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ASW Journal

Theses from Interdisciplinary Social Sciences (ASW)

Archive for March, 2017

Kirsten Gutter

Few people don’t know that I have been playing water polo since I was 8 years old. In fact, the first thing people often know about me is the fact that I’m a water polo freak. That’s how much water polo means to me. Over the years, it has become such a huge part of my life, that I can state that I have two social lives: college and water polo. When I’m not at university, I’m either with my college friends doing some homework, or with my water polo friends at the swimming pool. When I was younger, people at school often called me crazy, telling me I needed to rest and needed to have a day off. It didn’t make sense to me. After a long day at school, all I wanted to do was just be with my friends at the swimming pool and play water polo! Why couldn’t they understand that?

Now that I’m older, I can understand why they always told me that. They just didn’t know what it means, dedicating such a huge part of your life to doing what you love most. They didn’t know about the other kids in my water polo team who were at the swimming pool every day. It often frustrated me that they just wouldn’t understand me. That’s why I loved being with my water polo friends even more. They knew what it was like, we all understood each other.

My team was great. We were all close friends and liked being together so much that we even saw each other in our spare time. Most of us still play water polo and we often see each other at the swimming pool. Although we are no longer together as a team, we will always have a special connection, remembering the times when we had so much fun. These days, most of us play water polo as a hobby, giving priority to work or school. But two of my former team mates still consider water polo their main priority. They train every day during a regular school week and often even give priority to water polo over school. They are part of the Dutch female water polo team under 19, which won the gold medal in the European Championship under 19 tournament in the summer of 2016.

When I think about what I had to sacrifice when I was younger, I almost can’t imagine what it’s like for these girls, dedicating their whole life to water polo. The people in my class back in the days couldn’t even understand me, let alone that people can understand these girls. Therefore, this research paper is about their (and their team’s) lives as gold medal winners: How does the collective experience of the Dutch female water polo team under 19 of 2016 contribute to their success story and their personal attachments? It focuses on how they’ve experienced being a professional water polo player and what role the team has played in this. Based on these experiences, it tries to understand how they’ve changed individually during this journey, how they stayed motivated to dedicate a huge part of their daily lives to water polo, and which factors contributed to their success.

Two girls were interviewed: Hester and Sarah. To guarantee their privacy, these are not their actual names. Hester, who was 15 years old during this research, has been a member of several Dutch youth water polo teams before she was chosen to be part of this one. She didn’t make the tournament but still has gone through almost the entire process. Sarah, who was 18 years old during this research, has been playing water polo ever since she could swim. In 2015, she was selected for the Dutch Olympic team but the team missed the Olympic Games the following year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I know the girls personally, which made them talk about their experiences relatively easily and made me understand their stories better. Although I have never played water polo professionally, in many ways I could relate to what they were telling me. Therefore, this research is partly based on some of my own thoughts and experiences. Sometimes reference will be made to them, to show where my interpretation might be guided by my own involvement.

I will begin with a detailed description of the team. What does a day in the life of a professional water polo player look like? Next, I will discuss what motivated them to sacrifice so much to be professional water polo players and what role has the team played in this? I will end with how this experience changed them as a person.

One team, one dream

These girls’ individual water polo journeys started years ago. They were part of several Dutch water polo teams before they joined this one. The first time they were chosen to be part of a national team, I was still part of the same team as Sarah (she was thus part of two teams). When I first heard about it, I wasn’t surprised at all. I was happy for her because I knew this was what she had always wanted.

From the very first moment I got to know these girls, I knew they were destined for something bigger. Both girls were so talented and very ambitious. I liked water polo and definitely had to sacrifice a lot of my time, but these girls were different. My teammates and I sometimes had to cancel a training because of school, but these girls were always present. Even then, when we were just kids playing water polo for fun.

At the time, the first step to a professional water polo career was WOCNH (Waterpolo Opleidings Centrum Noord Holland), a training centre for selected girls and boys in several age categories in the province of North Holland. For me, this was the first and only step towards a professional water polo career I took with them. We trained every Sunday for 2 to 3 hours. I loved that I was chosen and that I finally was part of something special in the water polo world, but I hated the training and to sacrifice my relaxed Sunday with my family for it. That’s why I quit early, the thought of being part of a special team wasn’t enough to keep me going. But these girls continued, they made the team and it was the start of their ultimate dream: to join the national female water polo team.

Shortly before this research took place, these girls were part of the Dutch female team under 19 that won the gold medal in the European Championship under 19 tournament in the summer of 2016, which means that they were almost living their dream. They were now dedicating their lives to water polo at a whole other level. The team was together for about one whole year (2016). Some of them have been training together for about six years, but they started training as a team at the beginning of 2016. During that year, Sarah’s weekly schedule consisted almost entirely of water polo. Four days a week she had to get up early to drive to the training centre with some of her teammates who lived nearby. Sometimes one of their mothers drove them, since they didn’t have their driver’s license yet. On Sundays she usually had a day off and the remaining two days were filled with training and matches with her team at her original water polo club. Although she was 18 years old and hadn’t finished high school yet, she fully focused on water polo and stopped going to school for a while.

During the summer of 2016, to prepare for the tournament, their schedules became even more professional. During the school year, not everyone could cancel school for training. So when school was finally over, the team started training five and sometimes six days a week. Hester told me about their daily schedule:

“In the mornings we did weight training for one and a half hour, then we got to rest for about fifteen minutes. Afterwards we got in the water for one and a half hour, then rest again for about two or three hours and then back in the water again for the last two hours. Really all day nothing but training. Only on Wednesdays we had the afternoon off. Oh and on Saturdays and Sundays of course.”

Training five to six hours a day and getting some rest in between shows that their weeks during that summer were filled with training. Some of them even stayed the whole week because they had to travel too far. They lived by the saying almost every water polo player (in the Netherlands) knows: “Water polo [is] a way of life”.

