WITH YOU*TH

To be or not to be (yourself) online

Within this aspect of the relationships of young people in the context of social media, we turn a little more inwards, towards young people themselves. The apparent freedom of life on the Internet may have real-life impacts on lives and especially the mental health and wellbeing of young people. This space is a social space like any other and although it gives us the opportunity to play with the presentation of our identity and control it more than in direct “face-to-face” contact, in the end, it is always the person and their own emotions, their relationship to oneself and other, and their wellbeing, that are at stake.

For this reason, we find it very important to reflect on the boundary between real feelings, emotions, and attitudes, and the effort to please and gratify others.

Normative pressures on what a young person should look, how they should act or behave are no less strong on social networks than outside of them, but it is much easier to pretend here.

The topics emphasized in the second aspect are authenticity and openness on the one hand and personal boundaries and the right to privacy on the other.


“A lot of people view online in a way that they can be something they’re not, something they’d like to be…they only show what they want, they have the opportunity to choose how people see them…”

“Sometimes I’m also annoyed by the feeling that a lot of people are following me, so I once canceled my Twitter account when I realized that hundreds of strangers were watching me…”

Matěj (15)

Why did we decide to bring this issue?

When we thought about the most important specificities of online relationships, we kept coming across the fact that in the online space, it is possible to pretend much more or more generally; people have more time and space to moderate their behavior (to do it more and better). This fact certainly has some positives, but at the same time it can be dangerous, especially in terms of well-being and the mental health of young people. 

To some extent, we all moderate our behavior, appearance, the amount of information we share about ourselves, and which information we do not share, even in the offline world.  Such a process of self-regulation is of course influenced by a number of influences stemming mainly from stereotypes, social norms, or cultural patterns. In the online space, these influences seem to be amplified.

If a young person wants to be “successful” on social networks, meaning that their content is liked by as many people as possible, they have to accommodate “their target group”. However, it is clear that when there is pressure on quantity in this regard, true qualities and authenticity may disappear. 

In a questionnaire answered by 96 young people aged 13–25, 36% of the respondents said that they liked the possibility of greater control over online communication and what they bring into the communication, 39% directly admitted that they enjoyed the possibility to show just the part of themselves they wanted to show. At the same time, 71% of young people state that they are bothered by the inability to rely on information shared by others about themselves in online communication.

We concluded that the issues of self-presentation, authenticity, truthfulness, personal boundaries, or the right to privacy are precisely the issues that young people often deal with on social networks and that can have a significant impact on their self-esteem, well-being, and mental health.

“What suits me…is that you can just take your time to respond, that you can think about it, that you have time…you know what I mean? It’s not like when you meet someone on the street and you have to react right away. That totally scares me in live communication, that’s why I like online better. I’m not so afraid to talk to someone when I can delete the answer three times haha. It’s like you just have more time to be who you want to be.”

Adéla (16)

We open these and other topics that are relevant to young people in the Facebook group Voice of mládež created in cooperation with group of young people.

How to work with the methods?

In order to make the methods within this aspect interactive and visually interesting, we chose formats that young people know well from social networks and that are popular among them. We wanted to bring situations they usually deal with on social networks on their own and to give them the opportunity to experience and discuss them together with others, to verbalize their opinions, to confront them with the opinions of others, and thus to find perhaps a more tangible link between the online and offline spaces. The methods allow us to reflect on a wide range of specific life experiences of young people related to self-presentation on social networks, understanding the self-presentation of others, and connecting online experiences with offline life. The aim is to open a discussion on how online communication and offline life intertwine while focusing on the already mentioned topic of authenticity and finding the borders of when openness and sincerity are an advantage and when we are in a situation where our personal space is or could be violated. 

If we want young people to be open to a truly authentic experience and to carry out the method sincerely, we must create a safe environment in which all participants will have the opportunity not only to tune in, but also to open up and identify possible stereotypes and patterns in their own experiences and behavior. For more information on creating a safe space, see the chapter titled challenges.

The methods can be carried out together as a set during a day-long program, however, each of them can also be used separately. They are particularly suitable for groups that are already well established, meaning they have been meeting for a while and know each other, such as school classes. 

However, the aspect can be used both in the school environment and in informal youth groups.

