“Like for rate,” their status updates read. It’s a common enough update among teenagers. And to those of us over 17, “like for rate” means that anyone who likes the poster’s status will be given a 1-10 rating based on their looks.
This relatively new trend was most likely born from “like my status” updates that have been popular for a few years, where teens ask friends to like their status and in return, the original poster will reveal a secret or tell the friend something nice about them.
Now Facebook’s teen population are asking to be rated on their appearances. While a lot of the feedback can be positive (the acronym BMS is often used – it stands for “broke my scale”, meaning “off the charts”), the idea of crowd-sourcing self-esteem is worrying. It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that there is potential for hearts to be broken, names to be called and worse.
I’m currently on maternity leave from my role at a teen girls’ magazine. We talk about the role that social media plays in our readers’ lives a lot. On the one hand, social media is just another way to do the things that teens have always done. There was a list of the hottest girls and boys at my school one year, and while it was on paper and therefore not quite as permanent or public as a Facebook status, it was out there and for those of us who were excluded (about 90 per cent of the student population), it was cruel.
Rating appearances on Facebook isn’t so different – it is, however, more targeted and more people may see it. And then there’s the idea that social media gives teens new ways to bully and belittle each other. The pervasive nature of Facebook means that it’s difficult to completely avoid (and no, it’s not as simple as shutting your own account down, because your friends will still have pages you can view).
To adults, these status updates seem trivial. To teens, they are not. One of the most important “jobs” for a teenager is trying to figure out where they fit in the world. Needless to say, they take it very seriously.
One of the things that surprised me when I started working with teen readers was their unrelenting earnestness. If they like something, they are completely smitten with it. If they are passionate about something, it is their life’s work. Conversely, if they’re upset, it’s the worst thing they’ve ever experienced.
Part of this may be caused by the fact that teens’ brains operate differently to ours (nope, not the set-up for a joke). Teens use the brain’s amygdala to process emotions, a region associated with instinctual or gut reactions. Adults use the pre-frontal cortex (which doesn’t fully mature until your early twenties), which is responsible for reason, planning and social behaviour. It’s often referred to as the CEO of the brain. Teens don’t have this CEO yet, and so they’re left to work with instinct alone. It’s why they engage in risk-taking behaviour more often than we do, and why they seek validation in public – they see the potential for awesome feedback, not rejection.
In the end, we try to teach our readers to look for validation in meaningful places – and mainly, from themselves. We take pains to tell them that their appearance is not the most important thing about them, and that the images they see in magazines and advertising are carefully constructed over many hours by many different experts.
Still, it’s unrealistic to think that they’ll all suddenly develop incredible body image and stop looking for external evidence of their attractiveness or otherwise. Part of being a teenager is learning to define yourself – it’s why you wanted to get your belly button pierced at 16 – and that can be an incredibly difficult process, especially when you’re told that your concerns (getting tickets to a 1D concert, for instance) are trivial. It’s little wonder teens think it’s easier to ask other people to define them.