tweens and teens view likes as a measure of social acceptance, it is essential that you continue to tell them that this is not a true measure of a person.
Encourage Off-Line Activities
Help your kids develop skills and relationships that are not dependent on screens. Fill their time with activities that build face-to-face friendships and develop their individual talents. Whether it’s sport, music, drama, volunteering or even a part time job – ensuring your child has a life away from screens is essential to creating balance.
Education is Key
Teaching your kids to be cyber safe and good digital citizens will minimise the chances of them experiencing any issues online. Reminding them about the perils of oversharing online, the importance of proactively managing their digital reputation and the harsh reality of online predators will prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will have to navigate.
Keep the Communication Channels Open – Always!
Ensuring your kids really understand that they can speak to you about ANYTHING that is worrying them online is one of the best digital parenting insurance policies available. If they do come to you with an issue, it is essential that you remain calm and do not threaten to disconnect them from their online life. Whether it’s cyberbullying, inappropriate texting or a leak of their personal information, working with them to troubleshoot and solve problems and challenges they face is a must for all digital parents.
Like many parents, I wish I could wave a magic wand and get rid of the competition the likes culture has created online for many of our teens. But that is not possible. So, instead let’s work with our kids to educate them about its futility and help them develop a genuine sense of self-worth that will buffer them from harshness this likes culture has created.