One mother ponders the beast of self-reflection in this digital age.
My 13-year-old daughter, Dixie, is in the bathroom taking pictures of herself. She is doing this because she has observed other girls doing this, and because she has seen the comments said girls have gotten after posting their photographs online or sending them via text thread.
Her “selfies” (the official word of 2013, and probably the most odious addition to the national lexicon since “twerk”) are still innocent. She is not channeling Miley or Rihanna. (Yet.) She’s simply trying to look pretty and get other people to say as much.
This is not an unnatural instinct. Even as a tomboy coming of age knee-deep in the North Florida swamps, I relished the compliments I received about my height, my curly hair. But these remarks were generally delivered by people I knew—usually well-meaning friends of my parents—and said to my face after church or at neighborhood pool parties. They were not, as one recent post to my daughter’s Instagram account read, random strangers declaring, “Yo. U R Hot. Meet me at the mall, a’ight?”
Neither of my girls is old enough to understand the ramifications of selfies, how they open the door to creeps and unkind commentary and a bottomless well of need that can never be met. (Exhibit A: Justin Bieber.) New research by Harvard psychologists shows that 80% of the time young people devote to social media is spent talking about themselves or posting selfies and that this practice has led to marked decreases in empathy and self-esteem. Unlike praise from an actual person, selfie “likes” only lead you to like yourself less. Which makes me want to unplug the entire planet. (Also, Justin Bieber.)
Instead, I drag my daughters outdoors, into the green and sunshine and thick, redolent air of the Southern summer. I point to the pines and make the girls walk barefoot across the clinging Southern clay of their ancestors and say, “Here is all that matters.”
I tell them reflection is something that should happen in your head and heart, not your phone. For a minute, it seems they hear me.
Then we return home, and they check their social media accounts for messages, their slender fingers tapping, frantic as hummingbirds.
“You know you’re beautiful,” I venture, looking into their wide faces, illuminated by the electronic glow of their screens.
They both give me the side eye. Then Dixie turns and smiles.