by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
The Xmas period brings out the best and worst in people. Xmas is supposed to be a spiritual event and about giving but yet the road rages at shopping centre car parks, the harried shoppers with arms full of material consumerism trash tells a different story.
Normally after Xmas the holiday crowds at shopping centres are a bit more buoyant and festive. A new experience this year for me was that I got poked 3 times in 2 days with “selfie sticks” as I went about my holiday business in public spaces.
The incidents prompted me to consider what this behaviour represented as a symptom of some other underlying trend. This article questions how consumed are people becoming with social media, online video entertainment, the online digital world around us, and what mirroring and modelling is going on that is subconsciously influencing what we think about ourselves, others and relationships.
To recap, I got poked in the back and the head by shoppers with “selfie sticks”, which are those extension poles that are now showing up in the streets, cafes, shopping malls and just about everywhere else. This 2014 Xmas present of choice is an intrusive gadget which in the hands of novices threaten all those around them with a poke or whack when in their proximity.
I call them the narcissisticks as who else would need to resort to such a desperate piece of technology to provide us with yet another picture or angle on oneself. How boring and vain to interrupt pedestrian traffic flows with your photo in front of Target store or next to a Nandos chicken outlet and show us how much of that chicken wing you can stuff into your mouth via your photo taken from a selfie stick.
Others have dubbed them as “wands of narcissism” and their intrusion in public spaces is now being noticed with selfie sticks have been banished from a string of UK venues including London’s Wembley and O2 arenas as well as at the Australian Open tennis. The sad trend is that some audience members are desperate to record for their social media the fact that they are at a concert or a sporting event, and have no problem in interrupting another person’s line of sight or enjoyment whilst trying to snap that great indulgent photo.
So we are now entering an era where the social media snap of uncontrived spontaneity now takes another step towards the insecure craving of that very contrived and image driven professional “selfie”. The enablement of the “look at me” person who craves external personal validation and dignity of self in amongst others by having to wave their selfie sticks around highlights the digital plague obsessing society.
We are now in an era where we are all being called to be “awesome”. This theme dominates email marketing for self development and in themes in retail marketing for goods, services and experiences.
The message is you need to be awesome or be a nobody. This narcissistic grooming is designed to stroke a narcissists sense of being special, whilst at the same time touch the raw nerve of the insecure, low self esteem person and tell them that they can now be special, lovable, the best or powerful.
The marketing has worked for now there is a legion of desperate low self esteem “wanabees” running around trying to craft an image to convince themselves and you that they are somehow special, elite, rich, powerful, or whatever image they hide their insecure self behind. The digital world of social media is a perfect enabler for this type of grooming and the pursuit of this sad fantasy.
Neuroscience tells us a lot about what shapes us and what forms of sensory input and stimulus affects us and engages us. Digital sensory stimulus and its bias towards visual interaction and consumption is a dominant influencer in the developing brain and mind, but also in adults and the way they adapt to technology.
This cuts across many of ways in which we learn and form beliefs about ourselves and aspects of life. Crucially for children they do not possess adult discrimination and many are unaware how the digital world is literally shaping the reality, beliefs and expectations of the next generation of adults in society.
Given the internet is an unregulated world which is exploited by some of the most technologically advanced and richest business entities then the need for these groups to influence audiences towards a “call to action” whether that be to buy or consume, is paramount to much of what goes on in digital landscapes.
The internet by its nature is addictive to you minds, and is presenced by businesses who want to addict you by their design of how you relate and equate to that world. Social media is the easiest example of this point to demonstrate.
Look at Facebook and Instagram. The whole business model of these social platforms is driven from external validation and approval. It’s like you are behind their bathroom mirror and now get to see their poses and pouts, postures and vain self adulation.
The unwary get sucked into a trap of feeling a need to perform regular posts, build follower numbers such that they feel OK that somehow they are a “somebody”, and then become anxious to how each new post they do is liked, ignored, or shared. The exercise becomes an obsession for some who lose their boundaries, dignity and sense of self in pursuit of narcissistic edification by others.
A microcosm of this behaviour is my local school where my daughter attends. We are in a middle class area so there is an over-represented demographic of “wannabes” and new money wealth who have little style or class about the way they go about flaunting their claimed wealth and associated trappings, objects and lifestyles.
