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Teenagers Today: Social Media “Likes” And Constant Validation

“Are you going to put Eli’s homer on Facebook,” one of my daughters asked as she scooted into the middle seat after our son’s ballgame.

My husband and I, loading items into the trunk, looked at each other. “Probably not,” I told her, “but I’ll let him call Mimi and Gigi when we get on the road.”

The look my husband and I shared and my hesitation to post Eli’s homerun on Facebook had to do with a conversation we had the weekend before over drinks with friends. Our friend’s daughter—a buoyant redhead with a contagious smile and a flair for cooking, hiking, and the guitar—was having difficulty transitioning from middle to high school. Some of her friends seemed to be going in different directions.

Social media doesn’t make it any easier,” her mother said. “Laney posts a picture hiking the Appalachian Trail, and it gets 20 likes, and the blonde, long-legged girl she played volleyball with last year posts a picture of the burrito she ate for dinner, and it gets 200.  How do you explain that to a 15-year-old?”

I am certainly not credentialed to give her a professional answer. However, as a child who grew up with the nickname, Whaley (W+Haley), and was teased relentlessly for being overweight, I get her daughter’s struggle.

I remember coming home from school on Friday afternoon upset because I’d overheard friends discussing the slumber party they were having that I hadn’t been invited to. But by the time I’d eaten dinner and Mom had surprised us by renting a movie, I forgot about the sleepover. By Monday, whatever fun those girls might have had on Friday was old news.

It’s harder to be an adolescent today.

Not only do their feelings get hurt when they’re not invited to an event, but they have to watch it play out live on Facebook and Instagram. While those of us born before social media became a part of our daily lives could only ponder how popular we might have been, our kids can quantify it by adding up their likes and friends on social media.

The conversation that night with our friends eventually led us to make a comparison between the old philosophical question, If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? and this: If I post something on social media and nobody likes it, does it still count?

I said, resoundingly, “Of course, it does!  A large, two-ton object cannot fall over, slam into the ground, and not make a sound.” But the other question doesn’t have as clear-cut an answer.

We are conditioned from a young age to seek approval. Children thrive on it. They revel in their parents’ celebrating their accomplishments. In school, they beam when they’re recognized by a teacher, especially if that praise is given in front of their peers. It is normal to crave approval and it’s always nice to be recognized for a job well done.

But when our kids constantly look outside of themselves for validation, they lose their ability to gauge their own worth.

While I have social media accounts, I’m not a frequent poster. It’s not my personality to share that much about myself and it’s probably a way of protecting myself from reliving a childhood where my self-worth pivoted on other people’s approval.

On the night of the ballgame, one of my daughters pressed me as to why I didn’t want to post Eli’s home run on Facebook.

“Would Eli’s home run be any more special if 50 people liked it?” I asked her.

My daughters and Eli seem to understand, for now, my rationale for not posting Eli’s home run, but I wonder about the long-term effects of growing up in a world where people post their entire lives on social media. How does that change a person? A generation? A society?

I don’t have the answers. My hope is that my children will know that if they do something good it doesn’t matter if anyone else knows or “likes” it.

Haley Evans is a working mom of three who is fed up with the smartphone ruling her life. Her new book, Hung Up: Why You Should Put the Phone Down (and Other Life Advice) offers tips and tools to combat cell phone addiction without resorting to drastic “digital detox” methods.

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