Building selfie esteem? 'I get more 'likes' if my pictures look like the real me'
Stop worrying about 'selfie culture', say Ireland's teens. They tell our reporter how social media portraits are just another way of having an animated conversation
At 14, Tuilelaith Wilkinson Reynolds is a typical teenager: chatty, curious, ebullient and whip-smart. And like many of her friends, she takes - by her own admission - a "hell of a lot" of selfies.
"I only post about two or three a day as I don't want to look too vain," she explains. "If I've done my make-up well, I'll automatically take a picture. Personally, I think it's a nice way of showing yourself off. If you have a nice picture of yourself, it makes you feel really good and pretty.
"If I'm having a bad day, I'll post a picture to Snapchat. If I don't get past a certain amount of likes, I don't feel very good, or I feel like I've taken a bad picture. If you don't get any comments on it at all, it's like, 'wow'. Most of my friends though will post comments like 'stunner' or 'gorge'."
But just as social media has the power to build up people, it can also tear them down - and teenagers are particularly vulnerable.
Take the new 'honesty app' called Sarahah, which is garnering concern as a possible tool for cyber bulling. The anonymous messaging app attaches to social media platforms, such as teen-centric Snapchat, and allows users to post anonymous comments on the other person's post. Such is the app's potential for destroying someone's self-esteem that schools have begun asking parents to ensure the app is not on their child's phone.
It may yet turn the 'selfie culture' into something tangibly harmful for teens. As for Tuilelaith and her friends, who go to school in North Dublin, they are unperturbed. They regularly post selfies to each other, more by way of having an animated conversation than anything else. However, not everyone enters into the spirit of things with the same carefree manner.
"Some girls I know take it too far and give serious duck face and put every cliché into one picture," says Tuilelaith. "One other girl Photoshopped her butt, and you could see the curve on the door. In the end, when people commented on the Photoshopping, she deleted the photo.
"I edit a lot," she adds. "I would never Photoshop the image but I do like filters, and an editing app I use on my phone."
Tuilelaith's mother, Lisa, who owns the Dublin 7 wellness hub, The Elbowroom, admits she worries about the amount of time her daughter spends on her phone.
"I'd hate for beauty and vanity to be the dominant currency of how people talk to one another," she says. "But I don't think we can deny how this generation communicates with each other. I think it's really important we don't become 'Victorian mum and dad' and impose how we were brought up in the here and now. It would be foolish to deny the technological revolution. You can see every day how important social media is for simple things like civic engagement."
That's not to say that Lisa hasn't talked at length with Tuilelaith about the risks of online use such as geotagging (letting people online know of your location), or posting photos. "Adults automatically assume that everyone on the internet is a psycho," counters the 14-year-old. "There is such a thing as being too overprotective."
For the Snapchat generation, selfies are so ubiquitous that it's an everyday occurrence: the modern-day equivalent of spending all day on the landline to your best mate. For their elders, who have known a world before filters and Photoshop, things appear very different. Could it simply be that younger people are more resilient to the vagaries of selfie culture in a way older people aren't? Is there more to it than narcissism?
"It's not so much about narcissism as it is vulnerability," suggests adolescent psychologist Colman Noctor. "It's about seeing yourself through the eyes of the other, and allowing others to define who you are, especially if you're invested in the feedback and it makes you feel validated. And now, the comparative culture is way more intense. The bar is higher."
Finglas native Lauren Bejaoui, now 22, started taking selfies at 14 or 15, and managed to parlay her selfies into a modelling career at 16, then a career as an influencer. She now has 29,400 followers on Instagram.
"Once my Instagram started getting big, I brought more of a curated look to my page," she explains. "There was never a point where I thought, 'I'm hot'. It was more a funny thing, that people would just enjoy the photos."
Moreover, Lauren is adamant selfie culture isn't the result of a generation of narcissists: "The thing is, if you don't like something and all they post is pictures of themselves, don't look at it," she says. "Personally, I really enjoy looking at pictures of my friends.
