As a former English teacher, I am acutely aware of media messages and the fact that they are a construct of reality. When I first started teaching (just a few years ago), I taught my students the Media Triangle which we then used as a frame of reference whenever we viewed media:
So even before the internet was a thing and social media came to be, those of us teaching English and Media studies have been teaching kids that media is not real: that the audience, the text, and the production (techniques & conventions) are purposefully chosen and represent a construct of reality. This applies to everything: “reality” tv, magazine covers, film, news articles, posters, and now that list includes social media. Most especially, I taught students that we need to ask critical questions when they are confronted with a media text and and we should always be a little skeptical of what is being portrayed. And so traditionally, media has been the culprit of many negative outcomes including,
“exposure to unrealistic body images; modelling; pressure to conform; gender-typed socialization; objectification of the body; internalization of appearance ideals; increased negative affect that results from viewing unrealistic images of the body; social comparisons; interactions with peers and other normative influences; the adoption of appearance management behaviors and body change strategies to improve oneself; and compensatory motivations such as disordered eating as a way to validate one’s self-concepts” (Williams, 2014, pg 390)
Blame Social Media
Now, many posts, articles, studies, and musings are about the extent to which social media is to blame for these same issues which I tackled 20 years ago in my Media Studies class. And yet…
Perhaps the reason why there is a more pressing concern is likely because social media amplifies the access to some of these messages. Richard Perloff, in a study examining how social media effects young women’s body image, states that “social media, in Western countries such as the U.S., U.K., and Australia, have infiltrated individuals’ lives in ways that was not possible with previous mass media” (Williams, 2014, pg 389). This is actually scary when I consider the Dove campaign video which was created in 2008.
In a recent post by George Couros, he references an article about a young woman whose Instagram feed painted a picture of happiness while in actual fact she was struggling with depression and ultimately committed suicide. The commentary about Instagram is an interesting one:
“With Instagram, one thing has changed: the amount we consume of one another’s edited lives. Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered. In a recent survey conducted by the Girl Scouts, nearly 74 percent of girls agreed that other girls tried to make themselves look “cooler than they are” on social networking sites.”
I remember reading a post on my Twitter feed a few months ago about an Australian Instagram celebrity, Essena O’Neill, who apparently “blew up the internet” when she swore off social media admitting that every picture, every post was completely contrived and that she was never truly happy. This line really resonated:
The concept of faking a “perfect” life on social media has been around almost as long as social media itself”
A proactive approach: Use social media in media literacy lessons
We can limit the exposure kids have on social media (and I’m not saying we shouldn’t), but we may have to take a look at other proactive ways to address the multi-layered issue which arises here. Research suggests that media literacy is effective in combating body-image perceptions in women and that a multi-system approach is necessary to empower youth and adults” to start to challenge media-propagated images of narrow and harmful idealized bodies. This approach should include social media which “are capable of dramatically expanding the reach of media literacy programs on body image” (Andsager, 2014). (emphasis added)
Looking back at the media triangle, whether we are talking about an advertisement, a Facebook post, or an Instagram post, we can isolate all of the elements within it very effectively in our classrooms with students. And so when we include social media examples, we are helping students who may not readily recognize the contrived nature of posts (be it those of celebrities or friends), have a clearer sense of real vs fake.
But as Andsager suggests, social media shouldn’t just be a part of the conversation, it can be a part of the solution not just because of the potential of widespread messaging, but because when students actually create using technology and social media, they are learning about the interplay of text, production, and audience which may serve to help them to become critical of the media they consume.
I love how Mimi Ito says it in the book, Participatory Culture in a networked age:
Our mindset has to start moving beyond “How can I protect myself from media corporations?” and towards how can I contribute in an effective and responsible way?”
(Jenkins et all, 2016, pp 108).
- Andsager, J. L. (2014). Research directions in social media and body image. Sex Roles, 71(11), 407-413. doi:10.1007/s11199-014-0430-4
- Fagan, Kate. “Split Image.” Weblog post. ESPN. N.p., 17 May 2015. Web. 6 July 2016.
- Jenkins, H., Itō, M., & boyd, d. (2015). Participatory culture in a networked era: A conversation on youth, learning, commerce, and politics. Wiley.
- Perloff, R. M. (2014). Social media effects on young women’s body image concerns: Theoretical perspectives and an agenda for research. Sex Roles, this issue. doi: 10.1007/s11199-014-0384-6.
- Williams, R., & Ricciardelli, L. (2014). Social media and body image concerns: Further considerations and broader perspectives. Sex Roles, 71(11-12), 389-392. doi:10.1007/s11199-014-0429-x