The narrowing margins

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The narrowing margins

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Almost 1,000 years ago, mass media began. It dawned an age of prescribed beliefs and a dictatorship of social acceptance.

This may sound archaic and melodramatic, but think about it for a second: how do we know what clothes to wear? The media. How do we choose what food to eat? The media. How do we know what cars to drive, what jobs to pursue, what our houses, bodies, even our faces ‘should’ look like? Every aspect of our very existence is prescribed by TVs, tabloids and the media at large.

Not that this is correct; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Free choice is about as regularly seen as the Tasmanian Tiger and we are led to believe that we are the freaks and outcasts, the weirdos and loners of the world for flexing our individualistic freedom. If we shun society’s dogmas, we immediately consign ourselves to a life of disdain and exclusion, furtive glances cast at the nonconformist who will never amount to anything because they are not pursuing the ideals of an unconsciously railroaded norm.

Social media has exacerbated this a hundredfold, squeezing our avenue of acceptance into the narrowest corridors of conformity. We see it, shunned or accepted, through our social media channels as adults, the ads and ‘news’ that moulds our beliefs and perspectives of the world subliminally, but it is the children who are suffering. They were born into it, they know no different, and for them, the downward spiral is long, dark and destructively rapid.

Not only has the Millennial generation been swallowed whole by the online black hole, but it has also been bullied, quite literally, into believing that there is quite simply no other option, and the barrage of compliance is coming at them from every angle.

Let’s start with basic social media, the Facebooks and Instagrams of the online universe. In this guise, it is abundantly clear where the brainwashing is taking place, the Kardashians have taken over – your womanly features must be unnaturally engorged, your complexion must be immaculate, you must throw yourself out there for the whole world to see, to scrutinise, but one micro-step too far and you are labelled a slut.

We have spoken before of the peer-pressure of acceptance, often spawning mental health issues, from anorexia to more violent self-harm, but even boys now are craving the abs, attitude and floppy fringe of the Bieber genre. They may hate the guy, but they all think they need to look like him if they want to succeed or be accepted.

This saturation of inflicted self-image is pushing the next generation into an unnatural realm, not only mentally, but also physically, girls even going to such lengths as sucking their lips into jam jars to created that Kardashian pout, often with devastating results. But we had it as kids too, whatever our generation. There have always been the Sofia Laurens and Cary Grants, the Cindy Crawfords and Patrick Swayzes and the Angelina Jolies and Brad Pitts for our fragile egos to contend with, but now our lives are wrapped in a digital world almost genetically fused to our hands 24-7-365, and we are drowning in it. Until the creation of smartphones, we would have to purchase magazines, flip the pages, channel-hop our TVs to the trashy bile of daytime talk shows to bare witness to these influences, but now, they are forever in our palm or pocket or purse, dictating to us at every swipe.

Added to this, the peers of the mid-teens, their high school friends, the greatest single influencers upon any child’s evolution, are muscling in on the dictatorship. The kids themselves are now the pushers, goading each other into scenarios that would make every parent panic and even the most gregarious socialite wince. Shaming is endemic in the online realms of social media, even amongst classmates and best friends. Fake Instagram accounts – or Finstas – are started for the sole purpose of belittling peers and avoiding parental censorship. The touch screen armour allows people to say what they wouldn’t dream of uttering face to face and, even more sinisterly, children are cajoled into sharing sexually explicit images of themselves, which are then broadcast to the web, worldwide.
It may be hard to believe, but a soft core porn industry is breeding in our school system, girls coaxed into sending revealing images of themselves to boyfriends, or even acquaintances, with the fear that, if they don’t comply, they will become social pariahs and slandered as sluts, prudes or anything in between.

They are becoming what they are told to become and the sliver of free choice is becoming ever narrower, as life in the online realm is becoming ever more like a scene from Tron. We may not be physically or mentally transported into a digital alter-reality, but as Digitalism impregnates our existence more and more, our online personae are becoming progressively more important, and more socially present, than our physical forms.

The more these online levels of social acceptance are pushed, the greater the pressure to adhere to the demands and expectations of peers. It used to be the whispered midnight talk of pyjama parties, but now it is disseminated to the masses. Idle gossip has taken an ominous turn and it leaves adults reeling about how to pick up the pieces and all too often entirely in the dark until it’s too late.

In a staggeringly short space of time, the social landscape has been irrevocably altered and, as our juniors plough blindly and brazenly ahead, we are dumbfoundedly struggling to keep up. The fact is, we can’t simply ban the use of social media. It has inflicted itself upon our every waking hour so completely that it is difficult, even impossible, to imagine a future without it. As with every teen since time immemorial, for every rule that is set in place, a dozen fiendishly cunning and covert schemes will be discovered to disarm and disempower the enforcer. Kids are as devious now as they always have been and even the adults to whom they answer are rapidly becoming powerless.

Social media is too fast and vast a freight train to ever hope to stop, and so it is in education that we must place our faith and hope. When we look at the thousands of petitions and worthy causes flooding the ether, the #JeSuisParis, #BlackLivesMatter and #RefugeesWelcome hashtags spreading profound compassion and birthing ‘Clicktivism’ and social action more rapidly than ever before, the potential is evident. But for every heartwarming tale out there, there is another of tragedy, from ostracisation to eating disorders, cyber bullying and even suicide.

These polarities need to be united. Whether it be on the battleground itself, promoting hashtags of #AntiSocialMedia or #EndCyberBullying, or in the physical realm, advocating support networks within the high school social construct or outing the bullies and the boys requesting inappropriate pics of their female classmates, it is in the hands of youth that the power and the answers lie.

We didn’t listen to our parents when we were their age, so how can we expect them to listen to us? Through subliminal encouragement and infusing a sense of self-worth, individuality and empowerment within the younger generations, we must aim at helping them make it cool to be different, make the next big trend be one of positivity and strength, not victimisation and humiliation.

It is up to them to make the change, but we must give them the power, awareness and knowledge to make it. Objectification of women has gone on for too long, and it seems that the youth has been listening a little to hard. Boys barely in their teens are demanding ‘sexts’ and nude pictures, only to brandish them like trophies, launch whole Instagram accounts filled with images of the classmates they have lured into sharing intimate images and degrade their female counterparts utterly, just as their music icons croon and condone.

The acceptance of this behaviour is what needs to be broken, not in or by the older generations, but in the kids themselves – the friends, the victims and the perpetrators. Leading by example is the greatest form of education, so with the power of one, we can turn the minds of many.

Author – Thomas Leitch

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