Both girls mentioned how close they were as a team. During the summer, they all got to know each other well and Hester told me that they really became friends. They liked being together so much that some girls spent more time together after a long training day. When I asked why they became good friends, Hester and Sarah both mentioned the goal they all shared. Everyone wanted to win the gold medal at the tournament. Moreover, they all understood each other. Hester told me that she could finally be her true self. At school, as I also experienced, she felt like no one understood her:

“Here, I am a different person than I am at school, because at school I am much more quiet because… At school everyone has different priorities, everyone goes to parties, drinks alcohol and smokes… But I absolutely don’t do that because I’m focused on water polo and at school nobody is. Here [with the team] I can totally be myself and at school I sometimes can’t talk about certain topics [with her friends at school] because I can’t relate to them.”

Hester points out their shared identities by telling that, in comparison with the people at school, the girls in this team can talk about relatable topics with each other. At school, everyone has their own hobbies and their own (conflicting) personalities. But everyone in this team shared the same dreams: to win the gold medal (together) in the short-term, and to become a professional water polo player in the long-term. They all knew what it’s like to sacrifice a huge part of their life to try to fulfill their dreams and that is what made them so close. Thus, the team provided a sense of belonging; they were finally surrounded by the people they have so much in common with.

Perhaps owing to this sense of belonging, they didn’t feel any competition between them, despite the fact that they started with fifteen girls but could only play the tournament with thirteen. While twelve of them knew from the start that they would make the team, three girls had to compete for the remaining position. Hester was one of them, yet she told me that there wasn’t any competition between them, because they cared about each other and knew how much they all wanted this.

The cohesion based on their shared goals and their shared understanding can be seen as a form of mechanical solidarity, a concept by Durkheim, which is solidarity based on similarities between people (Ritzer, 2014). It is this type of solidarity these girls showed. They not only shared the same goal, they also understood each other as a result of going through the same process. Although Durkheim states that in modern society people unify because of differences between them (organic solidarity), this shows that mechanical solidarity still exists nowadays.

Moreover, the team as a basis of a sense of belonging is in line with other studies about sport teams (Chin, 2016; Walseth, 2006; Spaaij, 2015). Sport teams can, for example, create feelings of belonging within minority groups by providing social support, by creating feelings of reciprocity and by creating feelings of identity confirmation (Walseth, 2006). Although the girls in this team aren’t a minority group as they are all white middle-class youth, the reasons for their feelings of belonging are similar. The minority group created a ‘we’ feeling through shared identities based on practicing the same sport (identity confirmation) (Walseth, 2006). This is exactly what Hester described; their shared identities are based on everyone being professional water polo players.

But this is not just a function of a sport team. Other youth groups can, for example by listening to the same music together, also provide a sense of connection (O’Brien, 2013). This shows, once again, that a feeling of belonging is constructed by shared activities. This team thus provided a sense of belonging as a result of spending the majority of their time playing water polo together, which resulted in shared identities.

Together

My greatest motivation back in the days was the team. I loved water polo, but I loved it even more because of the fun we had. We played several Dutch Championships and of course, that was a great motivator. Thinking about being number one in your own country makes you want to train even harder. But I still could not have done it without my team. That was also one of the reasons why I stopped training at the WOCNH, as mentioned previously. I only knew some of these girls and even after a few weeks I still didn’t feel like I was a part of the team since we didn’t get along very well.

My own story shows that one goal is not enough to keep you going. So with this in mind, I asked the girls about their motivation to keep going. Dedicating your whole life to water polo is difficult, especially when you’re young and when you’re at the age of possibilities since many opportunities to change your future remain open (Arnett, 2004). So what makes them want to continue?

In analysing this strong dedication, I use a framework provided by Ryan and Deci (2000). They distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within: an individual wants to do something because it is amusing of satisfying. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from the outside: an individual wants to do something because it is rewarding. While intrinsic motivation is important, it is certainly not the most prominent. In my research I found that both types motivated these girls to achieve their goals and that the distinction is not as clear as it may seem.

As stated earlier, these girls shared two dreams: to win the gold medal and to become a part of the Dutch Olympic team when they are older. Both are extrinsic motivators. Their gold medal is a reward for all their hard work. Hester mentioned: “Precisely because we’ve been training for so long, precisely because we have been working towards our goal, we can keep going. You really work towards the tournament.” And Sarah told me: “That goal is very important. More important than your whole summer”. Besides, while Sarah is already part of the Dutch Olympic team, this team brought Hester (and the other girls) a bit closer to her ultimate dream. It can therefore be seen as a form of extrinsic motivation through identification (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Hester knew she had to go through this to get a chance to fulfill her dream, so she identified with the importance of her behaviour.

Their shared dream was only one of three motivators. The second motivator is important; it’s intrinsic. Hester mentioned that she liked to be around the girls:

H: “Being there for each other, to support each other when things get you down and telling each other that we can do this and that we will go for it together when someone is having a tough time… that’s a thing in team sports. Because if you ice skate for example, and you really don’t feel like going to the training, there’s no one to motivate you. And in a team, you tell each other that you all can do it.”

Me: “Has the team made it [this experience] more enjoyable?”

H: “Yes, without a doubt. I don’t think I could train on my own the whole summer. That’s just it…. I can do this, because I like it so much. I like it with these girls. That’s it especially, I just…. I often don’t feel like going to the training again. But as soon as I’m there, as soon as I’m with the girls I think, yes! This is fun!”.

