What Likes Mean to Teens  by Ron Powell


Daniella: In my imagination, I see myself standing in front of a crowd, in front of thousands of people…

Teens share these same sentiments in a recent PBS Frontlines special, Generation Like, where Doug Rushkoff explores friends, follows and fame associated with the face book generation.

Maybe Likes matter little to you as an adult but according to these interviews Likes take on an entirely different meaning for teens in at least 4 surprising ways…


According to Rushkoff,  “Likes, follows, friends, retweets— they’re the social currency of this generation, Generation Like. The more likes you have, the better you feel.”

Will, a student in the documentary explains, “You can’t wait to find out whether people like you or not, so you need likes and stuff like that, instant gratification.

Not only teens see it this way. Seth Godin, author and blogger explains,

“Why on earth would someone spend all those hours to make a YouTube video of them doing something absolutely stupid and insane? They’re only going to get a check for $3 for doing it. But money isn’t the only currency.”

And this is the key. In a celebrity crazed culture, where YouTube is enough to make you a star, the likes a student receives on their cover photo or their face book profile, help them to evaluate their net worth.

Sadly, for students who go unnoticed at the high school, this also carries over to their digital life. The bigger risk here is that everyone can count how few friends that they have and few likes their profile gets.

As Rushkoff points about likes,  “You get them, you give them, and everyone knows how many you’ve earned. The number is right there for anyone to see.”

Further, since Instagram and Pinterest are also connected to Face Book, a student’s activity in these areas is either liked or ignored by others. Facebook either affirms or destroys a student’s social status.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner, who pioneered studies in Behavior Modification would have a hay-day with this social experiment. Every time a student gets a like on their image they are rewarded, the way Skinner’s mice would be rewarded with cheese for completing a task. This would reinforce the behavior as certainly as winning at a Vegas slot machine. The only difference for teens is that likes reinforce the behavior much more powerfully! It takes no time at all for teens to get hooked on these powerful instant rewards.

The PBS documentary considers the question “… the likes you get— are they about you, or are they about the profile picture?” Daisy, one of the girls interviewed responds: “That’s what you sit in front of your computer for an hour trying to figure out. It’s cryptic.”


Adolescence is a time of identity formation and nothing messes with identity more than consumer marketing. Media and marketing sell more than products to students, they sell them the false promise of acceptance, celebrity, success and romance.

Enter the digital social networking era and students aren’t only finding their identity in what they wear, they find it in everything they like or share.

“And when a kid likes something on line — a product or a brand or a celebrity — it becomes part of the identity that they broadcast to the world, the way a T-shirt or a bedroom poster defined me when I was a teen. For kids today, you are what you like.” A sober faced Rushkoff shares in Generation Like.

Even more sinister is that the marketing companies actually bank on this. They couldn’t buy such powerful endorsements of their products and services. And they feel absolutely no responsibility for what this kind of public devotion may do to teens. Rather than finding their identity internally they are a patchwork of books, bands, movies and merchandise that they post, share or like in their profile.


Teens are developing, for the first time, the ability to read what others think of them. Social scientists call this social cognition. This growing awareness is one of the reasons that some teens seem obsessed with how others think of them. Face Book amplifies this profoundly. It gets teens thinking that they may be able to by-pass traditional ladder-climbing routes to success by investing in their online persona.

Rushkoff explains that,  “It used to be that if a kid didn’t have good connections, hard work and talent was the only path to fame, and even that was no guarantee. But today, there’s another route, build and leverage a social network.”

Danah Boyd, Ph.D., author of It’s Complicated notes that, “Young people want attention. They want validation. And that’s actually not new. It’s just that now the possible stage on which you can operate on is much bigger. At the same time, the ability to get attention in a place where there’s tons of information, when there are tons of people competing for attention, is also harder.”

This same them is echoed by Seth Godin: “And when you can see that you have 5,000 followers on Twitter, or when someone recognizes you as that kid who did that stupid stunt on a mountain bike and broke your arm, suddenly, your arm doesn’t hurt because you know you’re famous.”

In the documentary this is confirmed again and again. Here are just a few comments from the students interviewed:

BOY: Everybody desires to be famous.

BOY: Facebook famous.

GIRL: Instagram famous.

GIRL: The most popular person on YouTube.

GIRL: It’s way easier to become famous for something outrageous.

GIRL: Girls will post, like, half-naked pictures.

BOY: Make a video and get, like, a million views.

BOY: Get as many friends, as many likes as possible.

GIRL: You want to be liked.

GIRL: Will this get likes?

GIRL: It’s all about likes.


Social networking has empowered every student with the tools to become a potential public figure with an international fan base. You Tube has provided them their own personal web show with a channel and subscribers. The more popular ones even receive a little bit of ad revenue. Twitter allows them to accumulate devoted followers. Can teens handle the pressures of building and servicing their followers? Or is it just too much for their fragile egos? What happens when the likes stop?

In a weird way, friends and family play into all of this. We feel the need to jump on board and affirm our friends and our relatives.

One Mom may have gone too far. Manuela Gutierrez admits that she pushed her daughter Daniella into it!

Instagram is what she uses, and so I’ve noticed, because I’m also the one that takes the pictures on that— I said, “Wear this, wear this, and I will take the picture. I will tell you how many likes. You’re going to get over 150.” And she does. I hate to say it, but if I have a full body picture, she will get tons of likes. And that’s just the reality. I mean—

So what do likes mean to a teen? Douglas Rushkoff comments: “In the end, that’s how the game of likes is played. It feels empowering and it feels like a social community, but ultimately, kids are out there alone, trying to live and survive.”

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