Imagine spending three hours of your life taking photographs of yourself at different angles to get that ever-elusive "perfect shot" to post online, only to remove it seconds later because it didn’t get enough "likes".
This sorry tale of the social-media age – a fruitless and time-sucking quest for self-validation – was shared with activist, author and broadcaster Gemma Cairney by a girl in a year nine class (13- to 14-year-olds). Speaking at The Dots conference in Brighton, hosted by marketing agency Brilliant Noise, Cairney lifted the lid on this strand of narcissistic behaviour. "I think this whole new level of self-awareness is a byproduct of social media. It can be a source for good, but it is also a source of an awful lot of pressure," she said.
Social media has not only redefined advertising, it has also fundamentally shifted the lens through which consumers view both themselves and the world around them. Young people are growing up in a radically different way from their parents, because of their experience of connected living. It is an emergent ecosystem that has significant implications for brands.
60% of women felt brought down by glamorous selfies
Rather than simply being platforms to advertise and communicate on, social-media channels have become the pulsating heart of how young people measure themselves. Elizabeth Kesses, author of The Ugly Little Girl, believes that social media is having a "clear impact on self-esteem". She points to research from the Dove Self-Esteem project, which found that 60% of women felt brought down by glamorous selfies.
Kesses warns: "It’s fuelling issues such as anorexia and self-harming [through] viral trends such as ‘thigh gap’ and the ‘A4 Waist Challenge’." The latter involves women demonstrating that they have a waist narrower than an A4 piece of paper (21 centimetres) by posting images › of themselves online, with a sheet of paper held in front of their torso. "Until Facebook, Instagram and the like are properly edited for sensitive and vulnerable audiences they are one of the most powerful triggers for low confidence," Kesses adds.
So, what if the media that promised to connect the world is instead trapping young consumers in a stifling bubble of narcissism, collectively chipping away at a life lived in the here and now?
A recent study by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK, the #StatusofMind report, surveyed almost 1,500 young people between the ages of 14 and 24 on the impact social-media platforms have on their wellbeing. The research revealed that young people who spend more than two hours a day connecting on social-networking sites are much more likely to report poor mental health.
An inflection point
This growing conversation about how social media is affecting our wellbeing is not confined to academics and activists. When Campaign polled this year’s Faces to Watch on the media brand that they couldn’t wait to see the back of, Snapchat found itself in the firing line.
Olivia Stancombe, a strategist at The Future Laboratory, writes: "Objectively, I can understand the appeal and relevance for brands and consumers, but there is something about the introspection and self-obsession it normalises that doesn’t sit well with me. Call me old-fashioned, but life should be lived first-hand, not consumed through a screen."
Erands that have such a large degree of influence over society must consider how they act, and use this influence responsibly
Caitlin Brennan, senior new-business and marketing manager at Havas London
Meanwhile, Caitlin Brennan, senior new-business and marketing manager at Havas London, warns that while many brands are latching on to social-media trends to deliver their marketing messages, they can be guilty of ignoring the wider social effects these platforms are having. "Snapchat has taught young people that putting a filter across your face – that you can hide or edit your physical appearance to make yourself look different, and ‘better’ – is normal," she contends. This is a trend that she believes has contributed to young people’s self-consciousness about their appearance, resulting in them painting a false picture of themselves on social media and potentially leading to wider societal problems, such as bullying or depression.
Brennan adds: "Brands that have such a large degree of influence over society must consider how they act, and use this influence responsibly. I only hope that by the time I have kids this particular facet of social media has blown over."
That the next generation of talent is taking these issues so seriously is a reflection of the fact that social media as an industry is facing up to significant growing pains. At first, brands jumped in to capitalise on the advertising opportunities afforded by new platforms. However, should brands now reconsider the impact of social media on consumer lives and take the time to better understand the nuances of the different platforms?
A generational shift
Like all significant advances in technology, the seemingly inexorable rise of social media cannot simply be described as a collective journey into unfettered narcissism. There remains a risk that, in our concern over the social impact of social media, we are underestimating the ability of young people to navigate its myriad demands.
In fact, many experts argue that, rather than suffocating young people, platforms such as Snapchat provide a vibrant tool for self-expression and are a hotbed for the experimentation that goes hand in hand with the sticky task of "growing up".
Christian Ward, head of media and marketing at Stylus, an innovation research and advisory company, warns we are in danger of seeing negative implications simply because we cannot adequately grasp the generational shift afoot. "Gen Z – the most prolific users of Snapchat – is a cohort that communicates visually for the most part, whether that’s through gifs, selfies or emojis," he says. "Armed with these tools, it’s inevitable that they’re going to make their self-portraits the best they can be."
Ward adds: "For Gen Z, it’s still a fun way of communicating, but it has become embedded with behaviours around visual communications that necessitate a certain amount of tweaking. Instagram, where this visual manipulation is also prolific, has made that much more of a generational thing."
