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Youth, researchers discuss offline impact of social media on teen relationships

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TORONTO - Hannah Gillis and Ben Lord understand the challenges faced by fellow teens to maintain a strong self-image amid pressure to conform to portrayals that don't often reflect real life.

Both Gillis, 17, and Lord, 18, are facilitators in programs funded by the Canadian Women's Foundation aimed at promoting healthy relationships among youth. In addition to messages on preventing dating violence and setting boundaries, the programs try to dispel myths and shed light on the often unattainable representations of males and females in media.

"A lot of advertisements and movies kind of objectify women especially and create unrealistic expectations that youth try to live up to, and it's just not possible in most cases," said Gillis at the recent National Skills Institute on Teen Healthy Relationship Programming organized by the foundation.

"As long as there's size double zero models and there's all this Photoshop(ping)... people are going to have a flawed perception of beauty because that's what we're exposed to and that's what's put on a pedestal," added Lord.

Social media can serve as a platform for youngsters who may be influenced by such messages. It could also be a way to seek personal affirmation and validation, as evidenced by YouTube videos posted by girls and teens soliciting opinions on their appearance.

"I think it's because they want attention or rely on the assurance of other people that they are pretty, that they are perfect," said Gillis of the videos.

Carleton University professor Rena Bivens, who led a workshop at the institute, is delving deeper into the connection between teens and social media use with her Hanging Out Online Project.

Bivens is seeking Canadians between the ages of 13 and 18 and exploring what people learn about gender and relationships while spending time on Facebook. The project will also look at how information posted by people and their friends — such as status updates, photos and comments — can affect their thoughts on relationships, gender-based violence, and other individuals.

"This offline/online divide is sort of artificial. It's something that has now become more public... more visible to all of us, and one academic calls it a `broadcast impulse.' We have this impulse to broadcast this information in this habitual way," said Bivens, adjunct professor with the Pauline Jewett Institute of Women's and Gender Studies.

"People add all these friendships, and normally, we would act in different ways depending on what group we were interacting with; and I think people forget who is in this broad audience because they've just very easily and very fluidly added people to this network," she added.

"I think it's really important for us to identify what is different. What are the new dynamics when it comes to social media platforms or any of these new technologies?"

Bivens said one thing she's been interpreting from her observations of youth profiles is the need of some people to divulge a great deal of detail about their relationships and offline activities. When she talks with project participants in person, she said she'll be able to better determine if that is indeed occurring.

"Until that happens, I can't know for sure if that's their intention or feeling or understanding of it, but that's certainly what I've seen in the literature."

Lord, who uses Facebook, said he believes social networking sites are increasingly becoming outlets for teens to share personal details — some more willingly than others.

"It's gotten to the point where I've had people from my school fight and break up over the fact that one person didn't go home and show themselves as in a relationship," he said. "It's to that point that it's so important to the youth to display to the entire world that they're in a relationship that people have broken up, gotten into fights."

"I can't judge anyone on how comfortable they are with that kind of thing. But you have to recognize there are different levels (of privacy)," he added. "Some people like to take makeout shots of them(selves) and their partner and post it on Facebook as their display picture, whereas some people aren't even comfortable announcing that they're in a relationship."Gillis, who uses Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, believes details of relationships are being overshared online.

"I'm from a really rural community and everyone knows everyone's business. Everyone wants to know what's going on with everyone — and it's the same with social networking," said the Grade 11 Nova Scotia student. "They creep each other, they want to know what they're doing, when they're doing it, why they're doing it, and it's almost like they show off their relationship."

"I believe a relationship is more private. It's between two individuals, and a lot of times on social networking sites, it's more for show. It's more just to show people, `Oh, I have a girlfriend, oh, I have a boyfriend.'"

Lord, a volunteer facilitator with Making Waves in New Brunswick, tries to encourage participants to unplug on occasion to reflect on life and relationships.

"I definitely think that the necessity to broadcast to the entire world on social networking and the necessity to be joined at the hip all the time ... also leads to isolation which is not good at all," he said. "We're just such a technologically-driven generation that it's integrated into us, and I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to the extent that we've taken it."

With cellphones within arm's reach at virtually all times, Bivens said the separation between real life and the digital realm is dissolving.

"This online-offline divide is something that might not be so important to think about because it is such a blend and it is so fluid these days — but it is so ever-present," she said.

"Even when (people are) standing waiting for an elevator and starting to feel a bit socially conscious and shy ... they just pick up their phone and start using it. So things like Facebook play into that. There's this platform that became successful maybe, in part, because of this social desire for something around this."

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Online:

Canadian Women's Foundation: www.canadianwomen.org

Hanging Out Online Project: www.comehangout.ca

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