Hester explains how important the team was to keep them going. She could not have trained on her own the whole summer; she needed the team to accomplish this. She further states that they supported each other by expressing their faith in each other and by emphasizing that they would accomplish their goals together. Moreover, the girls became close friends and just enjoyed being together. The training was not just about training, but about hanging out with each other. Sarah also mentioned that during the summer, they sometimes felt like everyone in the country was enjoying the hot summer days on the beach, while they were inside all day. But to her it was fine because she was with the girls; the fact that they were in this together made them forget about the downsides of sacrificing a summer. For Hester, who didn’t make the team in the end, it was the reason that she would do this all over again:

Me: “Would you do this all over again?”

H: “Yes, without a doubt [She smiles]! I think it’s nice to see that a group of girls all have the same goal, that they want to achieve that together and now…. in the end they win the gold medal. That’s of course the greatest thing ever. And if you win that… then… yeah they just did it you know. You really have that feeling like… I can’t really describe it. It’s just really beautiful.

Me: “Proud?”

H: “Yes! Very, very proud.”

The fact that Hester would sacrifice so much again, even if she knew she wasn’t going to make the team, shows how close these girls were. She’s proud to have been a part of this team. Thus, the second motivator was the team itself and this is an intrinsic motivator, since it’s not about any reward. It’s about being together and enjoying the solidarity and sense of belonging.

The third motivator was again an external one: these girls established a strong reciprocal relationship. They knew that they could only get through this together. Water polo is a team sport; you can’t win a gold medal on your own. Everyone in a team is important since everyone has her own tasks during a match. Winning a game is not a result of a talented individual player, but of the whole team working together. This is something the girls began to realise by training together for a long time, discovering everyone’s individual talents and by having faith in each other. This realisation entailed an introjected regulation, a form of extrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). There was a certain amount of pressure to behave as desired to avoid feelings of guilt. By not showing up on a training or by breaking the rules these girls not only let themselves down, but also their teammates. Everyone had to develop their own talents in order to make the team as a whole preform at its best. So they knew that they all, individually, had a major influence on the fulfillment of their collective dreams, realising that each team member can make a difference.

Thus, because of the cohesion, these girls developed a reciprocal relationship, which increased their cohesion. This didn’t happen overnight; Hester mentioned that there used to be some problems before they could work in unison. Some girls liked to party on the weekends, which was strongly frowned upon. The team talked to them and they slowly came to the realisation that their behaviour influenced the whole team, which made them stop the undesired behaviour.

These reciprocal relationships were a very important aspect of this particular team, because Hester and Sarah both mentioned that such relationships barely existed in their club teams. Both girls didn’t share their dreams with their teammates from the club. They played water polo for fun and didn’t sacrifice as much. Cancelling a training was allowed and happened rather often. Thus, in the club team, there was less cohesion, which meant that there was less reciprocity, which lessened the cohesion.

The extrinsic and intrinsic motivators overlap. First of all, the intrinsic motivator was an important one. Hester showed that it was a motivator in itself, but it also strengthened the second extrinsic motivator: the reciprocal relationship. It they weren’t such great friends the feelings of guilt wouldn’t have been as strong. Moreover, their shared goal (the first extrinsic motivator) was one of the initial reasons for becoming so close. But it was impossible to fulfill this dream without everybody working hard for it, so the reciprocal relationship was needed to keep them motivated. Moreover, this relationship increased their cohesion even more. Thus, because these motivators were mutually reinforcing, it can be stated that all motivators were needed to keep these girls going. These motivators contributed to the cohesion and thereby to the sense of belonging. One motivator was the cohesion itself, but the other two, the reciprocal relationships and their shared goals, contributed to the cohesion in the way that they created commonalities between the girls and that they supported cooperation.

Individual learning process

Before I started this research, I thought a lot about who I was. While writing this, I still don’t know who I truly am, but I do know that water polo has mostly made me the person I am today. The people, the disappointments, the victories, the hard times; I learned a lot from it. I learned that not everything will always go as planned and that sometimes things go wrong, but that this doesn’t mean that you have failed. Especially these harder times taught me how to handle disappointments and how to respect other’s individual way of handling these things. It can be stated that water polo has become a huge part of my identity, even though I just played it for fun. That’s one of the reasons why I asked the girls about how this experience changed them.

The other reason is that during their journey, all girls were between 15 and 19 years old, which means that they were at the age of identity formation (Gray, 2014; Arnett, 2004). According to Erikson, adolescence is the period when adolescents give up their childhood identity and form a new identity, which may cause an identity crisis (Erikson, [1968]; discussed in Gray, 2014, pp. 483). Arnett (2004), on the other hand, states that identity formation takes place during emerging adulthood, the period between adolescence and adulthood. This particular period is one of trying out various possibilities, which influences the emerging adult’s identity. Moreover, forming an identity is mostly a social process (Best, 2011). Goffman (as discussed in Best, 2011) states that one’s personal identity is formed by one’s social identity.

Another relevant theory for this section is Goffman’s frontstage and backstage theory (Goffman, 1956/2012; Ritzer, 2014). He states that people want to present themselves in a certain way (a presentation that will be accepted in the particular situation) by suppressing certain facts that don’t fit the situation (Ritzer, 2014). This is part of what he calls the front: “that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (Goffman, 1956/2012, pp. 49). In contrast to the frontstage, there is the backstage (Ritzer, 2014). The suppressed facts may show up here, because there is no need to perform at the backstage. Goffman further states that this performance influences the self: “In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons (Goffman, 1956/2012, pp.48).

The distinction between the frontstage and backstage, as well as the social aspect of identity formation, are closely related to the girls’ experiences. Because of the high team cohesion, this team was a backstage and frontstage at the same time. As stated earlier, Hester could finally be herself around the girls. She further explained:

I feel like I’m really a part of this team, that I can do something, that I’m good at something. Therefore, I am more confident here than at school, here everyone respects each other because everyone’s good at this”.

