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The self esteem network

18 June 2012

To be 15 in 2012 is an unimaginably different experience to being 15 in 2004. Facebook was merely embryonic, Twitter didn’t even exist, and while many people had a mobile, smartphone wasn’t yet a word. The prevalence of social networks means young people are more connected, and more exposed, to their peers than ever before.

And it raises young people’s self esteem. To be known is to be loved. Sharing what TV programme they’re watching, which teacher they hate, which app they love with their mates (immediate descriptions of experience form around 80% of social media posts) is vital for their sense of self awareness, their whole wellbeing. Their brains are even hard-wired to reward them when they do.

Social media draws young people’s social circles closer to them. Let’s say Jenny shares a small piece of good news on Facebook, like a better than expected grade on a recent exam. Her close friends comment on her post, “Well done!”, “Nice one Jen”. Distant acquaintances and friends from primary school also Like her status. In the space of a few pixels, Jenny can not only see that her friends care about her, but also that more remote contacts are still thinking of her.

But it’s not all rosy. To be known may be to be loved, but it also leaves young people dangerously exposed. Serious cyberbullying is rising dramatically. Jenny could yet read a comment on her post from someone she thought was her friend saying “Amazing since ur so thick”, then see it liked by three other classmates. Suddenly she’s shaken, doesn’t know who her friends are, and will still have to look her new found tormentors in the eye at school the next day.

Social media equally serves those at extreme ends of the self esteem spectrum. Studies show that young people sharing every little detail of their lives and thoughts are making them increasingly narcissistic, left with dangerously high levels of self importance. Conversely, those with low feelings of self worth may often say “shocking things and inappropriately self-disclose because they cannot stand to be ignored or waste a chance of self-promotion.” And if they know everything about their peers, they may start to measure themselves against them, and declare that they come up short.

Ultimately, social media is nothing new – it’s simply a new channel connecting young people’s existing social networks. Whether it is an opportunity or threat for young people relies entirely on who they choose to connect with, how they use it, and most importantly, knowing what to do if the cyberbullies attack.

Matt Collins is Head of Marketing at Beatbullying