In the past, adolescents expressed themselves through how they dressed, what music they listened to and what group they sat with at lunch. They conveyed their ideas by writing in their diary, talking with their peers and passing each other carefully folded notes.
Today, the age of technology is upon us, and the ability to communicate instantaneously with thousands of other people is almost commonplace, providing a more public forum for self-expression than ever before. Individuals can use this forum for almost anything, whether that is to call attention to social injustice or engage in socially unjust behavior. For many, this communication includes taking and posting selfies.
The Process of Forming an Identity
Historically, adolescents have gone through a sometimes trial and error process of becoming who they are – and it gets bizarre sometimes. This process of forming an identity often means trying on many different versions of who they might become in order to see what fits.
For many adolescents, a selfie is a concrete representation of who they are at that time, a “working self-concept” that they are trying on to see if it fits. Determining what “fits” is often related to how others respond to them. Social psychologists refer to this as the “looking glass self,” which is the idea of learning about yourself from others, with peer perceptions being especially important for adolescents.
Learning self-knowledge from others is a complicated process, though, and individuals rarely see themselves the same way others see them. We also have a tendency to pay more attention to favorable information about ourselves, discounting the negative. This means it won’t be as simple as disapproving of something your adolescent does or says to get them to change.
Part of adolescence is becoming independent, which often means challenging authority and opposing what is mainstream. That means that negative attention, especially from parents, might fuel the fire of a particular identity. For example, an adolescent might hold tighter to an identity that is rejected by others (i.e., dressing provocatively, wearing only dark clothing), as this quality might make them feel more unique and independent.
However, this does not mean that adolescents do not value what parents think of them and prefer negative attention instead of positive; in fact, the opposite is actually true. It’s just that figuring out what makes them unique and finding a group of like-minded peers is especially important during this developmental period.
Tips for Parents
- Despite their challenges, adolescents respond well to open communication with adults. Talk to your child about your own personal process of determining who you are, including your values. And, although it might be hard, try to tolerate your adolescent’s tendency to try on less than ideal identities at times.
- Of course, you should not allow your adolescent to post inappropriate selfies on social media websites, and the safety and security of your child can depend on how closely parents are able to monitor access to them.
- But, when you can, find something nice to say about your adolescent’s selfie, even if it features 15 layers of dark eye make-up, a brooding expression and an outfit you do not remember buying. These aspects of who they “are” will be important in developing how they understand themselves.
Our psychology experts share more insights on the selfie generation. Learn the latest research on how selfies might influence your child’s self-esteem.
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.