Has social media become the new window to the soul?

Areeshya Thevamanohar is second Year Politics students at King’s. Growing up in Malaysia, and then moving to London, she hopes to keep exploring the many conflicting views that have shaped how gender is treated in all walks of life.

[Featured Image: A close up shot of a hand holding a phone receiving pink social media notifications]

“She can be ugly, but she has millions of likes; because the boys are interested in their vulgarity. Because when there’s free food, it draws a waiting line.”

This was said by a girl in the age group of 15 to 17 years of age quoted in a study about Brazilian young people’s behaviour on social media. Observations like this seem to be increasingly made when looking at what others are posting. The construction of our online identities has become notable for studying because of the inferences users are making about themselves and others.  

In the age of social media; our online identities are becoming an integral part of our offline identities. We are each constructing a specific online identity to which we want to present to the world. Every time we take an image or video we want to post, or share a thought; we are deeming it valuable enough to share with the many people who will be viewing it. We’re thinking “this is something I want people to know or see about me and my life.” 

One might argue that it isn’t all that deep, but there’s a lot about our behaviour online that we lack awareness. An increasing amount of research is going into studying such behaviour; because there are strong ties to mental health and how our daily lives go. Social media whether we like it or not is a big part of our lives, and it’s difficult; almost impossible to avoid altogether. 

Some research has gone into a gendered breakdown of self-presentation and behaviour on social media. A relatively new field given that the explosiveness of the social media phenomena is recent; but something that I found quite fascinating; acknowledging of course that this will not apply to every individual’s online behaviour. 

Recent research has found that gender plays a role in how we use social networking sites (SNS). Social psychologist Dr Guadagno for instance; has found that women tend to be drawn towards image-based sites more such as Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram. Men, on the other hand, are more drawn towards text-based sites such as Twitter and Reddit. Researchers have speculated that we are drawn to such sites based on the way we’re socialised in the offline world. Gender norms have influenced the way we see the use of SNS with the literature around the motivations of SNS finding that men use them to express their opinions, develop new relationships and experiment with the content they put on their profile. Conversely, women use it primarily to maintain existing social relationships, search for information about others and pass the time to be entertained (Rollero et al. , 2019).

 Our purpose for using these sites then influence how we present ourselves on it; explaining why there seems to be a much larger emphasis on profile presentation for women; especially on the images, we upload. Gender norms and roles that are practiced in the real world; seem to affect this behaviour to some extent, but a personal criticism of the current literature is that it is based on heteronormative standards. Sexual fluidity and recognition of queer identity and how that distorts these trends is something that should be included as well. 

Judith Butler refers to gender as something more socially and culturally bound than a pre-existing fact (1993). Acts that are repeated within these realms are what form gender norms which mean gender itself is flexible, and gender norms are thus open to change. Barboushi and colleagues grounded Butler’s definition in building their investigation of the representations of gender on social media among young people in Brazil and found some interesting insights within their study. 

In their research, they interviewed kids ranging from 11 to 17 years of age; who are active on social media. They found that girls were often trying to find a line between being sexy as expected by the media’s standards and showing too much risking yourself to slut-shaming. Boys, on the other hand, have felt pressure to portray an image of tough masculinity. 

When talking to students, they found that boys from the age of 15 to 17 were aware that the girls who got the most likes felt “powerful” but also acknowledged that they knew how much effort went into curating the perfect image; with one saying “they take 200 photos and post one!” This effort was also recognised in a study by Jennifer Mills in 2018 when she asked female undergraduates to take a selfie on an iPad and upload it to either Facebook or Instagram. One group could only take one picture and upload with no editing involved, and the other had the opportunity to retouch as much as they wanted using an app. Mills found that participants from both groups felt less confident after posting the selfie. Some also wanted to know if anyone had liked the photo before they could conclude how they felt posting the selfie, which points to a bigger problem that is the desire for validation on these platforms. 

There has been a growing amount of pressure to upload perfect pictures online. It’s a cycle of us seeing flawless pictures and feeling the need to do the same; whether we are aware of it or not. In the Brazilian study, boys admitted that they were insecure about not being photogenic or looking photogenic enough in photos. So, this pressure is seeping into all genders; just in different ways. 

That leads to whether the identity you portray online aligns with the persona your audience is receiving. A lot of the time on social media; we either act differently (perhaps more confident online) but not in real life. A picture is worth a thousand words, and it says a lot about who we are. A whole feed of images on our profile, therefore, tells an entire story; there’s so much data on who you are. A study on young adults from Germany and the US and 2010 found that “while teens may consciously distort the truth to appear more attractive, they have less control over their profile descriptions.” That means your real personality traits often shine through to your audience, and it’s not easy to alter the narrative you set for yourself with what you choose to post. 

So, we gather that gender norms seem to be influencing our choice of what we use SNS for and also what we choose to put on it. Many even from my network of friends have opted to take breaks from social media because it can feel draining. We often forget that there is more going on than what the photo shows. Fardouly notes that that’s why we often don’t feel as intimidated when looking at images of people we know. It is the images of people we don’t know that gets to us more because we assume they lead a perfect life; since we don’t know the whole picture. Mills, therefore, suggests that taking a break once in a while or reducing your time on SNS could help if you are feeling overwhelmed. 

Dr Guadagno addresses a broader issue which is the lack of female representation in the tech world. She believes diversity in technology, including more people of colour and more women in technical roles, will help because they will help widen the sort of ideas and designs used on SNS. Diversity in opinion will push for diversity in solutions. 

Since we are what brings in the money from advertisement revenue for social media companies, they will show us what will keep us best engaged. The using of users as data points instead of customers by big tech is another issue that she points out. If playing on gender stereotypes will help do that best, it’s what they will continue to do. Dr Guadagno believes this business model won’t last, but that’s a different issue in itself. The more present one is that only you have control over what is best for your emotional health when using such sites. 

You can choose to change what you’re looking at online. With SNS using recommended posts to keep you locked in on using their apps; the more images you look at that make you feel insecure and push for your desire to post the same; the more it harms your emotional health. Adjustments to what you follow online could potentially help. 

If there’s one main takeaway from this, it would hopefully be the awareness of whether we realise it or not; gender norms remain a significant influence on our online behaviour. If you feel that that has restricted the sort of posts you put up and or the way you view and respond to other people’s posts, it will be the first step to hopefully a safer online space where people will feel more comfortable with presenting who they are. 

References: 

(Lyons, 2018) InfoSpace: Social Media, Gender and the Future: An Interview with Dr. Rosanna Guadagno. [Available at: https://ischool.syr.edu/infospace/2018/11/09/social-media-gender-future-rosanna-guadagno/ ]

(Barboushi, Jereissati and Castello, 2017) Representations of Gender on Social Media among Brazilian Young People. [Available at: https://www.nordicom.gu.se/sv/system/tdf/kapitel-pdf/14_barbovschi_et_al.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=38958&force=

(Roller, Daniele and Tartaglia, 2019) Do men post and women view? The role of gender, personality and emotions in online social activity. [Available at https://cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/11564/10364

(Oakes, 2019) BBC Future: The complicated truth about social media and body image.  [Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190311-how-social-media-affects-body-image

(Whitbourne, 2013) Psychology Today: Your body on display: Social media and your self-image. [Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201312/your-body-display-social-media-and-your-self-image ]

(Herring, 2015) in J.D. Wright (Ed.) Teens, Gender and Self-Presentation on Social Media in International encyclopaedia of social and behavioural sciences, 2nd edition. Oxford: Elsevier. [Available at: https://www.academia.edu/35601108/Teens_Gender_and_Self-Presentation_in_Social_Media?auto=download

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