Safer Internet Day 2017 – The Power of Image: Everybody’s famous

7 February 2017

Today is Safer Internet Day, and this year the focus is on the power and influence of image on young people’s lives. 

Dr. Richard Graham, consultant in adolescent psychiatry at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, writes on the influence of the Internet on self image:

Andy Warhol famously observed that in the future, everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes. In the context of ‘generation internet’, this seems both prescient, but also perhaps an underestimation.

Last year’s mannequin challenge, where people froze in action while a camera whirled around them, typically sound tracked by the song ‘Black Beatles’ from hip hop duo Rae Sremmurd, became a viral phenomenon.  The lyrics included the refrain ‘Everybody’s famous’, and I can’t help but wonder if this is now truer than Warhol’s observation.

Teenage girl on phone (ch-241)

Social media has seen the curating of a careful public profile shift from the domain of pop celebrities to a day to day task of an entire generation. True fame may remain fleeting, but achieving likes and shares amongst peers is now an ingrained part of daily routine for many young people, and in the digital age it’s a continuous process. 

Getting likes and followers after you post a photo or video can be seen as so important that some young people take the picture down within minutes if they don’t get enough likes. The impact of this behaviour is that it can feel like the world measures your value in how good you look, and shames you if there is something different about you.

As Smartphone cameras have evolved, the ease with which images can be created has grown. Indeed, much communication online takes the form of creating, exchanging and viewing images – an emoji says a thousand words - and that as lives are lived online, it is little wonder that so much time is devoted to growing the profile of the digital self, in the world of 'pics or it didn't happen'. And if you are less good with words, you can find ways of expressing yourself powerfully.

Yet there appears to be a simultaneous anxiety that in the ever growing world of social media, our faces, our lives could be lost in the ocean of images, and there is a need to not just be seen, but recognised, valued, and, simply, liked. Although at risk of becoming a tool for the vain, the selfie may also be a plea not to be forgotten or overlooked in and amongst social media newsfeeds.

In their 2016 Good Childhood report, the Children’s Society stated that: ‘14% of 10 to 15-year-old British girls are unhappy with their lives as a whole and 34% with their appearance’. What can we as professionals, parents and carers do to help our young people struggling with their self-image?

During adolescence the whole of your body is changing and growing, and we do see more anxiety about appearance as young people try to reassure themselves they are turning into someone who will be attractive and successful.

For young people who seem to be getting obsessed with how others look, or start checking their own appearance too often - perhaps through selfies - we should encourage them to take time out from that and do other things. Feeling bad about your appearance may be a sign of low self-confidence or even feeling worthless and so we should avoid even little comments about appearance that could seem critical, and instead make positive comments about who they are.

Teenagers often want to be individual but they can be powerfully influenced by how others around them dress and behave, all of which is now shared online. It takes time for them find the true confidence to be themselves, and feel comfortable in their skins on an ongoing basis, and not just for fifteen minutes.


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