If you look you will find one couple endlessly flaunting their trips overseas with day by day selfie shots in exotic locations. The accompanying text is a mutual admiration society that claims they are the best lovers, have the best marriage, the perfect life, and push their children to constantly achieve via the endless photos of trophies, claims of wins at contests, and extolling them for what they achieve rather than who they are.
The on-the-ground reality in the school drop-off and pick-up is a clique of mutual selfie “likers” and proponents who reinforce that fantasy reality with each other, and shun and look down on others whom they decide are not of their breed or class.
Yet it is a catholic school and of course they sit in the front row of church, do the offerings, have tea and scones with the principal and the priest. This is all part of the fantasy edifice that they actively curate as a message that they are somehow elite and arrived somewhere wonderful in the top strata of society.
It’s all there on Facebook for everyone to see. The “selfie” is ever such an orchestrated moment striving for perfection that reeks of grasping and insecurity.
If that was the end of what social media and the internet has done to impact individuals, relationships and families then it would be an irritant that one could survive and live with. However 2014 confirmed the negative impact that digital experiences were having on child and adult social, relational, attentional and the actual concept or state of self identity.
This is visible in many forms and the rise of “trolls” on the internet is one red flag to how the internet enables mentally and socially disturbed people.
THE INTERNET AND SOCIAL MEDIA TROLL
Australia has always had the reputation for being a nation who cuts the knees out from “tall poppies” as we cannot celebrate our heroes but instead tear them down instead. The internet has both given rise to a new form of social media hero and also a new arena and a new “pack mentality” environment for negative minded trolls to attack and vilify anyone who achieves, wins or has some form of profile.
This type of cyber-bullying is common and widespread. As the contestants on shows like My Kitchen Rules and X Factor found they are sledged and have negative campaigns mounted against them for no good reason.
Recipients of this type of abuse find that they become anxious, may take the slander to heart and start to believe the lies, and some even have mental breakdowns and suicide from prolonged attacks online. This is true of the average person online with teenagers most prone to personalise such attacks by school colleagues and strangers.
Take the example of the recent bushfires in South Australia. This fire event caught the owners of Inglewood’s Tea Tree Gully Boarding Kennels and Cattery unable to mount an evacuation of their pet care facility. The Inglewood community was also caught out with housing and asset losses as well.
Before long the Cattery Facebook site was attacked by pet owners and complete strangers blaming them for the loss of life in their facility and demanding revenge. The troll attack caught many by surprise and the owners shutdown their website and Facebook presence as a result.
The majority of pet owners who saw this attack were outraged as they and townsfolk knew the fire was a sudden act-of-god event that prevented any planned response. They in turn setup a counter Facebook site which supported the owners who had lost everything in the fires.
Where it ended up was a new “hate” page with 400 “likes” by a majority of persons who had never met or used the cattery was evolved, but the new supportive Facebook site had 5000 “likes”, including from persons who lost their pets in that fire at the facility. There are an audience of mentally ill people in our community who get negative pleasure at the targeting of innocent persons in society and who from a cowards stance, hide anonymously behind a social media identity in their bedrooms and threaten others.
On the personal level we now find that legal action is occurring in our courts over defamatory comments made online about others. For instance a Western Australian school teacher Miroslaw Dabrowski was awarded $12,500 damages for a defamatory post put on Facebook by his ex-wife Robyn Greeuw that falsely alleged domestic violence and abuse.
The courts are finding that a person does not have the right to post false and defamatory statements about another online and that reputational damage can and does occur from such behaviour. Likewise the posting of photos or videos that are designed to injure, humiliate, bully or blackmail another are also now able to be the subject of legal action to seek redress.
In 2014 a mine worker was fined $48,000 for posting “revenge sex” pictures of his ex-girlfriend on Facebook. In this case Neil Scott Ferguson posted 16 sexually explicit photos and 2 videos of Caroline Wilson as revenge for her dumping him as her boyfriend via text SMS IN 2013.
He taunted her online and posted the photos that could be seen by her co-workers and effectively trolled her in the process such that Ms Wilson left the workplace for 2 months due to the humiliation and embarrassment of this revenge attack. The courts found him guilty and bound him over legally by an injunction to not ever possess or redistribute any of the sexual images online again.