Thus, Hester felt respected here. She felt confident around these girls and therefore felt like she could be her true self. She didn’t have to hide her feelings, because the team understood her, unlike her friends at school. In Goffman’s terms, she didn’t have to suppress certain facts about herself here, which made the team function as a backstage.

But the team also operated as a frontstage. Sarah had to play the role of a leader. She was among the oldest and most experienced players, so she had to lead the younger and less experienced players. Sarah named it a role herself because she had to, it was a task assigned to her. And to fulfil a task properly, it is sometimes needed to hide feelings or personality traits (Ritzer, 2014), which makes this a performance (and thus a frontstage). But not only Sarah played a role. These girls had to be professional. They had to follow the rules, and sometimes had to set aside their emotions in order to keep functioning as a cohesive team. When things went wrong during matches for example, they couldn’t just give in to their emotions (like anger towards themselves or another player for making a mistake), but had to stay focused in order to perform at their best.

Both Hester and Sarah considered this positive: both learned from what happened at the frontstage. The age gap between the oldest and the youngest girls was relatively big: Hester and Sarah were respectively 15 and 18 years old. Hester considered this difficult at first: “I got pushed to talk to these older girls when I didn’t really know them”. But as soon as she got to know them, she learned from it; she now easily talks to people who are older than she is, especially in her team at her club. The age gap there is even bigger; some girls are above the age of 25, but Hester now talks to them more easily than she did before. Sarah experienced it in a similar way: because of her leading role, she felt like she became more extrovert. Thus, Sarah’s role became part of her personality.

This experience made Hester and Sarah stronger. They stated that they now have more perseverance, because they’ve experienced that they can push themselves to their limits. I already knew that they had much more perseverance than me, which was the reason I quit while they continued, but apparently the experience heightened their perseverance even more. Hester stated that this was also needed to make the team; giving up is never an option when you want to fulfill your dream. This led Hester to mention another crucial point: their similar personalities. They shared not only a goal, but also some personality traits. Not only perseverance was needed, but extroversion and ambition were crucial too. Without an ambitious personality, the girls would have never made the team as their goals could not be fulfilled within a short period of time.

Hester’s statement about her increased perseverance shows that existing personality traits were strengthened during their journey. Both Hester and Sarah also admitted that they already were extrovert. They didn’t consider themselves shy when they started this journey, but, as mentioned, did feel that they became more extrovert. So perseverance and extroversion were not only needed to make the team, but these shared personality traits were also strengthened during this experience as a result of it being the desired behaviour. Nevertheless, Sarah also stated that it’s very important to have different personalities in a team:

“You need opposites in a team. (…) There are negative and positive people, and if you look at everything positively, you won’t improve yourself. And if you look at everything negatively, you won’t improve yourself either. But if you sometimes look at things negatively and sometimes positively, you can improve yourself. You really learn from that. I experienced that myself. (…) I have experienced this personally, in my daily life. I look at things differently when I’ve been with the team. Because I notice that whenever I’ve been with Jong Oranje [Dutch Youth team] I look at things differently than when I’ve been with my team at the water polo club. These are very little differences, but I do change. (…) I have an example: because of the team [the Olympic team] missing the Olympic games, I became negative, I got into a downward spiral. I became very negative, a little too negative. And when I got back with the girls, I became a lot more positive because they told me to stop.”

Sarah tried to learn from the opposite personalities in her team by finding a way between positivity and negativity in order to improve herself. Sarah acknowledged that they all needed perseverance and ambition to keep going, but still stressed the importance of having opposites in one team to learn from. She continued:

“I now know what my weaknesses and strengths are, for water polo but also in my daily life. I can be quite hard on myself and on others, and my friend confronted me with that this summer. I sometimes… I expect a lot from myself and sometimes I can, unconsciously, expect the same from others. But if they are having a hard time, they can’t meet these expectations. They might feel like they have let me down then, when the opposite is true. (…) I now have a better understanding of who I am.”

This reveals a lot. First of all, note how she calls her teammate a friend. Second, the fact that her friend confronted her with her behaviour shows that they were utterly honest with each other, which allowed them to learn from their behaviour and gain a better understanding of themselves. This shows once again how close these girls were and how this played a huge role, also in their learning process.

Conclusion

The Dutch female water polo team under 19 of 2016 showed great team cohesion as a result of the sense of belonging, which kept them motivated and played an important role in their individual learning processes. Their shared goal to become a professional water polo player and to win the gold medal during the tournament was a huge motivator, which further strengthened the team cohesion. They realised they could only accomplish this together. This laid the foundation for the two other, closely linked, motivators: the team itself and their reciprocal relationships. The team turned out to be a central intrinsic motivator; these girls simply liked to be together and became close friends. This friendship established a strong reciprocal relationship, which was the second external motivator. To not devote all they had to their goal resulted in guilty feelings towards each other. This shows that extrinsic and intrinsic motivators overlap and influence one another.

Moreover, the girls’ shared feelings and experiences and their mutual respect made the team a place where they could be their true self, which made the team function as a backstage. They finally were surrounded by people that share the same feelings about water polo, the team provided a sense of belonging. But at the same time the team functioned as a frontstage, as they all had to play certain roles to make the team function like a real, professional team that could win the gold medal.

To make the team, they had to possess certain personality traits: perseverance, ambition and extroversion. It can be stated that these traits were strengthened during the experience, because of the desired behaviour. They are now more extrovert, as they felt they had no other option, they needed to be honest and tell each other everything in order to become and stay close. Moreover, they gained more perseverance as this experience pushed them to their limits. But the individual characters in this team also differed. This has proven to be desired, since this allowed them to learn from each other and about themselves.

The mechanical solidarity which these girls attest to is of particular importance in a broader context. This research illustrates one way in which youth seek togetherness in contemporary neoliberal and individualistic society (Ritzer, 2014). The team as an intrinsic motivator for providing a sense of belonging demonstrates how important it is for these young people to experience togetherness. Their experiences show that finding similarities between people can be an effective way of creating a strong sense of solidarity, even in this individualistic society.

