Tuesday 25 June 2019

Trial by social media: raising kids in a culture of shame

In the debate around the digital age of consent and children's smartphone use, Ziyad Marar looks at how the online world fosters a rush to judgement

Judgement days: In a Black Mirror episode people receive scores online and panic if their rating drops
Judgement days: In a Black Mirror episode people receive scores online and panic if their rating drops

Ziyad Marar

Last month the Children's Commissioner for England published a report entitled 'Life in Likes', exploring the use of social media by eight to 12 year olds. At times the report makes poignant reading. It describes the point at which young children, in reaching secondary school age, step tentatively into a new world of social media.

"At this age, children were introduced to a wider network of friends and started to follow more celebrities and people they didn't know in their offline lives," writes Anne Longfield.

"This meant they were more aware of their own identity, started comparing themselves to a broader group of people and worried about whether they fitted in. This introduced an additional layer of worries, relating to what people would think of them, what they looked like, and who they should be."

This digital coming of age, so to speak, describes well a new reality in which much of our identities are now immersed. Our culture has been so permeated by new forms of communication that we are no longer shocked to hear numbers that would have left us open-mouthed in disbelief a decade ago: over two billion people on Facebook consume 500 years of video every day; 350,000 tweets are produced every minute; and 650 million blogs are written each day.

And all of them adorned with metrics that give you some basis for comparison.

You can count how many friends a person has, or how many likes their post receives, their followers and subscribers, their retweets, Tumblr re-posts and YouTube views.

Shame game: Ziyad Marar says we’re open to faster judgements online if we get things wrong
Shame game: Ziyad Marar says we’re open to faster judgements online if we get things wrong

And much as we may deny the significance of such simplistic measures of success, it is very likely they have some kind of skewing effects on most people's behaviour. When you get out of an Uber you are invited to score the driver by clicking on one of five stars, but you need to remember that they are scoring you too.

The first episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, Season Three, takes this mutual scoring into a satirical dystopia in which people whose scores are constantly changing and constantly visible to all panic as their rating falls below 4.2, which then limits their access to high-status goods.

Those who have fallen catastrophically to under two become the underclass. The power of the programme comes in echoing the ubiquity of digitally mediated social judgement that has so quickly become part of contemporary lives.

In presenting ourselves through digital lenses, only seemingly locked away from everyday life, we are instead locked into networks of others who communicate with and assess each other's presentations of ourselves in a quite intensified way. As my daughter said to me when I complained about screen use: "It is called social media, Dad."

Judged: The Value of Being Misunderstood by Ziyad Marar (€28, Bloomsbury) is published tomorrow
Judged: The Value of Being Misunderstood by Ziyad Marar (€28, Bloomsbury) is published tomorrow

We have all become broadcasters and now can reach much larger audiences with a click of a button than would have been possible for anyone outside of the media industries only a few years ago.

And this leaves us open to much faster judgements if we get it wrong.

The intensity of judgement is refracted brightly through a digital lens and makes it quite clear that those who thought the internet was a place to express yourself privately got it completely wrong.

When the British Labour Party MP Emily Thornberry sent out a tweet including an image of a house in Rochester swathed in England flags, she was immediately judged harshly for the apparent sneer she was directing at a patriotic working class voter. This led to her resigning her post as Shadow Attorney General within days.

In his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson works through many cases of disproportionate punishment meted out to witless Twitter users who have crossed a line. As with road rage, there is something about being behind the safety of a screen that allows people to treat each other much more harshly than they might possibly do in person.

Of course, life online has brought great positives too. We are able to find like-minded people who share particular interests, and can keep in touch with far flung friends and family. But it can be hard to feel good in an environment where so many people present themselves online - you can always find a way to fall short by some standard.

The digital world may have intensified our proneness to judging and being judged in return. But it didn't create that need, it just feeds ancient appetites.

Rather like cheap fast food, so ubiquitously available today, that satisfies ancient evolved cravings for sugar and fat, we now can access mechanisms on a scale never seen before that feed the deep yearning we have for giving and receiving social judgement.

The thought 'I'm not x enough' plagues almost everyone in some setting or other where x stands for pretty, tall, clever, educated, rich, cool, witty, original, popular, light-hearted… the list is endless.

More generally, we are penalised by a desire to connect. In order to connect you need to be seen, but shame shadows that need for visibility, because to be seen is to have your shortcomings made visible, the painfully bright searchlight, spotlight or torchlight focused through digital lenses leads to many new ways of being seen as unqualified or unsuitable, or just ugly.

A shame culture makes for brutal judgements about who fits in or belongs and who does not, and has generated one of the new acronyms of our age: FOMO, the fear of missing out. FOMO is supercharged these days by endless examples of someone somewhere happily doing something that makes you feel excluded or worse off by comparison.

There is no way back into the analogue age, and we should be wary of a simple minded harking back to halcyon times. As time passes, things will change as new norms and habits evolve.

We can hope the eight to 12 year olds of the future will be treated more kindly than their predecessors. The hyper-connected world in which we are committed to live will hopefully pull back from some of its worst excesses, and will perhaps enable online culture to be less suffused with the threat of shame.

Judged: The Value of Being Misunderstood by Ziyad Marar (€28, Bloomsbury) is published tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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