I earn a living by propagating lies, toxicity, and bullying. Yes, that’s right. I’m an advertiser. So why I am picking now to care about my dark art? Well, my children are tweens (10 and 12) and at an age where my daughter in particular is spending a lot of time on her phone.
Like most parents, we try and monitor their access. Actually, more than most — if you spent as much time looking at social media as I do, you’d probably be wearing gloves and a hazmat suit when you handed over the phone. My son is easy. He likes football forums and one-line texts from his friends (‘bus @ 8, bro?’) My daughter is different. Like many young girls, she is chatty and likes sharing pictures of her pets and watching YouTubers unboxing things.
I thought, and still do think, that she was too young to be given a phone. Over lockdown, however, it was a way for her to keep in touch with her friends. Now it’s a Genie that can’t be put back in its bottle.
The problem is that time and tech moved on. Cameras have taken over in a way that couldn’t have been imagined. George Orwell and Ray Bradbury’s dystopian visions of all-seeing eyes have been made real by mass consent and happy collaboration.
When I was young (1990s) a camera would only come out on special occasions. You had a couple of pictures taken at Christmas or your birthday when you were opening your presents (early unboxing images, right?) These days everything gets photographed. It’s no coincidence that surgeons and dentists were getting increased requests for facial procedures and teeth whitening in the Zoom WFH phenomena. We live in a visual world where we are judged by our looks more than ever before.
Airbrushed and unrealistic mages and videos present an unattainable standard of beauty. We know that this causes self-esteem issues and body image problems in young girls and, increasingly, young boys. Heck, it’s bad enough looking at it when you’re middle-aged!
Dove took a stand against this recently with their brilliant ‘Reverse Selfie’ ad (if you’re a parent, I dare you to watch it and not want to cry). One of the below-the-line comments from ‘Chloe- Anne’ is heart-breaking.
“This made me cry. I’m 19 years old and I wish so badly I hadn’t grown up with social media. It ruined my self-esteem and I became so good at editing pictures and doing makeup and losing weight … I wish I could go back and time and take my phone away.”
It’s not just the toxic soup of glossy fake imagery. The constant stream of anger and hate online can be overwhelming and depressing for even the most jaded. How on earth can we expect our children to develop a sense of perspective when all they see online is negativity?
As an advertiser, I have a massive internal struggle with this.
I know I’m part of the problem. The images I use in my ads are mostly filtered, manipulated and unreal but I know they will attract attention. Snarky obnoxious comments are horrible but I know they generate clicks. A negative comment or picture of a provocative celebrity will get far more engagement than a positive one.
Interestingly, when I was thinking of celebrities who can be guaranteed to send the internet into an overdrive of hate, female names immediately came into my head. Specifically, Meghan Markle and Victoria Beckham. I can’t think of a man who fires up the keyboard warriors to the same extent (maybe Meghan’s husband just at the moment).
On the face of it, both of those ladies are happily married, well-off and successful. Is this why people get angry at them? And what sort of message does that send out? We talk about wanting to empower our girls and encourage our boys to respect women. Now spend a couple of minutes reading some of the bile that gets flung at these two women and ask yourself who’s writing it? They can’t all be miserable loners living under a bridge somewhere.
The point here is that Social just does something to people. We say things that we would never say in real life and behave in a way that would be unacceptable in any other arena. This is what our children absorb.
So, what’s the answer? I don’t have one, I’m afraid. I wish I could tell you that I’m going to quit my job and become a Luddite guru taking a hammer to my Mac. But I’m not. I would, however, gently urge you one thing if you’ve read this far.
If you have young children, before giving into the cry of “Why can’t I have TikTok? EVERYONE in my class does!” grab yourself a glass of wine and reserve a couple of hours to watch it. Yes, I said a couple of hours, not 15 minutes. The average teen spends 9 hours a day on social. Then decide if it’s appropriate for your child (and please don’t forget to admire the online advertising.)