Thus, in all aspects of this research, the team cohesion proved to be a key factor. It contributed to a safe environment where these girls could be themselves, which allowed them to improve themselves and made them more aware of themselves. It also made this experience a very positive one by keeping the girls motivated, which contributed to their successful story of winning the gold medal. It can be stated that this was a life-changing experience, since they fulfilled their shared dream, got a little closer to their other, more individual dream of being a part of the Dutch Olympic Team and since it was an individual learning process.

In the introduction I stated that water polo is a huge part of my life and that I am happy to share this with others. This feeling became even stronger during this research. Although I’m not a professional and probably won’t ever be (as I also came to realise during this research), I am proud to be a part of this community and share the love for this sport with these girls. Therefore, the sense of belonging is something not only these girls share, but I share with them too. Events like this, when people you know achieve something that’s not only important to them, but also to you (in a way that you are a part of the community) makes you realise how beautiful it is to be a part of a community like this. This research made me realise that I should never give up on something that has been a such a huge part of my life and I want to thank these girls for that.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

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Global Youth Papers

Sanne Kroon

Social media: many teenagers grew up with it. Facebook, SnapChat and Instagram slowly became an important part of their daily lives. As an 18-year-old respondent mentioned during our interview: “Though it might sound sad, I think it’s true; I’m pretty sure we can’t live without it anymore.”

It is fascinating that many people are willing to share their lives on social media; sometimes even strangers are allowed to see what users are doing at a particular moment. I saw many of my friends (mostly girls) being constantly active on popular sites like Facebook or Instagram. This made me wonder about the influence of social media on their lives. If it plays such a big role in their everyday lives, then what is its impact on, for example, their self-esteem? Perhaps they experience insecurities when they don’t get rewarding feedback from peers when posting something on their profile, or they feel the need to change their behaviour and appearances when seeing beautiful pictures from other girls. How important is it for teenage girls to represent themselves well to others? Are others’ opinions important for them?

Social media such as Facebook are often perceived as an environment that provides social support and positive reinforcement (PsychCentral, 2016). But what are the downsides to these platforms? What happens when people do have bad experiences with it, such as negative interactions? What are the risks of using it? In this paper, I am specifically interested in young teenage girls in the age category of 16-19 years. To what extent do they feel pressure due to social media? And are the younger girls more likely to struggle with insecurities, or conversely, are the older girls more sensitive to that?

My first reason for focusing on this particular group, is that teenage girls can be seen as a vulnerable group. The teenage years are crucial for girls in developing an identity of their own. This process of forming an identity can be a difficult one. As Ollech and McCarthy (1997) point out, girls experience a greater increase in anxiety, conflict, shame and self-doubt when faced with choice, in comparison with boys. Besides, we often hear stories that the internet can be a dangerous place for these girls. Not only because they can get in touch with people they don’t even know, but also because of the fact that that they might experience bullying, misunderstandings and meanness. But is this even true, according to these girls? Maybe they don’t see any dangers at all.

Secondly, this group is most active on various forms of social media. According to CBS, the Dutch Bureau of Statistics, girls spend much more time on social media than boys. So, for many young girls, social media play an important role in their lives. Another important conclusion was that most girls are very sensitive to rewarding feedback from peers; much more sensitive than boys (CBS, 2015). In my research I examined whether it is really true that their self-esteem gets a little boost when they receive many comments or likes on a picture or video posted on their profile. And whether it makes them feel insecure when they get negative comments, or whether this doesn’t bother them at all. Another question I wished to examine is how they respond to perfect pictures of good-looking models, so-called ‘fitgirls’ and celebrities. There might be a potential influence of social media on girls’ body dissatisfaction, because of the fact that they compare themselves to these models and celebrities.

Finally, I am part of this specific group myself. So I think it would be interesting to find out what girls who are (more or less) of the same age think and feel about the power of social media. In this paper I will describe teenage girls’ experiences and perceptions of social media. How do they act and feel, when they are (not) happy with the amount of attention they received on a particular post? How do they respond to positive and/or negative comments?  I will also describe how they respond to the constant exposure to beautiful pictures of others.

The research

To collect my data, I interviewed five teenage girls. I wanted to get in touch with girls of different ages, to see if there are differences between them, so eventually I interviewed 16-year-old Emily (I use pseudonyms to guarantee their anonymity), 17-year-old Monique, 18-year-old Nina, 19-year old Hanah and 19-year-old Sophie. Emily and Nina live in a city; the other respondents live in a close-knit village. All the interviews took about 30 to 40 minutes. I wanted the interviews to take place in a private setting, so I invited my respondents to my place or I went to theirs, if they asked me to. I was able to do so, because I selected respondents whom I already knew. As this can be considered a sensitive topic, I made sure no other people were in the same room during the interview, in order to create a setting in which they felt comfortable to talk freely. I tried to let them tell me a story about their experiences, and not to interrupt. While I had prepared some questions beforehand, I chose not to work through these questions, but tried to have a natural conversation with my respondents. I think that it was to the benefit of my research that I already knew my respondents, because sometimes it is more difficult to talk to a stranger about personal insecurities or feelings, than to talk about this to someone they already know.

