Teen performance and brand management

posted by Jeff | Monday, May 20, 2024, 9:41 PM | comments: 0

I've been reading a bit about the perils of teenage life in the smartphone era, because I have a teenager now, and I saw something that concisely encapsulated the way that it's different for them, compared to our experience. It's not simply that in-person interaction has moved online. In fact, one psychologist even suggested that asking someone out via text is far less traumatic than doing it by phone, or worse, face to face. The real change is that being a teenager is far more performative, and many kids believe that they need to maintain a "brand" on social media. Doesn't that sound fucking exhausting?

For a number of years I've heard about how the view of people online is a sanitized, happier version of reality. I didn't get that, but only because from my view, I've tried to make sure that the hard parts are represented too, especially when it comes to parenting and career. But the reason for my experience is probably because the rise of online life sharing happened at a point where I was already not caring about how it might be received. I suppose that could have been the autism, too. I'm still not great at reading a room. Regardless, the younger you go, the more people only know this world, and sharing all of the smiles makes you, apparently, super appealing and interesting to your peers. I remember when you just had to be pretty or an athlete.

In that sense, teens feel a lot of pressure to be performative in their online presentation, which is essentially the work of marketing yourself. There are a hundred reasons that's troubling, like the idea that the opinions of others, strangers, should factor into your sense of self. It makes it seem like the hard parts of life are a result of your "defects." It's not just about being accepted, if not popular, among the few hundred kids in your grade at school. Now it's about being that to the world.

I can't imagine that kind of pressure. The day I graduated from high school, I realized that high school didn't matter. Who I was to others didn't matter. A few short months later, in college, nobody gave a shit, if they ever did in the first place. In other words, I had a lesson in what reality actually was. Today, I'm not sure that comes as easy. I watch these people run around Disney live streaming themselves, and while I understand some of them make a little money, it makes me sad that so much of what's online now is about people trying to be Internet famous. It's all a facade. And you wonder why people of all ages get sucked into rabbit holes of conspiracy theories and other such nonsense? There's a comfortable facade for everyone of every walk of life to associate with.

So as a parent, I'm tasked with two things, I think. The first is to really teach critical thinking. I haven't been good at this so far. Simon will say, "Well so and so said this on YouTube," about something at an amusement park. I typically have responded by dismissing the "so and so," but what I should be doing is teaching him how to ask the basic questions... What evidence does this person have to support their position? Can it be observed or validated by others? Do they have a reputation or credential that demonstrates expertise? You don't have to go far to find all of the people who don't pass a basic sniff test.

The second thing is to teach about the reality around the lack of power that most people have over you. I don't know how to approach this, because even with a lot of therapy, I sometimes forget. But once we leave the safety of school, we have to figure out what to do so we can provide for ourselves, and that basic kind of survival makes the social difficulties of youth seem irrelevant by comparison. No amount of performance online is going to move that needle. You'll just end up the sad trope of a live streamer at Epcot.


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