Not Just Another Pretty Facebook

Guest blogger Paul Gilbert looks at the impact of Facebook-culture on his teenage daughter and her generation

Something is wrong with this next sentence. A 27 year-old man with no children has more influence on young girls than any single human being on the planet.

Say hello to Mark Zuckerberg.

With a net worth of $17 billion dollars after Facebook’s recent IPO, Zuckerberg has suddenly become the 16th wealthiest person in America. But money is only a byproduct of his real power; with over 900 million users, Facebook is the engine driving the social media revolution, an innovation that media experts compare to landmark inventions like the printing press, television and the Internet.

Before I get into a particular issue I have with Facebook as a parent, there’s another number that along with Zuckerberg’s new wealth, is absolutely staggering. That number is zero. While 58% of Facebook users are female and responsible for 62% of the sharing and 71% of the daily fan activity, there is not one woman on its board of directors. After doing the math, I can think of about of a 552 million reasons that’s absolutely wrong.

But stepping back from that big picture, let’s look at a specific impact that this technology tsunami is having on one of its largest constituencies, teenage girls. I’ve been reading a new book by Jim Styer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, the nation’s leading kids-and-media organization, Talking Back to Facebook. Here’s an excerpt, which addresses a very disturbing trend.

“According to a study by Stanford’s Cliff Nass, teen girls tend to present overly thin images of themselves on Facebook. In addition, the more concerned a girl is about her appearance, weight, and body image, the more she tends to check her Facebook profile and vice versa. The new research also shows that many teen girls Photoshop-digitally alter- their photos to appear thinner and carefully select photos for their Facebook profiles that make them look thinner, hoping to receive positive public feedback from their peers. At times, their focus on appearance and thinness verges on compulsion. With digital cameras on their mobile phones, many teen girls constantly monitor how photogenic they look, checking and rechecking their appearance in photos again and again.

Many teen girls also comment incessantly on each other’s appearance in Facebook photos- far more than they would in the real world, since they know that these displays of “friendship” are very public. Typical comments include “OMG! You’re so gorgeous” or “Stop being so cute!” or “You are too hot. SEXXXXy thing!” Indeed some girls interviewed by a Common Sense colleague admitted asking their friends to make positive comments about their appearance in Facebook photos, in hopes that others would make similarly positive remarks. Clearly, many of these girls use Facebook comments about their appearance as measuring sticks for friendship, self-image and basic self worth.”

I have a 16 year-old daughter, who like many girls her age, utilizes Facebook as the epicenter of her social interactions outside of school. Somehow, she has allowed me to be one of her FB friends, although I am forbidden to post on her wall (she also blocks me if I’ve done something to irritate her, which is a fairly common experience). She loves to post photos of herself and her friends, and they generate many of the same kinds of comments as those listed in the study at Stanford. So many of them are based on physical beauty and “sexiness,” that’s it easy to see how much of their identities are tied into how they look. And no one is more susceptible to digital peer pressure than teenagers.

Clearly, one of Facebook’s main attractions is the photos, as evidenced by its recent purchase of Instagram (for $1 billion dollars). And let’s be honest, taking and showing off photos back has always been fun, from the early days of Kodak moments to today’s digital images. But do we want our daughter’s lives centered around a social platform where posting pictures seems more important than what they write about themselves? Which one involves critical thinking and being real and which one is mostly superficial, not to mention full of internal and external judgments? It’s said that the eyes are the mirrors to the soul, but if you spend too much time just looking in the mirror, then, you’re definitely not going very deep.

For those of us old enough to remember, comedian Billy Crystal used to do a parody of actor Fernando Lamas on Saturday Night Live, where his signature comment was “I look mahvelous, but I don’t feel mahvelous. Because, as you know, my credo is “it is better to look good than to feel good.”

Yes, that was just a joke, but seriously, isn’t this a big part of how young girls are projecting themselves on Facebook? Wouldn’t we rather they prefer feeling good to looking good? They say a picture tells a thousand stories, but what does “you’re 2 hot!” or “so SEXXXY!” have to do with being a truly unique individual with thoughts and feelings that aren’t dependent on your looks? Parents can’t underestimate the influence Facebook is having on our daughter’s lives and we need to enter into meaningful dialogues to remind them that especially in a digital universe, beauty is only skin deep.

While we’re processing that thought, let’s go back to the bigger picture. Zuckerberg structured the IPO so he would retain two seats on its Board of Directors, to guarantee his control over the company. Of course, he didn’t imagine that less than one week after going public, investors would begin filing lawsuits against Facebook for withholding key information, setting off a public relations nightmare.

So I have an idea. This would be the perfect time for Zuckerberg to do the smart thing and the right thing by giving stockholders an opportunity to vote on a female candidate to join his board of directors (preferably with children of her own). This won’t repair the strained relationship between the financial markets and Facebook, but at least it will ensure that women have a voice in decisions about our daughter’s online social environment, which is currently being overseen strictly by men.

Now, that would look and feel mahvelous.

Paul Gilbert has a background in broadcast journalism, professional sports and corporate communications. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek and Psychology Today.

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