I noticed that most of the girls found it an interesting topic to talk about, because social media is indeed an important part of their daily lives. Every day, they spend much time checking their Timeline. I was slightly shocked by what my 17-year-old respondent said. She admitted, while giggling, that social media is a very important part of her daily life: she spends four hours a day on social media. Her giggling made me think she was a little ashamed to admit that. Surprisingly, as it seems contradictory, this was also the girl who felt that social media has no influence whatsoever on her actions, thoughts and feelings. During the interviews I further noticed that, after the introduction and some easy and common questions, once I started to ask sensitive questions (for example about their insecurities and their self-esteem) some of my respondents, especially those I didn’t know very well, at first started to act a little detached. Some of them tried, for example, to avoid those questions. This reaction is of course understandable, and I had expected it beforehand. Therefore, I prepared vignette questions, in order to circumvent possible unease about sensitive issues. I told them to imagine a certain situation, and asked what they would do, or how they would feel if something like that happened to them. I noticed that it was easier for my respondents to answer these kinds of questions honestly, than answering questions which were about events that happened to them in ‘real life’.  This method certainly helped to obtain information about situations which were considered awkward and painful.

‘How do you represent yourself?”

The first question I asked all my respondents, was what kind of platforms of social media they currently use. It turned out that all of them used Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. Second, I asked them how much time they spend on social media per day. How active are they exactly? What stood out to me, was the fact that social media play a bigger role in the lives of the younger girls; they spend much more time checking their timeline than the older girls I interviewed. For example, while 17-year-old Monique admitted that she’s active on social media about four hours a day, 16-year-old Emily said she checks her timeline about 3 hours a day. I see a significant difference when I compare this to the social media use of 18-year-old Nina, 19-year-old Sophie and 19-year-old Hanah; they all told me that they are active on social media for about 1,5 hours a day.

I was also curious what my respondents exactly post on social media. So I asked them if they only post pictures and video’s, or whether they also ‘inform’ their friends and followers what keeps them busy, and how they live their lives. In other words: in what way do they represent themselves to others? Most respondents answered that they only post pictures or videos.  I also asked them what kind of pictures and videos they post on their profile. How do they want others to see them? Do they, for example, only upload pictures, videos or posts of nice and pleasant events in their lives?  By ‘nice and pleasent events’ I mean, for example, pictures of themselves when having fun at a party, or enjoying a vacation. It is also possible that they do not only post pictures of nice events, but also show others their activities on a regular day. The former seemed the case with most of my respondents. As 19-year-old Sophie said:

I only post pictures of special occasions and nice events. When I’m going out with my friends for example. You want others to think you’re living a nice life. Or at least, I do.”

This idea of ‘showing others you’re living a nice life’, can be linked to Erving Goffman’s theory about the Presentation of the Self (Ritzer, 2014). People try to influence (and even manipulate) other people’s opinions about them. They want to impress others and in order to do so, they try to present themselves in a good way. They are performing, and therefore constantly play roles, sometimes even try to show characteristics which they don’t even have. This is called ‘impression management’: they want others to like them, and so they modify (consciously and unconsciously) their behaviour according to the real or imagined audience (Ritzer, 2014). This can also explain why many girls edit their photo by, for instance, applying an effect to it, or using a filter; to make it look more beautiful than it really is, in order to make a good impression on other people. This brings me to my next concept.

‘What do you think of my picture?’

Although not all girls mentioned it explicitly, I noticed that most of them found other people’s opinions very important. Some of them explained that they sometimes ask their friends’ opinions before posting a picture or video on social media. They said they think very well before posting a picture or video, because they have to be completely sure about it. They don’t want others to talk about them behind their backs. They want social approval.  As 19-year old Hanah said during our interview:

“I don’t want to be the talk of the town. That’s why I never post ‘risky’ pictures, like selfies, or other photos of myself. I don’t want others to think I’m full of myself or something. Typically, I only post pictures with my friends, and I only post it when I’m completely sure I look nice on it. I try to avoid gossip and negative stereotypes.”

These concerns can be linked to the problem of social pressure. In order to be accepted, and to be part of a group, individuals have to live up to certain expectations and judgements. If they fail to do so, there is a chance that they will be rejected by other members of the group. They can be excluded, and therefore no longer be part of the group; they become outsiders (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). This also relates to larger debates in youth cultures studies on the relevance of ‘sense of belonging’; whether people see themselves as part of a group, scene, community or subculture, to be part of a certain group entails living up to certain expectations. People want to form an identity of their own, and be able to distinguish themselves from people from other (sub)groups. They want to show who they are and what is valuable to them.

One interesting finding of my research is that there seemed to be much more anxiety for exclusion and gossip with the respondents who live in a close-knit community. I saw clear differences among the respondents who live in a village, where everybody knows one another, compared with the respondents who live in a city. This anxiety for exclusion and gossip resulted from the strong social cohesion and social control in these communities. During the interviews, the respondents who live in a close-knit village talked more about gossip and stereotypes than Nina and Emily, who live in a city. Hanah, and the other respondents who live in a village, told me that they don’t want others to talk about them. This, for them, is a strong reason to be careful about their social media performance. They only post a picture when they are completely sure about it. The two respondents who live in a city did not even bring up this topic. Thus, feelings of anxiety differ among my respondents, depending on the community they live in.

This made me realize even more that the expectations of people close to a person determine (in a certain way) how one behaves – whether in real life or on social media – and what kind of behaviour is or is not considered permissible in a specific context. The difference I noticed corresponds to Elias and Scotson’s argument in The Established and the Outsiders, in which they analyse the differences between two communities. The one is a close-knit community, in which everyone knows each other (comparable to the village); the other community, or ‘zone’ as they describe it, is completely different, as people with many different ‘roots’ live here. There is no such thing as social cohesion in the latter type of community (comparable to a big city); many people don’t even know each other, and they all have different values. According to Elias and Scotson (1994), this accounts for the difference in the amount of gossip in these two zones, and also what social control can accomplish.

‘Can you like my picture, please?’

