Is social self-love benign?

With the social media epidemic of self-portraiting and sexualisation being debated, schoolgirl Olympia Nelson provides her insight into this modern age phenomenon

Olympia Nelson is a 16-year-old Melbourne Greek Australian teenager, who earlier this year made national headlines after her column on ‘selfies’ and their sexualised context was published in The Age.
What she did was give an insight into the world of teenagers, her own peer group, hard to penetrate and decipher if you are not a part of it.
In the highly sexualised media environment today’s teenagers are brought up in, Olympia has nothing against ‘selfies’ – “pictures taken of oneself holding the camera at arm’s length”.
“It’s ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ that teens can express themselves in that way, being able to take a photo on their phone and upload it within seconds,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
Debate-sparking self-portraits, or better to say one’s reflection-in-the-mirror photos; the sexualised content and exhibitionism they often feature are easily accessible through social media.
What Olympia is concerned about are narcissistic tendencies these social networks breed, as she writes in her column, and the number-of-likes competition that this behaviour provokes.
“I had observed that there was a lot of competition over who has the most likes on the social media, and then a lot of anxiety over this competition – ‘I don’t have as many likes as her’ kind of thing. I noticed this on Facebook and other social media, that there was a tension between taking and uploading the pictures and then the whole ‘like’ phenomenon,” Olympia says.
“I was particularly anxious about this because it meant the girls were handing over their autonomy and I decided to write about it.”
It was, as Olympia puts it, her way to advocate for the dignity of these girls publicly.
Melbourne based psychologist, Dr Helen Kalaboukas, is not against social media either. They are good for communication and sometimes “serve as teachers’ tool”. However, there are issues as serious as cyber bullying, Facebook depression, sexting and exposure to inappropriate content that often arise from social networking.
“What the teenagers want is to be liked. All teenagers of all generations wanted to be liked. But with social media it’s a very extreme way of exposing themselves, in order to be liked. And therefore there is the peer pressure that forces them to show good pictures, or pictures that would be liked.
“It may have other effects on their development – they have to be promiscuous, they have to ‘show off’ to be liked,” Dr Kalaboukas says.
The issue, in psychologist’s eyes, is that children and pre-adolescents who are also using these media, are being exposed to sexualised images that they are not cognitively nor emotionally mature enough to process. And it becomes serious when kids from the age of 10 to 12 are involved in inappropriate content and sexting.
For the extremely mature and sophisticated person that 16-year-old Olympia is, daughter of internationally renowned art photographer Polixeni Papapetrou, she doesn’t exclude herself from her peer group and she doesn’t condemn nor judge. It is not the pictures on their own, but the meeting of the two – the selfies photos and the ‘liking’ phenomenon – she is ‘unhappy’ about.
“On their own, selfies are actually benign,” Olympia explains. What is concerning is that selfies have to be sexual in order to be liked. And ‘likes’ are like a modern day digital perk, like a credit for doing a good work – looking good, having a fabulous lifestyle and proving it through social media, for the whole world to see. Because, above all, it is the thirst for attention and the sense of importance that the ‘likes’ feed, once given by one’s followers.
“It is only sexual selfies that get the most likes. The picture having to be sexy puts you up for judgment – it means to me that boys become your aesthetic master. This is an example of loss of dignity, girls handing over their autonomy by emulating poses of both porn stars – it’s kind of fashionable to recreate these in the pictures – and celebrities.”
According to Dr Kalaboukas, more than 22 per cent of teenagers log on 10 or more times a day to social media. She acknowledges it’s one of the channels of teenage communication today, but it also isolates them, in terms of teenagers being exclusively devoted to social media and not really interacting with people of their age.
“It affects both their social and emotional development. They become more aware of their looks earlier on, and feel pressure to adopt to the ideal of girls needing to look hot and present sexually,” Dr Kalaboukas tells Neos Kosmos.
On the topic of sexed up music videos providing role models for young children, early childhood researcher from University of SA, Lesley-Anne Ey, has found that “many children view music videos, and are adopting behaviours and movements from highly sexualised artists”.
The Australian Council on Children and the Media responded to concerns that children are growing up too fast; being given too much information too soon.
On the tantalizing issue of this behaviour, Olympia says it’s not about parental control. It’s about conformity that teenagers choose in order not to be branded as ‘social lepers’.
