How teenagers identify themselves, and choose to identify themselves in online communities and social networks, are heavily impacted by the identity cues they pick up from social media influencers. Sometimes these cues come with positive outcomes, and others with negative. This study believes there are strong arguments for and against this concept, but ultimately do not have overall harmful effects on the identity formation of teenagers.
KEYWORDS: Social media, Identity Formation, Adolescents, Micro-celebrities, Influence
How teenagers identify themselves, and choose to identify themselves in online communities and social networks, are heavily impacted by the identity cues they pick up from social media influencers. Sometimes these cues come with positive outcomes, and others with negative. This study believes there are strong arguments for and against this concept, but ultimately do not have overall harmful effects on the identity formation of teenagers. Identity formation is a major stage of development that every adolescent will go through at least once in their life, and when taken into account its relationship with social media, particularly social media influencers, the result is fairly consequential. The definition of identity for starters, according to Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, is a combination of the “self-concept, which is the knowledge of who we are” and “self awareness to develop a cognitive representation of the self”. Ultimately, varying factors that present themselves throughout the course of our lives, since we are not technically born with an identity, controls who we become. When the ubiquitous presence of the Internet and other new media are added into this equation as ‘extensions of everyday life and a tool of cultural change’ (Singh, 2010), the formation of identity is heavily “transformed in new and even more global ways” (Worsham, 2011). ‘Walt Whitman wrote, “There was a child went forth every day. And the first object he looked upon, that object he became”. In this spirit, it is warranted to explore who we become when some of the first objects we look upon exist only on computer screens’. Whitman further describes that online experiences “challenge, dramatizes and concretizes larger cultural trends that encourage people to think about identity in terms of multiplicity and flexibility” (Whitman, 1855; cited by Turkle, 1997).
As teenagers begin to search for a sense of self and personal identity, a lot of inspiration will come from the flood of information that sources from any form of media in front of them, particularly social media. Given that an element of identity formation is “thinking about the type of person you want to be” (Arnett, 2010, p.340), there is a lot to think about when a particular narrative of what someone should look like, and what they should be doing, and at what age they should be doing that is strongly enforced. This can cause tensions to rise when ideas about what is considered appropriate and inappropriate to share on social media conflict (Mascheroni, Vincent & Jiminez; 2015). As social media usage more often than not rewards individuals for uploading and sharing only positive images through their followers’ likes and comments, this creates a deceptive cycle of only positive self-perception. Especially considering that photos are viewed very quickly and with limited effort, if the norm is for any given viewer to assign only a fraction of their attention span to a photo, that fraction is more likely to increase if the photos are attractive. This subsequently encourages an individual to generate exclusively positive content, in the hopes that it will retain the attention of their audience for longer.
Social media influencers, also known as micro-celebrities, are notorious for creating a perfect image of themselves online and using that image to attract attention (Chae, 2017). Defined as “individuals who are in a consumer’s social graph and have a direct impact on the behaviour of that consumer” (Brown & Hayes, 2008), micro-celebrities have a unique role being so close to consumers and their job description relying so heavily on disseminating marketing messages (Ge & Gretzel, 2017). ‘The development of micro-celebrities is mostly evident through Instagram, but they also exist on YouTube, Twitter and other social platforms’ (Djafarova & Trofimenko, 2018), and seem to exercise the kind of luxurious lifestyle ordinary women could only aspire to (Chae, 2017). Instagram is a breeding ground where this comparison between social media influencers and adolescents thrive. Because Instagram is ‘currently one of the most dominant social media platforms for influencer marketing with more than 600 million active users’ (Evans, Phua, Lim, & Jun; 2017), the photo and video-sharing site is a strong medium for young people to strive for social media fame and become fixated on images at the expense of substance, leading to the development of a self-absorbed youth culture” (Djafarova & Trofimenko, 2018).
Social media influencers are easy for teenagers to get invested in, as they are similar to their audiences, and hence more appealing. Identification is easy when there is already a mould there to mimic. An example of a high profile social media influencer that has the potential to catalyse a false sense of one’s perceptions of social reality includes 20-year-old Brisbane YouTuber Lily Brown. In 2018, she broadcasted that her insecurities led her to get an overkill of cosmetic surgery in one day including lip filler, cheek filler, and eyebrow lift and Botox in her forehead (Brown, 2018). She did disclose that it was a lot of work for her to get done, and she didn’t want “younger people to ever think that because you’re so insecure that it’s going to solve your problems because it’s not” (Brown, 2018). Might have this been a stand alone occurrence, then the influence on their viewers consumption patterns and lifestyle may have been drowned out, but it goes hand in hand with her friend, another high profile influencer, Shani Grimmond. In 2017, she published a video titled, “I Want A Boob Job…” (Grimmond, 2017) which received a lot of criticism for promoting unattainable beauty standards, and a problematic relationship with viewers’ natural bodies. She also disclosed that she was only doing it for the sake of her own happiness, but this passively moulds our society’s value system to reject being content with the natural state of one’s own appearance.
Together, these stereotypical portrayals of women feed a false sense of what the world actually is because the role models that thousands of followers look up to have hiked up the unrealistic standard of beauty, normalised cosmetic surgery, and downplayed the importance of intelligence. Instagram facilitates teenagers to conform to conventional beauty standards, as the number of likes equate to validation and social legitimation, and overall, popularity. The way that teenagers choose to present themselves online closely resemble the visual codes of advertising, with which social media influencers are trained in in order to advertise themselves.
Despite this, the impact of social media influencers is also known to have desirable consequences. Influencers like 20-year-old Cartia Mallan inspire her followers to be more spiritually and emotionally vulnerable. Other positive experiences include social media influencers acting as ambassadors for “self-expression, which enable self-reflection, catharsis, and validating feedback” (Boyd, 2008). This is not the only case of social media influencers positively impacting their followers, and it won’t be the last. On the other side of the same coin, Shani Grimmond has mentioned in many of her videos that she used to be really shy before starting YouTube made her more confident. This feeds into her followers processing that information and mimicking it.
Ultimately, social media influencers do not have overall harmful effects on the identity formation of teenagers. How adolescents choose to process the information they are given online cannot be equated to either a positive or negative experience when most of the time, the full use of an adolescent’ experience on social media is multifaceted. In the networked world of an adolescent, in some cases social media influencers can contribute to potentially harmful outcomes like envy and feeling left out, and in other cases, can contribute to more positive outcomes like self-expression. Social media influencers would know better than anyone how complex social media use and influence is (Weinstein, 2018).
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