SELF AND BODY IMAGE DSYMORPHIA
One of the negative effects of social media has been the promotion of narcissistic perfectionism in photos by social media users aping the existing “photo shopping” trend of models and professional media personalities in having their photos airbrushed or photo shopped to curate a body perfect image.
Thin is in and everything else is fat. Our global advertising machine uses on average women who are 20% thinner than the average woman and have a mandatory photo shopping step in every post shoot process to glamorise and perfectionistically distort model looks.
The advertising industry in Australia is not subject to laws governing “truth in advertising” when it comes to digitally altered images of bodies and models. The industry has failed to adopt a voluntary code of conduct that aligns to such an ethos and instead perpetrates the myth of Narcissus to everyone who would consume their content.
What we have seen is the rise of stars like the Kardishans, J-Lo, Beyonce, and others putting out their “spontaneous selfies” that in fact were more like the 100th take of an attempted perfect shot, and which had first been through the mill of digital editing and touching up before release to followers. These supposed natural images are designed not only to impress but also then put pressure on the average person to stump up with their own “killer selfie” that will attract awe and likes in abundance.
Many people already have negative body images in our society with young girls most prone to feel pressure to judge themselves against the perfect body image that the internet and our narcissistic society now promotes as some form of norm. Young minds know little of this image deception and manipulation and start to develop body dysmorphia and its related hyper-sensitivity to likes, dislikes and no likes(read that as negative feedback), as where they perceive they lie in the pecking order of life.
A large study done of British school girls in 2014 revealed that only 1 in 3 school girls aged 15 years feels confident and possesses high self-esteem. The recipients of that study rated social media as the biggest influencer in their lives on how they felt about themselves and their bodies.
How they felt about themselves was negative. Many responded with the fact that if they could afford it they would have breast enlargements, cosmetic surgery, weight reduction and other surgeries, and many engaged in dieting practices that clinically would signal the risk of an anorexia type of disorder.
The preoccupation with “how they look” also outweighed any other concerns including family, money, school work, and relationships. Boys felt better as a group than girls but still 50% of boys are now reporting self-esteem issues to do with the muscular size of their bodies.
The teenage years are a critical window of self-development of us all and it is worrying that social media is now the key driver of influence in our teenagers lives.
A recent study was conducted in Perth of total screen time and use of social media in school age children. The study of more than 2600 school students found that 80 per cent of 15 year olds and more than half of 8 year olds use screens for more than the recommended 2 hour daily usage limit.
As a result of children’s time out with peers and then time online on social media and internet video sites our children are getting values and beliefs from outside the home. Parents are becoming increasingly minimised in their ability to mirror and model positive values and beliefs in our children as increasingly our children are online and subconsciously forming values and beliefs from the sexualised and unregulated content found there.
What is worse is when our children race online only to find their parents have beaten them there and are modelling narcissistic glamour images of materialism, sexualised comments, and perfectionistic image instances on social media themselves. Suddenly our children have no safe haven as their parents are now part of the problem and may even use the children and their achievements, trophies or looks to boost the parents own insecure self-image via online grasping and “like” seeking from others.
Parents need to understand or appreciate how their own adult indulgences and desperate online grasping can affect their children’s perception of what really counts in life and what the parents signal to their children from theses posts as to what matters. When image counts over substance then being right and perfect means more than being in truth and being authentic.
Children are already under digital assault from the overall tone of the internet and its body dysmorphic, materialistic, shallow and narcissistic stance towards life. When that mirroring and modelling continues once they leave their mobile devices and sit with parents over dinner then we have a generation of children in trouble.
If parents are online and posturing inappropriately to get likes and followers then their children are doomed in my opinion. Research shows that the internet and its social media expressions are starting to dominate the ideas, belief and value formation of our children and teenagers but parents run a close second as they exist in the everyday spaces and experiences of our offspring while they still live under the same roof as us.
Some parents are shameless. For example I look online at parents commenting on the 2014 trend of “50 Shades of Grey” book on social media. They act like teenagers themselves posting that they want to try out some of the positions and themes in the book, and chomping at the bit to see the movie, and make sexualised comments about themselves.