"Times change and you have to adapt," she adds. "If you'll let someone's opinion affect you, step back, but if you are being true to yourself and do what you like, it shouldn't mean anything."
Not everyone is quite as resilient as Lauren, granted. Nor do they manage to turn a love of selfies into a lucrative modelling career. But in many cases, it isn't for want of trying. According to recent figures, our obsession with selfies has given the make-up industry a 13pc boost in sales. Max Factor's global survey found that 30pc of women would never post a bare-faced selfie. In 2015, the beauty giant L'Oreal saw a 19pc increase in make-up sales. Last year Estee Lauder, which owns Bobbi Brown, MAC and Smashbox, put its 9pc increase in turnover down to our desire to always look photo-ready. So far, so okay, but this intense focus on preening, posing and filtering has clearly changed the way youngsters feel about themselves and the world around them.
Fiona Flynn, Youth Development Officer at Bodywhys, has seen this at close range.
"Young people involved in focus groups with Bodywhys indicate that social media is the primary source of pressure to body image and self esteem," she says. "Young people are bombarded with unrealistic images of physical perfection and growing pressure to strive towards these unrealistic ideals. Photoshopping apps and filters used by young people are making it difficult for many to accept their real world selves.
"Social media presents a very one dimensional view of what life is like - posts tend to be about showing our best selves and highlights of our lives, leaving people feeling inadequate when they experience life's regular ups and downs. There is no conclusive research to indicate the impact of social media use and selfie culture on eating disorder statistics, but research indicates that body image and self esteem issues are linked to the development of eating disorders, higher levels of depression and other mental health issues."
"Studies have shown that it definitely affects girls' self-esteem," observes Alex Cooney, CEO of Cyber Safe Ireland. "As adults, we struggle with presenting a picture perfect version of ourselves that isn't real… how can we expect kids to make the distinction? There shouldn't be that pressure."
Colman Noctor adds: "It's worse if kids expect perfection from themselves. The pressure doesn't allow you to have a down day or an off button. There is a huge link between selfies and anxiety," he adds. "If you invest heavily in what's important to you, it has the capacity to affect you negatively as well as positively. When we lose that 'warts and all' view of each other, we become much more intolerant of each other's deficit and that's infiltrating the fabrics of teenagers' relationships. This sort of cut-throat social politics is hugely unforgiving.
"If your online community know you to look a certain way, that standard almost has to be maintained. It has to be mirrored offline too, so that you almost don't want to be seen in a tracksuit and no make-up down the shops."
Yet Lauren says that she and her peers have few concerns in this regard.
"I walk around town with no make-up on all the time," she says. "In fact, I get more 'likes' if my pictures look more like the real me, as opposed to something a lot sexier."
For more information on Bodywhys, see bodywhys.ie. For more information on Cyber Safe Ireland, aimed at 9-13 year-olds, see cybersafeireland.org.
Teens and selfies: a parents' guide
Spend more time offline: "If you have more availability of time for families to connect in a non-tech way, there's more likelihood of more conversation and activities," says Noctor.
Open up a conversation: "Parents need to teach kids about priorities, and that while the internet and selfies are important, there's no comparison to life."
Debunk the social media myth: "I think it is important to let young people know that social media is a highlights reel - people don't want to dwell on the mundane so they leave it out. Real life has ups and downs," suggests Flynn.
Remind kids that they have a choice: "We have control over what we follow and the time we spend online. Encourage young people to notice how social media makes them feel," says Flynn. "As a rule - if something makes you want to change yourself or feel less happy with yourself, you can choose to hide/unfollow. Encourage young people to follow what inspires them and makes them feel good."
Suggest offline activities: "Whether it's art, music, technology or sports, try whatever appeals to them and makes them feel good and to develop a strong sense of self instead of relying on 'likes' or external validation to feel good," advises Flynn.