Challenges

Sharing without judging and condemning

Offering new perspectives and opening up topics that young people experience mostly in private may undermine existing beliefs or touch on sensitive subjects, which may lead to initial resistance and efforts to confirm one’s current perspectives. At the same time, emotions that are not in line with your expectations may arise. If we encounter such an attitude or emotion during the implementation of the method, it is not appropriate to try to convince the person concerned of what is right or not. On the contrary. In order to process new experience, it is important that such reactions are accepted and not disputed. Even such reactions and experiences are part of the discussion.

It is very important to accept any emotion or reaction as legitimate. 

With methods relating to the authenticity of self-presentation and sincere expression, it is perhaps even more important than elsewhere to maintain mutual respect in the group and prevent condemnation, as it is also directly related to the discussed topic. In order to be open and authentic, one necessarily needs to feel safe and being exposed to evaluation and judgment is exactly the mechanism that leads to over-moderation of one’s own behavior beyond what is unpleasant, unnatural or perhaps inconsistent with our beliefs or values. Therefore, judgments and tendencies to “present your truths” must be avoided. 

Crossing the “boomer vs. zoomer” boundary

One of the great challenges proves to be the interaction of two completely different generations when carrying out the methods. Students and pupils in the group often see teachers and youth workers as someone who does not understand social networks and has no idea what young people actually do on them; someone who is just out of it. Generation Z has a completely different approach to new technologies than their parents and grandparents. Understanding and accepting these differences can contribute to greater empathy in communication.

We do not recommended to pretend you are a pro in the field if you do not feel that way. It is better to admit it and be authentic. We do recommend that teachers, including those who understand social networks, in advance administer and evaluate an anonymous questionnaire similar to the one we used for data collection. This way, you can get an idea of which social networks young people in your group use, what activities they seek, and what problems they may face, You will enter the process with a certain pre-understanding and you can focus more specifically on certain topics.

The main point is not to judge the young generation as better or worse, but to try to understand how they behave and how they think, and to build bridges between you and them. Try to install Instagram and Twitter at least for a moment, in case you do not already use them. A lot can become much clearer then.

Creating a safe space

It is necessary to create a safe space for work both in the physical sense of the word in terms of physical space and in terms of how we assign tasks or lead reflection. During the program, it is important to check whether the way we guide young people through the activities fulfills their idea of an environment conducive to sharing, awareness of context and, in particular, to free expression.

In order for the methods to reach their goal, it is important to draw attention to the principle of mutual respect for the opinions and experiences of others, and to make sure the participants understand and follow the principle of not judging and criticizing others. 

As participants may have a personal experience with some of the topics that they are not ready to share, no one should be forced to engage in the discussion. It is crucial for the activity to create an environment where participants feel free to listen to others and ask questions, respect their mutual boundaries and reflect on their actions, their experiences, and the language they use.

*

Boomer is a term used by young people when referring to people who are older, particularly in the age of their parents or grandparents. An important attribute of a boomer is that they act from a position of someone older who, thanks to their age, has experience and knows better than young people how things should be and how they should not be. A boomer also often uses their age as an argument and does not consider the views of young people to be equal. A boomer often complains about the generation of young people and considers them spoiled. A boomer is someone who does not listen to young people, does not recognize that they man not understand something, and likes to use their position of power against young people. 

The word boomer originally came from the term baby boomer, which in the United States referred to people born during the American prosperity after World War II in the 1940s to 1960s. Currently, the label is used for those born until around 1980, however, one’s behavior is far more important than age when it comes to being labeled as a boomer by young people. Let’s not be boomers!

more…
*Zoomer is a label used for young people born between about 1995 and 2010. The term is based on the combination of the word boomer and generation Z. Generation Z refers to young people who were born into the world of the Internet; this generation is also referred to as the “Internet generation". This generation typically lives fast, does not like to wait, lengthy processes, or reading long texts, they seek visual stimuli, etc.
Of course, it should be noted that this does not apply to every individual of this generation. This information can serve as a general guidance on what may be more attractive to a group of young people at this age or what will most probably not work and will earn you the boomer label. more…

How it all began

During the development of the methods, we relied mainly on a questionnaire survey conducted among 96 young people aged 13–25. We would like this set of methods to respond to the current situation and thus be potentially able to more effectively engage and inspire young people and possibly support their openness and authenticity in the very process of implementing the methods.

