The following article was written by OPENWIDE Volume 14 Arts and Entertainment Editor Jenna Taylor. It was featured in our January 2014 issue, along with Web Editor Emily Stewart’s article, found here.
Murmurs of my childhood entail mystical journeys into the forest, a dress-up box, and a significant collection of tamagotchis and pogs. I can’t help but ask: has the childhood completely withered away, replaced by the enchantment of the glowing screen?
As a child of the 90s, life was a lot slower. My only interaction with a computer consisted of 30-minute weekly sessions playing a “typing tutor” game, an activity strictly enforced by my mother. Today, the childhood is almost—if not completely—mediated by the presence of the screen. From early on, this generation experiences a distorted, pixilated reality created by an omnipresence of technological reflections. Considering an individual’s values and beliefs are molded and easily influenced during one’s youth, this situation becomes extremely problematic. Ultimately, growing up has been corrupted by the accessibility and popularity of the technologies we worship.
Not only do kids want these cool new interfaces, they have been conned into believing that they need them. It’s worrisome to see an iPad written twice on a ten-year-olds’ Christmas wish list, and even more upsetting, when in brackets they write, “If I do not get this, I will be very VERY angry.” To make matters worse, the child author of this idealized wish list and her younger sister both received iPads for Christmas. With one thoughtless purchase at the Apple store, these parents have unknowingly thrusted their children into a world of relentless disappointment and constant pressure to perform.
A few weeks ago, I received an Instagram request from one of these pre-teens (who I previously babysat) and it caught me off guard. Her profile was crammed with selfies and images covered in text: “Like if you think I’m pretty” and “2 likes=ugly, 7 likes=cute, 12=pretty… 19+=drop dead gorgeous” – and so on. Today’s youth are deeply ingrained within an age of narcissism, exploitation, and inescapable torment, and this is beginning at a younger age than ever before.
After talking with Cassandra and Samantha, 10 and 11 respectively, my anxieties about this social media culture spiked far larger than any of our trolls’ hair ever could. “All my friends are on Instagram, I go on every second I can. And I post at least one selfie a day.” I couldn’t help but ask, How do those pictures that relate your appearance to the amount of likes you receive make you feel? To which Samantha replied, “If you have a lot of followers it doesn’t matter… you could be the ugliest person in the world.”
Afterwards, the girls showed me some of their friends’ profiles. Through a clever use of the most popular tags, some of these accounts have gained over 4000 followers. This obsession over obtaining more and more followers creates an entirely new platform for ranking social acceptance and has ultimately made children more ignorant and detached from one another in the process.
Pre Web 2.0 kids did have instigators that affected their self-esteem, with early exposure to magazines and infatuation with celebrities, but social media has created this new system for self-representation and external reassurance that takes the eye away from celebrities and turns the focus inward. In the 90’s, if you made it onto YTV’s gameshow Uh-Oh or sported the coolest choker, you were put on a pedestal. Now, kids may only feel self-satisfaction if they are deemed worthy by an abundance of likes from complete strangers. All you need is likes, right?
Virtually unlimited contact with these media platforms has the potential to raise mental health issues to a detrimental level. The YouTube fad “Am I Pretty or Am I Ugly?” exemplifies these new concerns for the younger generation. The trend consisted of girls as young as six or seven posting videos about their insecurities. Each video is accompanied by the caption “Am I Pretty or Am I Ugly?” which openly invites strangers to participate in an endless forum regarding beauty standards.
Under each video, two types of comments are common. Users either post hateful slurs, or they sexually objectify the young girls, both of which have great potential to harm the poster’s mental health. Though these young girls choose to expose themselves online, do they really know any better? Instead of a less personal, one-to-many message from the mass media to an audience, YouTube’s interface (along with other social media sites) dangerously opens an avenue for direct communication between society and the child.
While, to some degree, we have experienced some struggles with adapting to this progressive technological climate, Gen Y youth is the first group raised from the start in the social media age. How will these kids, whose lives are entirely based around virtual communication, cope later on? If studies have already shown that today’s university students are becoming more apathetic and are developing stronger social anxieties due to Web 2.0, things are only going to get worse for future generations.
The childhood has become the ultimate embodiment of the tamagotchi—a life trapped within the confines of a screen, where only a few buttons determine all experiences. If parents continue to succumb to the demands and values perpetuated by our iPad-obsessed society, children do not have the luxury to hit a restart button to escape—they may be stuck in the bright light for good.