To look at 16-year-old Greta's Instagram gallery, a viewer would get no sense of who this Los Angeles teen is. There are no allusions to future dreams or aspirations, only shots of her in various poses and different outfits, sometimes with a small dog, her face puckered into the "duck face" made notorious in selfie culture.
To Greta, these photos and the thousands of followers they've attracted make her what she calls "Instafamous," she tells journalist Nancy Jo Sales in “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers."
"It's almost like a title people associate me with," she told Sales in the book. "Almost every person I meet comes up to me because I have close to 5,000 followers on Instagram."
In some ways, Greta (whose last name was kept private in the book) is a walking, talking example of what researchers call "the shallowing hypothesis" — the theory that increased social media and technology use has led Americans to become more superficial. That’s new, says clinical psychologist Andrea Letamendi.
“We’re finding ourselves more drawn to this world where you can go from being nobody to being anybody in a way that didn’t exist before,” Letamendi said. “We believe if we work hard enough, we can succeed and social media makes us believe that’s more common and frequent when really, it’s one in a million.”
A recent Canadian study surveyed college students about their social media habits and then asked what was most important in their lives. Those who used social media (Facebook and Instagram were the most frequently used) more often reported being more concerned with things like their appearance or having fun rather than helping others or being honest.
Study author Logan Anisette doesn't blame social media and technology for any erosion of moral values, but he and other researchers who study social media aren’t discounting its influence on morals, either.
“It’s important to point out that it could be a lot of things, like morally shallow people might be more drawn to a higher rate of social media use,” Anisette said. “But the magnitude of these relationships (between social media use and shallowing) really surprised me —it affected everyone in some way, all sorts of people with all sorts of values.”
Harvard University professor and Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist Steve Schlozman says kids today don’t grasp the permanence of online statements — that even deleted comments will live on in comments, memories and screenshots.
“Moral development comes with experimentation, and social media can sometimes get in the way of social exploration because you can’t take anything back, you can’t change your mind,” Schlozman said. “A person’s opinions don’t lend themselves to a like.”
‘Seeing is believing’
Experts say platforms like Instagram, that rely heavily on photos, are uniquely positioned to influence a young person’s ideas of right and wrong.
“Seeing is believing, as they say,” Schlozman said. “Even if it’s a created photo, that impression is hard to shake. To the extent that Instagram grabs you with a photo, its point is to get you to form an opinion without any nuance.”
That’s because images carry what’s called visual primacy and warranting value, researchers say — which basically means that photos have more impact on young people than, say, a tweet or a Facebook update. When a photo then becomes “warranted” (in this case, liked or shared) by other people, it becomes more believable and is filed in the brain as evidence of something being true.
“It’s the idea that if you say something happened and then someone else supports that, then I’m really going to believe you,” Seattle Children’s Hospital adolescent doctor and social media researcher Megan Moreno said.
As humans, we also tend to believe something is true or normal until it’s proven otherwise.
“When we look at someone’s Instagram, we assume that’s (the) truth,” University of Wisconsin communications professor and researcher Jonathan D’Angelo said. “It can make you question your values. If you keep getting exposure to something, it can make it seem more normative, which may challenge your values.”
That’s problematic when, for example, a teenager is brought up to believe underage drinking is dangerous, but is bombarded with photos of people drinking and having fun online.
“What’s hard here is you’re getting exposure to these scenarios but you’re not always seeing the consequences,” Moreno said. “You’re seeing the college student talking about doing a beer bong Friday, but not seeing them on Saturday when they feel terrible — you’re not seeing them crashing their car.”
Because social media doesn’t often capture the ups and downs of everyday life, Schlozman said it makes sense that young people might confuse the beautiful, filtered images of Instagram with what real life is supposed to be like — even if what they see contradicts the values they were raised with, like drinking or drug abuse being wrong.
“It gives this illusion of a distinct beginning, middle and end to something when really, it’s just a moment in time and often, it’s a fake moment in time,” Schlozman said.
Because children and teenagers are actively trying to form their own identities by mimicking what they see around them, social media’s brand of “normal” can be a trap for some kids who naturally equate attention with validation.
“What kids are looking for is a picture that has those signs of warranting on it — a lot of dialogue and attention and approval,” Moreno said. “If I’m looking for something to emulate, that may not be the best source.”
As new generations grow up in a social media world of heavily doctored photos, it’s up to parents to help children and teens distinguish between the leagues of beautiful, filtered Instagram photos and the reality behind them.
“Don’t try to take it away from them, because that’s just a ticket for them not to listen,” Schlozman said. “Ask questions, because what you’re doing is introducing subtlety into a very concrete moment.”
Moreno says parents co-viewing photos with their kids goes a long way.
“The unfortunate side of this is that parents feel they’ve lost their voice, like if they don’t understand everything about Instagram, they have no right to talk about it,” Moreno said. “But you can start tough conversations without being accusatory. Let your child be the expert and show you Instagram and then you’re in a position to ask what your child thinks about it.”
Schlozman advised discussing what may or may not be real in photos.
“Ambiguity and subtlety lead to moral decision-making. There is no subtlety in a naked person on Instagram,” Schlozman said. “You have to have the same discussion about this as you would about pro wrestling with an 8-year-old: They’re putting on a show.”
Moreno is hopeful that because social media is so new, children will soon grow up learning to be more discerning about it, just as they have to some extent with movies or advertising.
“We need to think about how to teach kids media literacy, how to question what they see how a photo is real and whether or not you want to buy into whatever message it's sending,” Moreno said. “We’ve got to extend not accepting everything they see to social media because, if the content is created by their peers, why would they ever question whether or not it’s fake unless we tell them?”