Washington : Youngsters are using popular networking websites like Facebook and MySpace to create flattering self-images, one that they would like to be but are not.
“People can use these sites to explore who they are by posting particular images, pictures or text,” said University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) psychology graduate Adriana Manago, researcher with the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles (CDMCLA), and co-author of the study.
“We’re always engaging in self-presentation; we’re always trying to put our best foot forward. Social networking sites take this to a whole new level. You can change what you look like, you can Photoshop your face, you can select only the pictures that show you in a perfect lighting,” she said.
“People are living life online,” said Manago’s co-author Patricia Greenfield, UCLA professor of psychology, director of the CDMCLA. She advised parents not to give their adolescents a computer with Internet access in his or her bedroom.
The websites allow users to open free accounts and to communicate with other users, who number in the tens of millions on Facebook and MySpace.
Participants can select “friends” and share photos, videos and information about themselves – such as whether they are currently in a relationship – with these friends.
Many college students have 1,000 or more friends on Facebook or MySpace. Identity, romantic relations and sexuality all get played out on these social networking sites, the researchers said.
“All of these things are what teenagers always do,” Greenfield said, “but the social networking sites give them much more power to do it in a more extreme way.
In the arena of identity formation, this makes people more individualistic and more narcissistic; people sculpt themselves with their profiles. In the arena of peer relations, one worries that the meaning of ‘friends’ has been so altered that real friends are not going to be recognised as such.
“How many of your 1,000 ‘friends’ do you see in person? How many are just distant acquaintances? How many have you never met?”
“Instead of connecting with friends with whom you have close ties for the sake of the exchange itself, people interact with their ‘friends’ as a performance, as if on a stage before an audience of people on the network,” Manago said.
“These social networking sites have a virtual audience, and people perform in front of their audience,” said Michael Graham, a former UCLA undergraduate psychology student who worked on this study with Greenfield and Manago for his honour’s thesis. “You’re a little detached from them. It’s an opportunity to try different things out and see what kind of comments you get.
“Women feel pressure to look beautiful and sexy, yet innocent, which can hurt their self-esteem” she said. “Now you are part of the media; your MySpace profile page is coming up next to Victoria’s Secret models. It can be discouraging to feel like you cannot live up to the flawless images you see,” she added.
The study by Manago, Greenfield and Graham, along with co-author Goldie Salimkhan, a former UCLA psychology undergraduate major, was based on small focus groups with a total of 11 women and 12 men, all UCLA students who use MySpace frequently, according to a UCLA release.
These findings will appear in a special November-December issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.