They comment about trying out some of the fantasy roles and scenarios start to bring the pornification of their lives into the lives of their family as no doubt many family friends, children and extended family have access to these comments. Children need to learn about the private boundaries of their parents sexual life but now we see children learn about their parent’s bedroom habits via online browsers and family social media posts.
A disturbing example of this behaviour is the case of Kim McGrath who hooked up with cricketer Shane Warne on the social media sex dating site Tinder. They met and had sex which if left at that would hurt no-one.
Unfortunately for everyone concerned Kim McGrath decided to exploit the situation and went to Woman’s Day magazine and published a graphic account of her sexual hookup with Warne. She got paid for that classy exploitation action.
Disturbingly she has been quoted in the press as saying “she was encouraged by her son!!”. If true this then implies she and her son discussed her sex life, her thoughts about putting it online, and somehow getting support from her son in doing so.
So in promoting herself as some sort of MILF we have very poor role modelling for her children no matter how old they now are. At least Shane Warne was able to post an opinion that “respect, honesty, trust and your word is all you have”, but he too is an avid social media “look at me” junkie who loves and lives in the pornification of our society without much thought or regret.
One of the parental roles is to assist in creating psychological resilience in children and in this era that includes helping our children to resist the negative consumeristic, perfectionistic, objectified and sexualised messages that come at them every day courtesy of the press, internet and social media.
This means children grow up in a home where the parents mirror and model healthy ways of being and doing. Parents have a responsibility to provide guidance and feedback that allows a child to develop a grounded sense of their own abilities, strengths and weaknesses, but with an overall conclusion of acceptance and worth in the unique self that they all are.
Parents can provide the counterbalance to the contrived perfectionistic role models that the internet spawns for children and teenagers to emulate and aspire to. Parents have the wisdom and wider sense of reality that can expose the fallacies of the internet and possess the additional information that changes the context of what artificial proposition is placed before our children online.
When our parents engage in their own “keeping up with the Jones” online then they become part of the problem, and demonstrate an under-developed ego within themselves that means they are likely to be unable to provide leadership and wisdom to their children. The parents may even drag their children into some online charade to portray their family unit as some form of Brady bunch/Kardishans hybrid, and effectively use their children in that image making exercise.
This is a form of abuse when it occurs as the parent is now abandoning their adult responsibilities towards the child and instead is only preoccupied with “me, me, me”. Children who grow up in these situations are at risk of developing mental illness due to the effect this type of behaviour exerts on their self esteem.
One common form of this problem is the torturous problem teenage girls go through as a rite of passage as they learn to love and accept their bodies whilst running the gauntlet of seeing themselves as fat, or having a big bum, or some form of self negation. Teenagers are becoming obsessed with their looks and their conclusion that they are ugly or do not rate to some invisible standard.
A UK national based study found that two thirds of school girls aged 15 believed they were too fat, and over half already had in place diets or strategies to lose weight. It is at this critical stage that body dysmorphia can take root beyond that initial desire to be slimmer or fitter.
Evidence shows that the families where social media image portrayal is a significant aspect of that family life, bring to bear additional pressures on children to meet unreasonable images and expectations, including body shape and weight. Girls are more likely to respond to such pressures by trying to conform and mothers are more likely to sexualise and promote objectification of their daughters within the family unit when social media obsession pervades the family unit.
The extension of this problem is the exploding trend of women going to Asia on medical tourism holidays. This problem involves an increasing number ranging into the tens of thousands of Australians of an increasing younger age demographic travelling to Asia where they stay in resort locations and have body augmentation/cosmetic surgery or dental cosmetic surgery.
The Australian Medical Association(AMA) released a warning in late 2014 that it was concerned that “people with mental disorders who obsess about their body could be falling prey to the medical tourism industry”. As the AMA states people who obsess about their bodies may have a mental disorder and social media has a lot to answer for when it comes to what created that obsession in the first place.
As I write this I think of a mother who recently hopped over to Thailand for a boob job holiday. Days after the operation she put photos of her new boobs online on Facebook and Snapchat and boasted about new double D’s.
Meanwhile she has several daughters all about to go through the sensitive rite of passage from girls into women over the next few years. What role modelling does this parent show her daughters and what message about what counts in the body and as a woman does this augmentation promote?
