A Numbers Game

15th May 2017

A numbers game: Likes, loves and shares.

Likes, loves and shares are the currency of social media. They quantify  the popularity of a profile, image, video or status. Beyonce recently claimed the title for the ‘most liked image’, collecting over a staggering 10.5 million likes on Instagram – undoubtedly contributing to a sense of adulation and respect.  

The antithesis of this will come as no surprise, the effect on one’s ego when a post doesn’t receive likes, loves and shares – and this isn’t a phenomenon only effecting young people. Likes are also important for  adults in everyday life. Indeed, we can all acknowledge the buzz and feeling of validation when our notification bar alerts us to likes on our new pic or carefully crafted tweet.

But what happens when the likes don’t rack up? Though most of the young people we work with would not dare to admit, we know that some are deleting a status or picture that’s not received enough likes, erasing it from their online profile as if it never happened.

A study from American researchers Rainone and Burrow’s (2016) looked at undergraduates’ social media use. They noted that the number of likes on social media had significant effects on a person’s self–esteem. Receiving fewer likes was more likely to result in a person feeling rejected. More likes lead a person to feel more endorsed and accepted by their peers (though they did note that the positive and negative effect of ‘likes’ were not always the same for all people).

The greater sense of ‘purpose’ a person felt they had in life, the less affected they were by the amount of likes they received online. Feeling purposeful was described as having a sense that things you do in life had worth and were meaningful. People who felt a greater amount of ‘purpose’ were less rewarded and validated by many likes but also less negatively affected by few likes and negative comments. This means that having a strong sense of well-being and worthiness offline could help to mediate the potential effects of social media.

This study was conducted with university students but has some useful implications for our work with young people. The research  highlights our opportunity to help build young people’s resilience online by developing their knowledge and skills  offline. For example, a young person may be excited by the likes that they received for ‘selfie’ of themselves playing their favourite sport. Emphasising their expertise and helping to think of ways young people can hone skills in real life is a good way to give them a sense of ‘purpose’ referred to by Rainone and Burrow. Building this resilience may help to buffer potentially negative effects of social media.

Similarly, a recent guardian article looked at the effect of being ‘left on read’, on both adults and young people. ‘Left on read’ describes how apps such as Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp allow users to see when their message has been read and more importantly, whether they have been replied to. This is a truly unique feature of 21st century communication, and has left many people with feelings of rejection asking, “If they’ve seen it, why haven’t they replied?” “Have I upset them?” These are all challenges that young people face as they grow up online, and we as professionals need to acknowledge how it can leave them feeling.

Fortunately, there are many ways to help young people to deal with this online phenomenon.  Steering clear of belittling these incidents, and encouraging conversations about social media and online popularity, is a great place to start:

-Try asking the young people you work with how many likes they think is a ‘good amount’ and what meaning this might have for them. How few likes would make them contemplate deleting an image?

-Explore what might be going on ‘outside the frame’ of some popular Instagram pictures and encourage young people to think about why scenarios might have been ‘staged’ for a picture. This Metro article is a great example of how popular pictures may not be a true reflection of reality.

-Have a conversation with young people about how ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ make them feel. Discuss the positive aspects of social media and the power ‘shares’, and encourage them to give their thoughts on combating the negative.