In the development of the methods, we encouraged feedback from young people from the target groups to make sure that the methods reflect on attributes that are truly important for self-presentation on the Internet, that we focus on social networks that young people actually use, and that we correctly identify those aspects of self-presentation and interaction on social networks that young people consider positive or negative, that they like on social networks, or that rather bother them.

“It can also be a disadvantage, the control over the communication can be a disadvantage in that you then have a problem in normal communication…one learns to control oneself too much.”

“You don’t even realize it, but everyone does it…even in normal communication you don’t sit on the ground and start screaming, even if you feel like doing it, but in the offline people can see that you want to sit down and start screaming, in the online, you’re hidden…”

Matěj (15)

Preparation before facilitation

Before even starting to work with the methods, it is desirable for the facilitator to ask themselves questions that will allow them to orientate themselves in the topic on a theoretical level, as well as to carry out a self-reflection. Like the participants, the facilitator approaches the topic that may relate to them in some way.

To create a safe environment and space for sharing, it is therefore good to think about one’s own experience, understanding of the issue and one’s own attitude towards the topic. We all come with some pre-understanding and it is very helpful to reflect on it.

Self-reflection and reflection of one’s own motivation and experience are always crucial for the role of a facilitator who is to create and maintain a safe and respectful environment.

Do I have sufficient knowledge of how social networks work? What is my relationship to them?

It is certainly not essential for you to be an expert on social networks to facilitate these methods. On the contrary, detailed knowledge of a particular topic can sometimes lead to difficulties when presenting it clearly to someone else. It is good to keep this in mind and to guide the program and its facilitation in a way that is understandable to everyone in the group. 

On the other hand, it is really necessary to know, at least in the basics, how social networks work and to have at least an elementary experience with the most commonly used ones, such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

In addition to expertise at the level of opinions, a snag may arise when your strong opinion on the topic would provoke the urge to push it instead of offering space for sharing of different experiences. On the topic of self-presentation on social networks, this could typically be a strong attitude against social networks in general, or against the amount of time young people spend on them. It is good to reflect that these methods are not intended to fight against social networks. 

How do I approach self-presentation online and offline?

The facilitator is also part of the group. Their presence plays an important role in the group, especially in the context of non-formal education, where participants generally perceive the facilitator as an authority, albeit only initially. For this role, it is therefore important to have not only the technical ability to facilitate or theoretical knowledge of the topic, but also to be able to reflect one’s own experience. When a facilitator enters a space where these experiences and topics are opened up, they need to know their own position towards the matter at hand. Although it may not be shared, it is important to reflect on one’s position. Should sharing take place, it is a good idea to step out of the role of facilitator to avoid communicating the “right answer” as the facilitator’s opinion could be considered as such. Without this reflection, we risk putting both the participants and the facilitator in an uncomfortable situation. It may then happen that the program shifts from sharing experiences to confirming or questioning them. 

Therefore, we recommend that you consider before the program whether you want to actively participate in the discussion, and if so, plan on how you will “switch” between the roles of a facilitator and a participant. At the same time, it is advisable to think in advance about your position and relationship to the topics that are opened by the individual method. This reduces the likelihood of a situation surprising you so much that you might have trouble returning to the role of a facilitator. 

Do I have enough information about the group, its dynamics, and mutual relationships, to be able to open up the topics safely?

Knowing the group is very important for the facilitation of each of the methods. That is especially true for methods that open up sensitive topics such as dating and relationships. These aspects become even more important in programs that are based on sharing of participants' own experiences. The group dynamics, as well as the direction of discussion or sharing, all depends on the characteristics of the participants, and therefore it is desirable to get acquainted with them in advance.

Important factors are, for example, age or whether the participants know each other, or how they get along, the gender distribution of the group or whether they have any special needs.

What is my goal while approaching the topic?

You must realistically assess your own expectations before carrying out this method. Why am I opening up this topic? What is my goal? Above all, it is necessary to critically assess whether the method has the potential to achieve your goal and whether there are any obstacles between you and the set goal, such as the above-mentioned negative attitude towards the topic, lack of understanding, excessive emotional engagement and so on.

If you do not have enough information about how young people from your school or class spend the “online tim” and what makes them happy and troubled in this area, you can administer a questionnaire similar to the one we used.

If you do not have enough time for it, data from the international study EU Kids Online IV can also be helpful.