PORNIFICATION AND SEXUAL ABUSE OF INTERNET USERS
The internet is populated in a large part by pornographic content as still images and as videos. Google and any other search engine can return hundreds of screen pages of pornographic content in its many forms.
The pervasiveness of pornography online means that many get their first instance of pornography through accident by typing in a search string that has innocent connotations for a child. Many parents are ignorant about technology or do not have any effective parental boundaries with their children around internet usage.
The rise of mobile device usage for internet video content consumption has given children a gateway to potential abuse and the unsafe and unregulated nature of social media and the internet in general. Many parents have put parental control software into their desktops and maybe laptops but few have any filtering over tablets, iPads and mobile phones.
These mobile roaming devices give children and teenagers the ability to go online away from the physical proximity of parents. A child can privately explore online and maybe end up in front of content that may be traumatising or addictive in its impact on them.
Social media has already mirrored the pornographic nature of the internet with “sexting” or the taking of sexualised images of oneself to share amongst friends now being seen as normal behaviour by 46% of a study of UK school teenagers. Sexual imagery, provocative posing, age inappropriate dressing, and objectified branding of children’s clothing is sending messages to our children that is grooming them into a sexualised teenage and adult world.
Teenagers are going online to learn about sex and finding pornography as their teachers. The problem is that boys in particular find this avenue appropriate and fun but they admit its shapes their expectations about what they will then expect from girls when they start relationships.
Teenage boys report they feel anal sex is something that any “normal” girl should be open to explore and is a valid choice of sexual expression. They cite the sexual images on the internet as their proof that it is normal to do.
Girls report that feel pressure to start relationships earlier and earlier and that relationships are about sex and they feel pressure to do “porn” sex for boyfriends else they will be rejected, teased and bullied online if they do not comply. They feel pressure to do sexting which can then be the start of blackmail or abuse whereby their private images are shared without their consent, and they draw unwanted comments and attention from others.
The end result can be bullying, sexual predation by other teenagers, and the illegal posting of their images and details to pornography or paedophile sites. Some teenagers have suicided or developed mental health issues from such experiences whilst some boys have ended up with criminal records or being placed on sex offender registers for their actions.
A recent study of young adults at the age of 18 produced the result that 8 out of 10 believed that pornography was too easy to access and that its presence had made their lives more difficult, confusing and complicated. They believed it had the effect of making young people too casual about sex, relationships and commitment.
Boys are increasingly turning to internet pornography as the type of content they consume but also as part of where they go to source images of sexualised jokes that is an increasing part of male social media narratives and shared content. The rise of internet pornography as an addiction is a recent but worrying trend that is leading some of those who consume such content down a road of them becoming addicted and even corrupting them into becoming sexual abusers.
According to various researchers there is a Gen X and Gen Y problem of pornography addiction amongst young men and indeed some women. The internet is both the origin of the problem and the ongoing sustenance of the addiction with a disturbing trend of addicts starting out looking through curiosity at boy-girl porn and then over time descending into an addiction of harder core themes.
According to Eileen Finnegan, clinical director and psychotherapist of Phoenix, a sex offender treatment programme, notes that from clinical experience with offenders that a lot of sex offenders began by downloading images of children being abused. They may have started out in general porn but over time they started to look at more disturbing porn genres.
Disturbingly porn users and sex offenders share the same misconception based in denial that they do not see their watching child offender porn against children as an issue as they are merely watching it and did not touch anyone. This rationalisation is common to anyone with an addiction who will tend to deny they have a problem or an addiction and that they are harming no one outside themselves.
The other problem is that child sexual abusers, often male and aged as young as 13-14 years, were more likely to start sexually abuse a family sibling than a stranger outside the home. Finnegan states that society must start dealing with internet sex offenders in the same way as contact sexual offenders, partly because they tend to have crossovers into both types of abuse over time, and both types create victims.
Families are often part of the problem when the abuse becomes known and may react by covering up the sibling abuse through fear of how society and friends will react and respond. This further victimises the victim and the child offender and may spawn a whole new set of behaviours as the trauma, guilt and shame go underground through a cover-up.