What I also tried to find out, is how the girls respond to the number of likes and comments they get. Is it really important to them, to have many likes on a post? And do they delete their post when this is not the case? 19-year-old Sophie came with an interesting answer to this question:

I don’t think it is very important that you get as many likes as possible on a picture you post on Social Media. Like what is the difference when you have 60 or 70 likes? Nothing. But when I get less than 10 likes, I’m asking my friends if they want to like my picture. Like, otherwise it’s kind of shameful. But I would never delete it, once I have posted it. Then everybody has seen it already. That’s even more embarrassing.”

Most of my respondents, irrespective of their age, had more or less the same opinion about this; getting many likes is nice, but it is not their main goal. It is not an obsession for them to get as many likes as possible. But, like Sophie also mentioned, getting almost no likes at all on a post is kind of embarrassing. Sophie told me that she has a way to fix this problem. She sometimes asks her friends for ‘help’. She does this, to avoid ‘these awkward and embarrassing situations’. So she asks her friends to help her (by liking her picture) in order to not make her look like someone ‘who doesn’t have an interesting life’, as she puts it. This made clear to me that Facebook is not just about individual self-presentation. Actually, real-life friends can help with one’s self-presentation. So what I found is that in order to impress others, some girls ask their friends to ‘help’ them. In this way, these friends enable them to present themselves in a ‘better’ way.

Getting few likes or comments can also be a learning process. They wouldn’t post a similar picture in the future, because then it is clear to them that others don’t pay much attention to these kind of posts. As 17-year-old Monique explained to me:

I’m definitely sure that I wouldn’t take the risk again, if such a situation [getting few likes] occurs. I just wouldn’t post such a picture again.’

The same applies to the number of followers on Instagram, or friends on Facebook; it is not that they very badly want to reach thousands  of people; they just want to keep in touch with people they know.  However, they think it is nice and interesting to have many followers, and a bit painful (and embarrassing) to have only a few followers. This is just ‘not done’, as 17-year-old Monique claimed. In other words: having many friends, followers or likes is not considered necessary, but still it is important to them, because having few is perceived as  embarrassing.

Apparently, young people don’t want to feel ashamed. Shame is considered an ugly, negative and painful emotion; an emotion that we often try to avoid (Kristjánsson,2014). When I asked my respondents indirectly (by using a vignette question) if their ego, or self-esteem gets a little boost when they receive many likes or comments, all of them said yes. Sophie mentioned during our conversation: “You get an idea of how other people look at you at that particular moment”. Self-esteem, as Gray and Bjorklund (2014) explain, is one’s feeling of approval, acceptance and liking oneself. They illustrate that we experience self-esteem as deriving from our own judgements about ourselves, but these judgements actually derive primarily from our perceptions of others’ attitudes toward us (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). This could explain why getting many likes, or positive comments, could be valuable for these young girls. They develop certain perceptions and images of others’ attitudes towards them. And when they get many likes and positive comments on a post, they get the idea that others like them, or find them interesting. This could give their self-esteem a boost, and could help them with developing a confident attitude (Gray & Bjorklund, 2014). But what happens when they get negative comments? How do they feel about that? How do they fix those situations?

I asked the girls to imagine a situation in which they received a negative comment from a friend on a picture. I asked them a vignette question: what would they do? And how would they feel? Most of them answered that they wouldn’t delete it, except when it’s too embarrassing, and don’t want others to see it. Almost all of my respondents answered that they would feel a little uncomfortable, and some of them answered that they even would feel a little insecure. 16-year-old Emily describes:

“I wouldn’t delete it, but I think, depending of course on how ‘bad’ this reaction is, that it can make me feel a little insecure, especially when I wasn’t really sure about that picture or video in the first place. And besides, I really think it depends on who posted that comment. When it is, for instance, not a friend but someone else I don’t know very well; that would make it even more awkward.”

What I also found interesting (and didn’t know before I started this research) is that some of my respondents think carefully about whose picture on Social Media they like and whose not; they have a so called ‘like-strategy’ (an exception of this is 16-year-old Emily, she told me she likes everything she sees). So it is not the case that they only like pictures they actually enjoy. Like Monique explained to me:

“I only like posts of people I know personally, sometimes even without really enjoying it. I just think they deserve those likes. And maybe they will like your picture ‘back’ in the future, as some kind of return. I never like posts of famous people. Like, I think that feels useless; they already have so many likes. You don’t make a difference or something.”

This made me aware of the fact that girls do want to achieve something with their ‘like-strategy’; they use it as some sort of ‘agency’. Like Monique mentioned, she wants to make a difference, so she only likes posts of people she knows personally, who actually ‘need’ it. 18-year-old Nina also told me about this:

“I never like, or post a comment on a picture of someone I don’t like. Those people just don’t deserve it, even if their picture is very beautiful. But when I see a post of one of my friends, I almost immediately like it; that is just what friends do, you know. Besides, I know that they also like my picture most of the time, so I just feel like I have to do that.”

This ‘like-strategy’ reminded me of a psychological phenomenon; the reciprocity norm. As Gray and Bjorklund (2014) explain: “people everywhere feel obliged to return favors. This norm is so ingrained that people may even feel driven to reciprocate favors that they didn’t want in the first place” (p. 555-556).  As someone likes these girls’ pictures, they feel kind of obliged to like their picture ‘back’, as some kind of favor.

Models and celebrities

I also wanted to find out what happens when girls are constantly exposed to  pictures of good-looking girls. This could be models, but also celebrities, or ‘fitgirls’. Maybe their style inspires them. What is the influence of those pictures on their behaviour and their body satisfaction? Do they try to copy them in a certain way? And what happens when these girls compare themselves to others who live a ‘better’ life? Perhaps this comparison could lead to changing their actions. Or do they become, at a certain point, painfully aware of their own situation?