“It’s a matter of conformism. If people decide to opt out, it is seen as a social leprosy; these teenagers feel different, isolated and ostracised.
“I concluded that you achieve higher ranking in this popularity hierarchy by pouting, showing off, looking seductive and doing what porn stars do,” Olympia says of the selfies that are, more often than not, intimate photos.
Dr Kalaboukas agrees peer pressure is the biggest issue here.
“In order to be liked, you have to do more of what is liked – and adolescents go to that extreme now, to keep producing photos that will be ‘liked’. And the privacy issue is there, because what goes on the internet stays on the internet.”
And with bullying being the biggest issue amongst adolescents, both offline and online, social media are a fertile ground for it.
“It’s out of control – before it was only your classmates; now it’s the adolescents all around the world.”
“The other issue is the self-esteem and self-image adolescents are sensitive to. Previous generations had self-esteem issues as well, but now a lot more people are pressured into this, and more young people are prone to suicide as a result of it.”
Olympia Nelson thinks the pictures, be they ‘selfies’, ‘healthies’ or any other type, on their own are benign. She likes the fact teenagers can express themselves like this, but advises ‘a risk evaluation’ is done before uploading pictures of this content.
“I still have nothing against girls wanting to express themselves sexually. I also think that liking pictures is really cool, but the competition that arises from these sort of sexual pictures and the liking – is not benign,” she explains.
Who is to blame, if anyone, for this situation? Is it the exposure to media violence and sexualised content that children have, a pornography that is only a click of a mouse away, or the fact that the girls have to conform to what they see in celebrities and porn industry?
Do social media speed up or perhaps even disturb the appropriate sexual development of teenagers, due to their vulnerability and exposure to any information they may – or may not – seek, while hiding behind their very own cyber profile?
“I think that this arises from how many levels of pornography we see at our disposal – if we open a Myer catalogue we see girls kind of plasticised and really sexy, they are trying to be porn stars in these pictures. Which then invites girls to feel inadequate. I think the availability of these sorts of pictures changes the teenage mindscape, and girls feel as though they have to look like these girls to be popular. There is a lot of subconscious strategy there – I want to be popular, I want sexual attention,” Olympia says.
In her opinion, the sad part is that so much attention is being put on the physical appearance of teenagers, thus discouraging individuality.
In terms of popularity, the desire to become popular is part of growing up, explains Dr Kalaboukas. But what adolescents are often hurt by is all this popularity turning against them and going wrong.
“It goes to the other extreme, where they get a lot of criticising, and it becomes aggressive. There is Facebook depression and isolation, while some of them become suicidal. I wouldn’t say the latter one is a common issue, but it happens a lot more than it did before social media got involved. More and more depression and social anxiety amongst adolescents is involved in the popularity issue.”
So many times I’ve heard the desperate calls of teenagers’ mothers while dealing with their adolescent kids and their Facebook presence. One question comes to my mind – is this behaviour a natural flow of modern age youth where kids are compelled to imitate the ideal model, and can parental yes’s and no’s be applied to it if their child’s cyber profile goes out of control?
And if your answer to the latter one is yes, do we socially exclude our children from their age group, once they are not allowed to do what ‘everyone else’ is doing?
“It is part of growing up, but parents need to be much more involved, a lot more than just checking or punishing the kids,” Dr Kalaboukas says.
“They need to be more involved with kids, more informed about cybernet and how to protect and guide their kids through all this. While exposing children to inappropriate content, social media can also disturb their appropriate sexual development.
“Of course, adolescents want to experiment, are young and curious, but they can go the wrong way. I believe now they start a lot earlier and they experiment with a lot of sexual behaviour that is not suitable for the age when they are not physically nor emotionally ready for it.”
Social media have a lot of advantages, Dr Kalaboukas admits, but it’s parents who need to learn more.
“It’s about educating parents and adolescents about the practice and developing media literate consumers; knowing how to use it to your advantage and not being manipulated in behaviours you don’t want to practice yet.”
Regular family meetings – to discuss online topics and privacy settings, as well as online profiles or inappropriate posts – are recommended when dealing with social-media-age adolescents, Dr Kalaboukas says.
And when talking about “what is in cyberspace stays there”, and “you don’t know where your selfie is going to end up”, before uploading your next selfie, take into consideration that the selfie collage photos used for this article are real and taken from the internet.