Common factors that may drive a child or teenager to become an internet porn addict and/or a sexual offender include:
- Pre-existing low self esteem
- Poor body image
- Poor socialisation skills and few friends
- Long hours on the internet and a possible existing internet addiction
- Neglect by parents of the child’s needs for attention and love
- Involvement and use of social media
- Existing over-sexualised language and behaviour
- Withdrawal that may indicate some form of depression
- Parents exhibit sexualised behaviour around children or online
Maeve Lewis, the executive director of the charity One in Four, describes how the act of watching the abuse online became, as it were, the initial gateway to committing contact sexual abuse. Some therapists dispute that “looking” will therefore lead to “doing” stating that this correlation is not causality or proven.
Sex offender therapists state that their client populations of younger male sexual offenders support the idea that “looking” can and does lead to “doing” in numerous but not all cases. The potential extent of this problem can be gauged from a nationwide investigation in the UK in 2014 revealed that over 25,000 citizens had been detected and caught viewing suspected child sexual abuse images and/or videos online or in private repositories.
The trend is towards younger offenders being caught online watching abuse videos. One theory is that watching causes a form of desensitisation to occur which means the person who is viewing suffers a loss of emotional boundaries and loses any emotional taboos. The brake on viewing such behaviour gets overridden and disarmed.
The person then starts to normalise the abuse behaviour and so it leaves fantasy and becomes a belief that forms part of the offender’s new reality and they are doubly addicted to watching such forms of pornography. At some stage an impulse to act-out arises within them and so they now have transitioned from curious teenage porn watcher into an opportunistic real offender.
Teenagers may take that behaviour in several directions. They may act out sexually with teenagers their own age who are under the age of consent. This causes its own set of legal and psychological issues as children who are emotionally too young to understand what they are doing are now having sex.
The child or teenager may be open to sexual grooming from an adult predator who takes advantage of their sexually aroused state and introduces them into sexual activity. This is not consent as the child does not know what it is consenting too and is being manipulated by an adult who has clear intent.
The child or teenager may start to act out or groom other children or teenagers not open or curious or understanding of sexuality and so they become the classic type of sexual predator and offender from an early age. All of these scenarios are troubling and a cause for concern as each poses legal and psychological issues that will damage both victims and offenders.
Parents do have a responsibility to their children and teenagers to be aware of what they are downloading and watching online. There has to be education of adults that the material their children consume online while under the adults care can affect that child for life, and then as adults long after having left home.
If you ask any reasonable parent would they like to have left a legacy in their children of a criminal nature and/or of a psychologically negative nature as a consequence of their parenting style, then who would assent to that outcome? No-one of course.
Yet parents go into a rationalised form of denial when you challenge them about what their children are doing online and what consequences it could have for them in their adult lives, relationships, careers and happiness. Many parents live either in denial or co-exist with their children rather than consciously parent them day to day.
Parents have a role in supporting young people in developing healthy notions of sex based on consenting and non-abusive types of sexual intimacy. Schools need to back this up with relevant and credible forms of education of school children and teenagers which includes what is online and what is a credible conclusion to adopt around those types of imagery and messages.
We cannot put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to internet pornography. It exists, it cannot be easily eradicated as the content owners just switch servers and ISP’s when authorities try to shut them down. We also cannot stop our children and teenagers going online as it’s a part of life that is globally normalised and valuable in many other forms.
We have to educate our children about what to expect on that day, when it invariably comes, when that child bumps into, or goes looking for pornographic content. It should be the part of an ongoing narrative about educating and helping our children come to understand and integrate this destructive part of modern life into the context of their own lives.
Education will assist in helping a child or teenager making an informed choice that can avoid unintended consequences. This can extend to meaning that they do not get abused or become abusers online and/or with actual contact, or from having met that dimension of online environments.
This presupposes that the parents have also mastered online life and social media such that the parent is not part of the problem, and not an inappropriate role model for their children, which too is becoming all too common in our digital social sphere of life. Being a parent has never been more challenging than in the current era as our children have avenues to escape our influence and moderation of what a parent would counsel as appropriate.
However parents cannot abandon their responsibility or worse still, become an enabler or an example of the worst aspects of modern digital life, if they are to support their children’s psychological health. Healthy parents are still the best influence to create healthy teenagers but it cannot be assumed that all will work out unless there is an ongoing engagement and support.
It’s a brave new world that requires on-going vigilance. We must all learn to accept and adopt digital forms of contact and content but we need discretion and wisdom about how we engage in social media and digital environments.