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The Media’s Idealization of Our Teen Years Is Hurting Us

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Imagine: you’re scrolling through your “For You” page on TikTok and a scene from a coming-of-age film encapsulates your screen. You’re stuck wondering why you haven’t experienced this. You can’t help but feel left out or even feel that you’re missing out on life as the years pass by. 

If you’re a teenager in the age of social media, chances are you’ve watched or at least heard of a coming-of-age movie. From films like “Ladybird” to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” coming-of-age movies have become increasingly popular. However, with the popularization of such movies and the influence of increased social media use, the perception of our teen years has become skewed to fit an ideal version that is far from reality. Teens today are expected to live their coming-of-age, “main character” lives which have long-term effects on our mental health, self-esteem and personalities.

The typical coming-of-age movie depicts teenagers, often played by 20-something year-old actors, living their lives to the fullest — whether that includes alcohol consumption, partying or risky activities. These movies paint scenes of how our teen years are “meant to be” — filled with socializing and illicit activities — and if someone hasn’t caught up with these experiences, then they haven’t lived their teenage years successfully.

According to a study from the journal BMJ Open, movies that include alcohol consumption often influence teenage viewers, increasing the likelihood of underage drinking to double. Other studies show similar results related to teens’ sexual choices and smoking habits.

Many of us have experience with the influence that social and other forms of media have on our lives. It comes in the form of the “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, and other severe effects on mental health. Those experiencing FOMO can feel a sense of envy or anxiety about being absent from certain events in their lives. In extreme cases, media can cause “main character syndrome,” which Psychology Today defines as the idea that people perceive themselves as “the lead in a sort of fictional version of their life.” 

The mass consumption of social and popular media makes these negative psychological experiences more common for our generation. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly accelerated these shared experiences among teens, shifting us to a more online-focused world and making everyone’s lives more visible to the online realm.

More recently, the Facebook Papers released by whistleblower Frances Haugen to Congress exposed Facebook as a medium to promote violence by users worldwide. One keypoint from the Facebook Papers showed Facebook’s knowledge on how harmful its social platforms can be towards teens, specifically on Instagram.

With how ingrained media and social media are in our generation’s lives, it can be difficult to make changes. It’s important to take everything with a grain of salt. Although most of us enjoy coming-of-age movies, dramatic TV shows about adults in high-school or even just scrolling through our social media feeds, it’s crucial to recognize that these depictions are just a fabricated, idealized version of how your teen years can be. Everyone’s teen years can be different and catering our lives to what the media wants our lives to be is not helpful to our personal well being. Remember, it’s okay to take a break from any form of media for a while and to focus on your own life, as well as celebrating your accomplishments away from the influence of what is portrayed in the media.  

Camelia Heins is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at cheins@uci.edu