I realized that many girls mentioned that those pictures of videos of fitgirls give them motivation. What stood out to me, was the fact that older respondents (18 en 19 years old) admitted that they do feel the influence of these pictures and videos. This was different with my 16-year-old and my 17-year-old respondents. 16-year-old Emily even told me that she doesn’t even ‘follow’ all those models en celebrities, and 17-year-old Monique told me that those images don’t bother her at all.

Some of my older respondents catch themselves, sometimes unconsciously, comparing themselves to famous girls like Kylie Jenner or Gigi Hadid, and sometimes even (although they realize it is impossible) try to copy them. 19-year-old Hanah said:

“Of course I know that I can’t afford their way of life, but I do think it is nice to see how they live their lives. Sometimes their style inspires me. Then I think: wow, I want that too.”

She is realistic, and immediately says that she is aware of the fact that she won’t be able to copy them; she can’t afford to do so. She is well aware of her situation. But, as she added, that doesn’t mean that she also wouldn’t copy them if she did have the resources; then she probably would act the same as them. 18-year-old Nina admitted that those girls inspire her:

I do think I see those famous girls as some kind of role model, because I definitely feel some influence. They give me new ideas, about clothing, or make-up for example. But also those fitgirls; I want to look the same as them, so sometimes I watch the videos they post on their profile, and then I try to copy their sport exercises.”  

Nina admits that those pictures and videos of good-looking girls do have an influence on her body (dis)satisfaction; she isn’t completely satisfied with her own body, because her goal is to look as good as them. Thus, late teenagers are still very sensitive to those images on social media. Beforehand, I would expect it to be the other way round; it seemed more likely to me that the younger girls were more sensitive for these images on social media. I had this idea because these young girls still have to form an identity of their own. Besides, I thought that they would be less realistic and more sensitive to this kind of images. One reason for this  surprising outcome could be, that the older respondents are more likely to compare themselves to famous girls like Kylie Jenner or Gigi Hadid because these models are more or less the same age as them. They see that other girls their age live their lives completely different (with much more glamour).  This does impress them; some of them even want to copy those models. This in contrast to the younger girls, who told me that those images don’t bother them at all. Maybe the younger girls are more focused on themselves and their own life stage right now. Perhaps they will also experience these feelings of pressure when they get a little older.

Conclusion

All the girls I interviewed during my research told me that it makes them feel good when they receive many comments on a post on social media. They do appreciate it when people make an effort to post a positive comment on their post. They explained to me that their self-esteem does get a little boost, because they think it is important that others like them. Some of them even found it important that others think they’re living a nice life.  The same applies for the number of likes they get; it is nice to have many likes on a post, and a little awkward to have almost no likes at all. Sometimes, in order to avoid those awkward situations, they even ask their friends to like their picture. This feeling of awkwardness, which most of my respondents get when they receive only a few likes on a post, would prevent them from posting a similar post in the future. This made me aware of the fact that many young teenage girls find others’ opinions about them very important. They want to be socially approved. As a result, some girls think carefully before they post a picture on their profile. They have to be completely sure that they look nice on it.

Furthermore, most girls think it is kind of painful when they receive negative comments from peers. It is even more embarrassing when these comments come from people they do not know very well. So in this sense, they sometimes do experience insecurities due to social media. Still, most of them wouldn’t delete these comments, except when it is too embarrassing, and they don’t want others to see it. Many girls also talked about a ‘like-strategy’. It turned out that they think carefully whose picture they like, and whose not. Most of the time they only like pictures of people who, according to them, ‘deserve’ their like. And of course they hope that these people will like their picture ‘back’ in the future, as some kind of return. It was also interesting to find a difference between respondents who live in a close-knit village, and respondents who live in a city. Those who live in a village talked more about the risk of gossip and exclusion, than those who live in a city.

I do think, when hearing the stories of these teenage girls (and observing their attitudes and facial expressions while talking) that social media, sometimes without them realizing it, does have an impact on their self-esteem, and their need for approval by others. However, the extent of this social media influence differs among my respondents. And interestingly, an unexpected finding was that the older girls I spoke with told me that they sometimes do feel pressure, or experience insecurities because of the fact that they’re constantly exposed to all those beautiful pictures. Some of them explained that those images of fitgirls give them motivation to work out hard; they want to look the same as them. In this sense, social media does have an influence on their body (dis)satisfaction. Some of them also mentioned that pictures of models and celebrities inspire them. They try for instance to copy their clothing or hair style. However, they were aware of the fact that they couldn’t live their lives in the same way as those girls, whom they sometimes even see as their ‘role model’. This stands in striking contrast with the answers of the younger respondents, who told me that they hardly feel the need to change their behaviour due to social media exposure, while they spend much more time on social media than the older girls. However, they did admit that they sometimes experience insecurities due to social media.

In conclusion, I think we should all be aware of the potential impact of social media. This research made me aware of the fact that girls, who are more or less the same age as me, can experience a huge amount of pressure, sometimes without even realizing it. Because they have access to many different websites, they are constantly exposed to all those pictures. And what happens when they become very insecure, because of the negative feedback they receive from their peers?  We should not underestimate the influence of this phenomenon, not only the lives of young teenage girls, but on many other people as well.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

Elias, N. & Scotson, J. (1994). The Established and the Outsiders. Sage Publications.

Gray, P. & Bjorklund, D.F. (2014). Psychology. Seventh edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

Kloosterman, R. & van Beuningen, J. (2015). Jongeren over sociale media. Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek.

Kristjánsson, K. (2014). Is Shame an Ugly Emotion? Four Discourses – Two contrasting Interpretations for Moral Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 33, 495-511.

Nauert, R. (2016). Bad Experiences on Social Media Ups Risk of Depression in Young Adults. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2016/09/09/bad-experiences-on-social-media-ups-risk-of-depression-in-young-adults/109610.html

Ritzer, G. & Stepnisky, J. (2014). Sociological Theory. Ninth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill International Edition.

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