Wednesday 21 August 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'Life isn't a competition, and it's time that social media reflected that for the good of our children'

Platforms with less judgment might remove the fear young people have that whatever they do will look amateurish compared to the posts of Instagram professionals and curated content. Stock Image
Platforms with less judgment might remove the fear young people have that whatever they do will look amateurish compared to the posts of Instagram professionals and curated content. Stock Image
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

Anyone else haunted by a particular episode of the TV series 'Black Mirror'? It imagines a world dominated by a social media application in which people rate their online and in-person interactions on a scale of 1 to 5.

Everyone walks around with a score glowing in front of their faces, and that number dictates their value in society, access to services, even their careers. Random strangers can downgrade your score in seconds by giving you a poor review.

The programme is called 'Nosedive', which reflects the fate of the main character, Lacie, when she becomes unhappy with her 4.2 score and decides she needs to boost it in order to access a luxury rented apartment.

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It's satire, of course, but it's resonant satire.

Because at kitchen tables, and in bedrooms and sitting rooms all across the country this summer, an exhausting emotional cycle is depleting the energies of far too many social media-obsessed youngsters.

They may not quite be walking around with a score displayed in front of them, terrified of negative encounters, but they are certainly finding out their peers' approval whenever they look at their phones.

There's the beep. The brief look of hope. Then a frown and a sigh. Whatever the alert led to, it wasn't good news. The phone is put down for 30 seconds. But it beeps again. The hopeful face once more. This time it's good news - a like on your last post, a happy message, a picture that makes you feel good. A brief smile, a chuckle, but it is erased fast as new content pops up and needs to be digested. Smile. Frown. Laugh. Sigh. Your star is up. Then down. Then up again.

Sound draining? It is, and so it's become a thing to bow out of it (those minded to give it a name dub it "#Instafear") by avoiding ever posting anything on social media and just "liking" posts by others.

And yet - be still my beating heart - are worried parents set to get some solace from a global social media provider, of all things?

Well let's see: Facebook-owned Instagram - the social media app of choice for many teens and twenty-somethings - has decided to test in Ireland a less competitive version of its photo and video-sharing site.

The site's interface has been modified - following a similar experiment in Canada that may yet be extended globally - so other people can no longer see how many likes a user's photo or video has got. That information is now only available to whoever posted the content.

The idea, Instagram says, is to try to encourage people to use Instagram for self-expression - as they say it was intended - and not as a way to continually measure your success against others.

It might sound like a small detail but it's actually a big change, especially for any younger Irish users, for whom peer approval is not just important, it's everything.

A less judgy platform might embolden an amateur young dress designer, for instance, to upload her creations without fear of humiliation if the result doesn't play well. It might remove some of the fear young people have that whatever they can do will look paltry - and attract a tiny number of likes - compared with posts by an Instagram professional whose curated content makes anything amateur look, well, amateur.

Essentially, it removes the shame someone might feel when a post attracts fewer 'likes' than they might have hoped. Users will still know how many 'likes' they get, but their peers won't. The stakes are lower. The popularity contest element shrinks.

The move will restore an element of privacy to a realm which has seemed hell-bent for years now on removing the very last vestige of anything like a personal space.

The context for this kind of test is our growing awareness of the damage we are doing to our young people online. Access to pornography is not the only problem introduced by near-universal internet access from the age of 12.

Earlier this year a major survey of 14-year-olds in the UK established a clear link between greater social media use and online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem and poor body image. There is no reason why the situation would be any different in Ireland.

Just this week, researchers in Canada found that television and social media both correlated with reports of depression in young people as (they said) both exposed them to images of idealised lives, encouraging them to compare themselves to the glossy filtered images they see. Video games, in this study, were found to have a neutral effect. But no screen-time of any kind was rated by the kids themselves to have a positive impact.

Short of taking the phones off our offspring - which would definitely be effective but which few of us are actually brave enough to do - all we can mostly do is try to persuade them to get outside and do something else other than look at the phone, or stand by and pray we have made them robust enough to cope.

At present, the new Instagram format is just an experiment. Reaction from its one billion users will determine whether the change is adopted universally.

Instagram is Facebook's best hope for growth and it makes its money from advertising, with estimated revenue of $9bn (€8bn) in 2018. So it certainly doesn't want to alienate anyone. And there will be user groups who will hate the notion of removing public likes.

Influencers - and they are legion - will be horrified. Without a gazillion likes, their raison d'être (and probably their revenue stream) will be in question - though their tally of followers will still be public.

I am choosing to be optimistic about this move. It's a step in a better direction. If we can't beat the social media giants, perhaps we can guilt all of them into introducing tweaks like this to make the online world more humane.

If we want our offspring to stop being snowflakes in a competitive world, we need them to believe they can accomplish something.

A good start would be hauling them out of social media's unwinnable competition for likes.

Irish Independent

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