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Published May 13, 2013, 11:55 PM

Longing for a 'like': Clamor for social media popularity adds to teen woes

CASSELTON, N.D. - As if high school weren’t tough enough, social media has teens trying to be “liked” on a virtual level.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

CASSELTON, N.D. - As if high school weren’t tough enough, social media has teens trying to be “liked” on a virtual level.

Shelby Moderow, a Central Cass High School senior, is a seemingly confident, outgoing, popular girl, but she says she’ll catch herself wondering why certain Facebook posts get so many more likes than others.

Teens, especially girls, feel pressure to write comments or post pictures that will be “liked” by lots of people or even certain people, the 17-year-old says.

“If someone else gets something liked, they wonder why theirs didn’t get liked,” Moderow says. “Girls get so jealous of other girls.”

And it’s a bigger deal with pictures than message posts, she says.

“Pictures show what you look like, and girls really care about their appearances,” she says.

Ian Saum, 15, and Josh Nelson, 15, both freshmen at Central Cass, say the pressure isn’t as great for guys, but they do want people to think their Twitter “tweets” are funny, and they’ll sometimes compare who has more Twitter followers.

“It can be a pride thing,” Saum said.

And they want people to like the photos they post on Instagram (The boys said since adults flocked to Facebook, teens, especially boys, don’t care about that site as much).

Girls will also fish for compliments, they say. They’ll post photos talking about how ugly they look, when they clearly don’t look ugly at all, Saum and Nelson say.

“A lot of girls do it to seek attention,” Moderow acknowledged. “A lot of it is their insecurity speaking out because they really do feel that way. They feel they’re not pretty.”

Rachel Blumhardt, a counselor with The Village Family Service Center in Fargo, says a lot of emotional development occurs online for adolescents.

Social media websites are very much a part of teens’ social identity, she says.

“If they get a lot of likes, it may make their day. If no one comments, it can affect their self-esteem,” she says.

Teens who are emotionally fragile are more vulnerable to comments, pictures and getting enough “likes,” Blumhardt says.

It’s important parents teach them that Facebook comments are skewed and can be taken out of context. It’s easy to misinterpret written words without someone’s tone or facial expressions behind them, she says.

Peer acceptance is a really important part of adolescent life, and while the Internet offers another realm to easily communicate with peers and stay in contact with friends, it can also give a skewed sense of what’s really going on in someone’s life, Blumhardt says.

Adolescents also tend to have a limited capacity for self-regulation, forgetting that everyone can see their comments, not just their friends.

“Their filters really aren’t developed yet,” Blumhardt says. “When you don’t see anyone around you and you’re typing on a computer, I think you kind of fail to realize not only is it your friends who can see this but their friends and family.”

Teens will post snarky comments to get at each other or as a way to reach out if a friend isn’t talking to them. Then all of a sudden all of their friends and followers are audience to their personal fight, Moderow says.

“I think it’s because they want people to see their inner struggles,” she says. “Or they might feel it’s the only way to reach that other person because they’re afraid to talk to them.”

Moderow says teens sometimes use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter almost like a diary, and it’s worrisome when they post depressing status updates.

But in some cases, that can be a good thing, Blumhardt says.

When teens post about being depressed or having suicidal thoughts, a lot of positive, caring likes can be supportive. People who see those posts can also get the teens the help they need, she says.

Mary Beth Pilon, Central Cass counselor for grades 7 through 12, says she sometimes hears when students write alarming posts and will then investigate.

But just because a teen might think of their social media site as a type of online journal, that doesn’t mean parents have to treat it that way.

Parents have every right to friend their children on Facebook and follow them on Twitter or any other social media site, Pilon says.

“I think it’s critical that parents are in the loop with their kids,” she says.

Many parents will put software on their computers or blocks on cell phones to try to protect their teens, but they have to remember adolescents can create multiple accounts on social media sites, Blumhardt says.

It’s important parents not only understand the websites and apps their children are using, but also to talk with them about how they’re going to use their online access and about issues like cyber bullying, appropriate comments and ways to react to other people’s comments, she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526