While the platforms may have changed, the fundamental human behaviours at play have not. It is simply that social media provides young people with a different place where they can experiment with identity.
Emma de la Fosse, chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather Group UK, points out that narcissistic behaviour and puberty have always gone hand in hand. "You play and experiment. Are spray tans, lip plumpers, ‘chicken fillets’, hair dye, Spanx and all the rest any more or less responsible for our lack of confidence in our appearance?" she asks.
However, she adds that these self-same "beauty filter" fans can sniff out inauthenticity fast, saying: "Your brand on Snapchat could look like dad dancing at the disco. And it’s a very expensive place to advertise, more so than Facebook or Instagram."
This means a brand has to be focused on whether its audience is actually on Snapchat and know how to behave on the platform. De la Fosse says brands should ask themselves: "Have you really got a great idea about using filters – or are you using them because you haven’t got a great idea?"
The augmented self
While the pursuit of validation at all costs online should give both brands and social platforms pause for thought, it should not negate the fact that new spaces for self-expression are emerging. Any innovations that change the way we behave, and that not everyone can understand or participate in, tend to spark criticism. It is all too easy for marketers to lump social media together as a group of amorphous behaviours and platforms, when in fact each is unique.
Melissa Robertson, chief executive of Now, says: "With Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn, we’ve got used to the notion of profile and validation. Snapchat has turned that on its head, because you can’t see how many friends you have and there is no validation."
This, in turn, has ignited a fierce debate as it is essentially a private channel that can’t be checked up on by advertisers and non-users.
Robertson does not buy the notion that Snapchat is stopping people from being themselves by hiding behind filters. She adds: "Any app can get rid of your spots, give you a tan, make you slimmer and so on. Snapchat allows its consumers to be both expressive and spontaneous, without too much pressure on curation. Perhaps the puppy ears, rainbow vomit and bunny teeth just allow them to be more confident, less paranoid, and just have fun."
The need to build "safe spaces" online where young people can experiment, free of recriminations or negative attention, remains evident, however.
Matthew Mayes, UK chief technologist at Momentum Worldwide, claims Snapchat is doing better than any other platform at giving younger consumers a space to be themselves. "It might not work so well in the future for younger consumers who are cynical about brands. But for those that like to engage with brands, it will remain a relevant platform, provided Snapchat makes it easier and more cost-effective for brands to use the platform – the jury is still out on that," he says.
Any innovations that change the way we behave, and not everyone can understand or participate in, tend to spark criticism
The cult of perfection
Providing young people with a space to be not just their imagined selves or best selves, but their true selves, is perhaps the antithesis of the "cult of perfection", characterised by the drain on time, energy and self-esteem of a schoolgirl dedicating three hours a day to taking that perfect selfie.
Social media may be a vibrant advertising channel, but brands should address "perfection fatigue" as a growing consumer force.
Mica Anthony, a behavioural analyst at Canvas8, points to the growth in Generations Y and Z creating "Finstagrams". These are secondary Instagram accounts where they share their "real", unguarded, unpolished selves to a select group of trusted friends.
She explains: "‘Finstas’ are a rejection of this overly filtered self; people are creating new accounts where people can be unapologetically themselves. But because these accounts can only be viewed by select, close friends, it’s still a nuanced rejection of the performative image that social media breeds, and, on the whole, people are still feeling pressured to attain unrealistic expectations online."
However, Ward argues that the continued focus on perfectionism among Generation Z consumers will not dissipate any time soon. Referring to the iPhone X’s facial-recognition software, he points out that this records your facial structure, paving the way for the brand to create apps and filters through which a user’s appearance can be manipulated in a more detailed way. This, he says, coupled with the AR tech now embedded in the iPhone, will only make perfectionism a bigger trend.
He adds: "It may not always be about facial perfection, but that’s still massively popular – especially in Asia. The apps that enable you to instantly create a fantastic version of yourself are only going to get more sophisticated and will be around for some time, so Snapchat won’t face any significant issues here."
A new era of activism
As the pressure to present your best self on social media continues to grow, the backlash against the cult of perfection will only strengthen, driving a vibrant wave of brand activism. From influencers lifting the lid on the "fakeness" of their Instagram accounts to the burgeoning "body positive" movement online, it is individuals, rather than brands, who are paving the way with authentic, raw, human storytelling, powered by social media.
Timothy Armoo, co-founder and chief executive of Snapchat-based ad business Fanbytes, says that people are tired of fakery: "In the past, people only shared status updates that were essentially positive boasting."
Yet, that is changing. If the cult of instagram could be defined by the conspicuous consumption of the "Rich kids of Instagram", then the cult of Snapchat is, in many ways, the opposite of this heavily edited, perfectly styled world.
Armoo points to the example of a friend who used Snapchat to share the true experience of his wife’s birth with his close friends. "If Instagram is the person who you want people to think you are, then Snapchat is who you really are," he says.
It is an environment that offers the promise of self-expression, rather than a self-esteem-crushing, unending search for validation from virtual strangers.