Unwritten rules for social media aren't so friendly, teens say

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Social media bullying

Social media bullying (Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty)

Sixty-six percent of young women say they've experienced bullying on Facebook, even as they commit to a rigorous set of unofficial rules of social conduct, according to a new survey.

Time magazine reports the highlights of a study by social networking site We Heart It that asked 5,000 females ages 13 to 24 about their online social life.

Respondents reported less bullying on other social networks — 19 percent felt bullied on Twitter; 9 percent on Instagram. But the pressure to carefully craft and manage an online brand crosses multiple sites.

When asked how they use social media, a focus group of respondents detailed the following ideals, according to Time.

• Have lots of followers.

• Have more followers than people you follow.

• Don't look like you're trying to get followers by hashtagging too much, etc.

• Don't serial post. ("You only want to post one Instagram a day.")

• If you game the system, don't get caught. ("She [my friend] probably has 20 fake accounts where she goes and likes her own pictures.")

• Remove photos that don't get enough likes.

• Time your posts for optimal like-getting. ("There's a lot of social pressure to get likes, so you have to post it at the right time of day. You don't want to post it during school when people don't have their phone.")

• Facebook is for photos that weren't good enough for Instagram.

I want to go around and start hugging every young woman I encounter. I'm exhausted on their behalf.

We read a lot about the teenage brain and its underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. Impulse control, sound judgment, reasoning — all are works in progress.

But underdeveloped perspective is an equally powerful force. We can — and should — tell a 14-year-old girl that too few likes on her photo is so totally not the worst thing in the world. But in her world, it very well may be.

First world problems, right? Plenty to eat, plenty to wear, plenty of adults looking out for her best interests. It's tempting to roll your eyes at a kid who's sweating her "likes" when you've seen others live through — have, yourself, lived through — so much, much worse.

But I think we underestimate how much pressure these kids are truly under — and how ill-equipped they are to deal with it, particularly without a lot of practice in bouncing back and moving on.

"No one understands me. They call me fat and ugly. I wanna kill myself," one survey respondent said.

"Sometimes I just feel like I don't exist, like I'm invisible to everyone, I pretend it's OK, but it hurts," said another.

I'm not sure what we — parents, mentors, teachers, friends, bosses — do to change this dynamic in any real, lasting way. Social media is a seemingly untamable beast.

But I think the survey results offer a valuable window into the world in which girls and young women are trying to thrive. And they can remind us to go a little gentler on the ones whose paths cross our own.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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