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Is Facebook Creating a False Self in Children?

Too much media is not healthy for children.

In my last post, I described how new media is causing the externalization of children’s self-identity. The result of this externalization may be your children developing a false self, in which they internalize the messages of popular culture and media, such as valuing themselves based on their wealth, appearance, or popularity, and those messages become the foundation of their self-identity.

The development of the false self grounded in the unrelenting messages from the many forms of media enables them to meet the demands of the “manufactured” world of so-called popular culture they are immersed in. Yet, the cost is high, namely, the creation of a false self that is incongruent with their true self, a self-identity that is an authentic expression of who they really are and the otherwise healthy world in which they live.

The false self is constructed to satisfy the needs of popular culture, in particular, to generate more profit for those companies that control popular culture. Its emphasis on those needs, for example, materialism, physical appearance, popularity, and celebrity, results in children feeling psychologically, emotionally, and socially “undernourished” because these aspects of the false self don’t satisfy their most basic needs for love, security, competence, and connection. In the absence of real meaning and fulfillment in their lives, children become dependent on media to meet the immediate and superficial needs of the externally constructed false self that provides them with only the bare minimum of “nourishment” to survive.

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Children who are allowed to immerse themselves in media without guidance or limits are faced with a choice that really isn’t a choice: They can remain true to their emerging self-identity and forsake what they perceive as acceptance and validation by much of their social world (which is largely controlled by media these days). Or they can accept the false self that has been contrived by popular culture and ensure its ongoing esteem, however unhealthy it is. As children’s exposure to popular media grows, so does the pressure to repress their burgeoning true self, with its positive perspectives and healthy needs, and allow their false self, with its faulty judgments and dangerous prohibitions, to gain dominance.

Here is a wake-up call for you: If your own messages are reinforcing the projected identities of today’s media, your children have little chance but to capitulate to the externalized identity that is being forced on them. Imagine the two most powerful forces in their lives, namely, media and you, sending them the same messages to forsake their internally emerging self-identity for one that is in direct conflict with their own. The need to gain love and approval from you and to be accepted and valued by popular culture gives them no other option than to bury their true self-identity deep inside of them and allow the false self to come to the fore and assert control.

On their own, it’s virtually impossible for your children to resist the external identity and false self being imposed on them by media. Your children lack the experience, perspective, and maturity to withstand the allure, particularly when packaged in such entertaining characters, images, and music. The only chance they have in this world so dominated by media is for you to show them how to use all of the good that media has to offer while avoiding their pitfalls.

Self-esteem

There is a robust body of research affirming that children can come to value themselves based on the messages they get from the media. For example, girls who read fashion and celebrity magazines, which portray thin models, are more self-conscious about their bodies, diet and exercise more, and are more vulnerable to eating disorders. Also, the sexualization of females that dominates both old and new media and is accessible to increasingly younger ages of girls results in distorted body image, low self-esteem, and depression, among other developmental problems. Among boys, research has shown unrealistic portrayals of males related to physical prowess, appearance, intellect, and attractiveness to the opposite sex create unrealistic expectations that lower self-esteem.

New media is playing an growing role in the formation and maintenance of self-esteem among children. There is growing evidence that young people are increasingly basing how they feel about themselves on how connected they are and the quantity of their relationships. The steady influx of text messages, regular postings on social networking sites, and number of “likes” and “friends” they have, for example, become the measures of children’s self-worth. The absence of the above becomes the grounds for doubt, insecurity, and anxiety.

There is also an emerging body of evidence indicating that social media is developing an unhealthy relationship with self-esteem. For example, one study found that Facebook users who had low self-esteem posted more “self-promotional” materials on their pages than those with high self-esteem. Another study reported that those who were more dependent on outside influences for their self-esteem were more likely to spend more time and post more photos of themselves on Facebook.

So far, I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of media’s impact on children. There is, however, evidence of some positive influence on children’s development. For example, one study found that social media provides opportunities to build self-esteem, develop friendships, and hone social skills. Other research reported that viewing and editing their profile and receiving feedback from friends on their Facebook pages boosted self-esteem. In the case of the profiles, because profiles tend to be positive, subjects were giving themselves a “shot” of optimism about themselves. In the case of the feedback from friends, subjects got a “shot” of support.  Additionally, the sense of security that social media provide can allow shy children to express themselves more and practice social skills which can then translate into confident and comfortable face-to-face interactions.

Consistent with my message throughout my latest parenting book, Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-fueled World, media will only be harmful to children’s self-esteem if they are exposed to them in excess, without reasonable filters, guidance, or perspective, and with insufficient counterbalances, such as positive experiences, feedback, messages, from the “real world.”

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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