Teen girls pursuing the perfect selfie

At what point do we decide it is okay to video school Principal Steve Warner, dragging a student across the playground and posting it online?

It’s a quest for the teenage girl to craft the perfect shot.

It starts with a simple selfie.

Apply a little make-up, caress the hair into position, lean forward to elevate the developing cleavage, put on some smoking eyes, pout the lips and click. Perfecting the self-portrait is done with a filter, some editing then to Instagram it goes for critique and peer review with several hashtags to round out the post in a bid for an audience.

Take a look at any teenage girl’s highlight reel, and you see posts seeking validation from their close friends and those beyond. At the innocent end of the spectrum, the selfies will have clothes on, at the risque end there will be little or no clothes at all. Motives will differ with age and audience, yet the search for validation is primary.

Boys get in on the act too, but girls appear to give it a greater priority, effort and social standing. At its extreme girls inadvertently take up the pressure of story teller, photographer, editor, and publisher to polish a look online far from reality in the pursuit of popularity via likes, shares and more.

It would be easy to dismiss this act as modern day fad accompanying the developmental stages of a teenage girl. We should not. It is more than this and must be a serious point of parental reflection because teenage girls pursuing perfectionism online-or-offline is a mirage.

In a recent poll by UK Girlguiding (1900 girls, 11-21 years of age) 35% now consider their biggest online worry is comparing themselves and their lives to others. Other concerns were the altering of photos, using them out of context and how they look in those photos.

The poll also suggests the parents of teenage girls did not recognise this as a problem. Only 12% of girls said their parents had a concern about the pressure of comparing themselves online.

There is a generational disconnect in action between parents, and teenage girls brought about by mobile devices and social media. Teenage girls are savvy users with knowledge beyond that of their parents. Left in ‘catchup’ mode and often caught off guard by the latest online incident parents feel helpless as they attempt to support and resolve any accompanying emotional distress.

Through the lumps and bumps of our impressionable teen years, we all seek acceptance, looking to be one of the crew while at the same time wrestling with our individuality and emerging identity. With social media now in the mix, this intense period of change is more complicated than ever for teenage girls as they share their perceptions of themselves – and others – online.

Government, social media companies and schools all have a role to play, but the greatest point of leverage sits with parents who need to better understand and build their knowledge of social media and their teenage girl’s user habits.

So what actions are within the immediate control of parents to support their teenage girls?

First, understand the characteristics of social media. A mobile phone, an internet connection, a camera and a social media app means anyone can create images, reach an audience in seconds and have a record of these images online for public viewing. Features like filters, games, points and rewards are built into an app to keep the user online for as long as possible. Combine these with a teenage girl’s desire for acceptance and validation and the characteristic selfie is now core to the way they communicate and represent themselves.

Second, recognise not all selfies are bad. Work out and discuss what appropriate images for posting online are. A search of images will help anchor this conversation. Set clear boundaries around the types of images to share, who is the audience and what is the intent.

Third, do some brief research on the social media apps your teenage girls are using. Understand the security features, facial tagging, shareability of images and who they are connecting with and why. Set parameters by age, personality and the purpose of social media in their life. It is critical to remember these apps are tools which can be used both creatively and destructively, so it is in everyone’s interests to learn how they work.

Finally, convey how the image highlight reel of others from peers, idols and superstars is not an accurate or authentic representation of life. Making this point is the most important action of all and needs to be a fluid and ongoing conversation that helps young girls identify and build on their strengths and diversity of character. They can only do this with positive face-to-face conversations about the impact of social media with adults.

For a teenage girl to fall into the trap of viewing carefully curated images online, critically judging herself on looks, while seeking validation, will only impede her potential. Social media offers our teens many benefits, but just like everything else, they do not emerge without a steady, knowledgeable and reassuring parent.