Two girls—it turns out they are both eleven—are standing at the corner of 72nd Street and First Avenue. One is talking and the other is looking down at her phone, scrolling, and even though the light hasn’t changed, she steps off the curb and starts crossing. I see the taxi out of the corner of my eye, barreling through the intersection and, more reflexively than not, I grab her by the shirt and pull her back. It all happens in seconds. After I introduce myself, I switch into mother-mode, asking whether her mom has told her not to text while she’s crossing ( she has) and what she was doing that was so important.  

She was checking her Facebook. Technically, she’s not old enough to be on Facebook, but never mind that. She explains that she was so busy Snapchatting that she probably hadn’t checked Facebook in several hours—hence the urgency. It’s astonishing to think that only nine years ago Facebook was in its first incarnation —in a dorm room at Harvard— but that now, it and other social media are inextricably part of the experience of growing up, as a recent Pew Research Center Study showed.

Other inventions —photography, the automobile, the telephone—changed both how people interact and how they viewed themselves, but the rise of social media seems to do so in ways that are both explicit and subtle at once. For one thing, the number of hours spent on social media is, in and of itself, noteworthy. How, in the end, this will shape the development of the young remains to be seen, but the four things teens and tweens want from social media are worth looking at. They tell us a lot about growing up digital.

1. To Get Attention

Information sharing is at the heart of getting attention for yourself and, according to Pew Research, teens are sharing plenty of it. 92% use their real names and just about the same number post photos of themselves. 71% post the name of their school and town. More than half post their email. 84% post their interests and 82% their birthdays. Roughly one-quarter post videos of themselves. All of these percentages are higher—many of them significantly—since the last study the Pew Center did in 2006.

How benign is all this sharing? Well, it depends on your point of view. While only 9% of the teens surveyed worried about privacy (they thought they had a handle on it), recent research by Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell, and Thore Graepel demonstrated that using the Facebook Likes of 58,000 volunteers, they could accurately infer a variety of personal attributes. If you think about it, that’s not really surprising. I happen to know the people I connect to on Facebook in the main, but if I look hard at what they post about, what they “like,” and their photos, I could come up with a pretty detailed description of them which would include their political affiliations and opinions, their hobbies, attitudes etc. That puts another spin on the issue of what, in today’s world, constitutes private information.

60% of teens keep their Facebooks private; 25% have a partly private profile; and 14% use public settings. But keep in mind that a quarter of tweens also have Twitter accounts —another fount of information.  

Teens complain all the time about oversharing while they’re sharing too much themselves. But if getting attention trumps all, will these kids ever learn how to set boundaries? The evidence, as you’ll see, suggests not.

2. To Get Approval

The need to get peer approval isn’t anything new, of course, but it used to take place largely in a real-world context; today, getting “approval” is closely associated with Facebook, especially with the “Like” feature which, the Pew Center researchers note, is a “strong proxy for social status so that Facebook users will manipulate their profiles and timeline content in order to garner the maximum number of ‘likes.’” Teens will change out photos that have gotten too few likes and edit posts that don’t garner approval. 

Interestingly enough, while you might think that the more Facebook “friends” you have —the median for teens is 300—the less peer approval you might need, the opposite is true. In fact, researchers found that the more friends a teen had on Facebook —say 600 or more —the likelier he or she was to share more information and spend more time managing, curating, and editing his or her profile, photos, and posts. And the more friends you have actually increases the number of times you check in on Facebook. Not surprisingly, you’re more likely to have a Twitter account if you have more Facebook friends too.

This phenomenon is explained by research done by Coye Cheshire that confirms that the “intrinsic satisfaction” derived from the popularity of something you’ve contributed —the sharing of information— actually increases your desire to share more in the future. If you get enough positive feedback, you’ll be more inclined to share more and go out on a limb more the next time. In the same way, wanting to give social approval to someone else’s sharing is going to motivate you to click that Like icon even more often.  

This explains a lot about teen behavior online which often seems impulsive and thoughtless; it may not be.  

Why Likes are so important is conveyed by what one fifteen-year-old girl said in a Pew focus group: “I think something that really changed for me in high school with Facebook is Facebook is really about popularity. And the popularity you have on Facebook transmits into the popularity you have in life.” Bad diction aside, it’s a sobering thought. And then there’s this, uttered by another fifteen-year-old:  “And there's something that we call ‘like whores’ because it's like people who desperately need ‘likes’ so there are a couple of things they do. First is post a picture at a prime time. And I'm not going to lie, I do that, too.”

It’s one thing to live in a world where Facebook Likes are essential to the marketing of almost everything and everyone—from books and authors, movies and songs, retail stores or museums—but is it healthy to have adolescents marketing themselves in the same way?   Is this what our kids should want? 

Is the goal to rival these Facebook page Likes?  301,000 (Psychology Today). 131,000 (Judy Blume).  2,585,000 (Paula Deen, and that was today.) 

3. Cultivate An Image

In their focus groups, the Pew researchers found that a large number of teens complained about the burden of having to deal with Facebook —snooping parents, drama, and the work of curating the online persona, paying attention to all those Likes —but they all felt it was crucial nonetheless. As one researcher, Zeynep Tufekci wrote in her 2008 study,  while adults and other commentators are confounded by what young people share online, they don’t understand that “The kids want to be seen.” The culture of social media values being seen over being known. In a social world that’s mediated by technology, “ being seen by those we wish to be seen by, in ways we wish to be seen, and thereby engaging in identity expression, communication, and impression management are central motivations.”  While her study focused on college students, it’s clear that teens are well aware of and savvy about “impression management”; indeed, it appears to be their primary motivation

4. Stay in the Loop and in the Game

I’ve written about FOMO—Fear of Missing Out—and like the eleven-year-old crossing the street, teens worry a lot about being out of the loop. Since teens actually see Facebook and other social media as an extension of their physical universe—hence being popular on Facebook is an extension or validation of popularity in the real world—the idea of not participating or withdrawing is social suicide.  That accounts for why teens complain about the “drama” on social media and continue to participate anyway.

Visitors to the Oracle at Delphi saw the words “Know Thyself” first. Would the Oracle today have a sign that said “ Like Me” instead?

Copyright © 2013 Peg Streep. 

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