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22 August 2016

Hot or not: why teens can’t stop rating each other online

From Instagram to Snapchat, teenagers are using popular apps to request, and award, appraisals. But what does it mean for teens' well-being?

By Amelia Tait

Before there was Facebook, there was Facemash. Launched by Mark Zuckerberg in October 2003, this site placed two Harvard students’ pictures side by side and asked users to vote on who was more attractive. The game was quickly shut down by the university and Zuckerberg faced charges – which were later dropped – of violating people’s privacy. “One thing is certain,” he wrote at the time, “and it’s that I’m a jerk for making this site. Oh well. Someone had to do it eventually.”

In the 2000s, there was hotornot.com – a site where people rated each other out of ten. Then came Fitsort, a Facebook plug-in allowing users to see where they ranked in attractiveness compared to friends. But social media remains the biggest offender, teenagers using hashtags and captions to invite judgement. The means may have changed but the ends are the same. Teens are obsessed with rating each other’s looks online. As you might guess, this is often a far from pleasant experience.

“I didn’t start really getting comfortable with myself until this year,” says Natalie Sheehan, a 17-year-old from Oregon who, between the ages of ten and 15, was often rated four or five out of ten by her peers. “When I got rated low numbers, it really took a toll on my self-confidence and for the longest time I was uncomfortable with who I was and how I looked.”

On the whole, being rated is an “opt-in” experience. In 2012, however, many young Facebook users began to create “hot or not” videos, in which they reeled off their classmates’ names and rated them without their consent. Mostly, however, users are asked to “like” Instagram or Facebook pictures, or send an “X” on Snapchat in exchange for a rating. So, why are teens so keen to open themselves up to this kind of judgement?

“The teenage years are typically a time where a young person develops their self-identity, and they do this through comparisons,” says Angharad Rudkin, a chartered child clinical psychologist, when I ask her why every recent generation seems to do this. “Fitting in and being accepted by peers is a critical aspect of this developmental stage, so this rating system is revealing a process that has taken place for many generations, but in a much less explicit way.”

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But it is the explicit nature of the ratings that causes problems. Although some users privately message each other, most post publicly. Ania Hałuszczak, a 15-year-old from Shipley, Yorkshire, tells me that popular people get more “likes” on their “like for a rate” statuses because their opinion is more valued. The potential for humiliation is huge.

“The ‘online disinhibition effect’ is the tendency for people to say or do things online that they typically wouldn’t in the in-person world,” says John Suler, the author of Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric. “We all know that in high school there is a lot of cruelty going on, and so that will happen online, too, often in a magnified way. People think that what’s online is not ‘real’, or that it’s all some kind of game, so why does it matter if you’re cruel to others?”

Cruelty doesn’t have to be oblique to have an impact. “One of my friends wrote a status: ‘Like for an honest rating on looks.’ I liked it, telling myself I wouldn’t think twice about the outcome,” Ania says. “She wrote ‘8 xx’. The rating upset me even though I didn’t want it to. I can remember thinking, ‘What made her give me an eight? Where did I lose those two points?’ I decided that I just wasn’t pretty enough. After all, she was being honest.”

Ania and Natalie say that, as they got older, rating became less common. But like playground chants and clapping games, these practices are handed down to the next generation and they seem to be most popular with ten-to-14-year-olds. “As they get older, teenagers tend to prefer more intensive one-to-one relationships, where the group process is slightly less influential,” Rudkin explains. Yet does being rated poorly have a lasting effect on a teen’s psychological well-being?

“I definitely look back and laugh at it now, since I don’t take any of those ratings from when I was in middle school seriously,” Natalie says. “I have grown up since then and now I know that it doesn’t matter what people think.”

Nonetheless, she confesses that she wishes she had never rated people, nor given others the opportunity to rate her. “My appearance isn’t for judging. My appearance isn’t who I am,” she says. “I am who I am. My looks don’t define me. So boys and girls who continue to rate people’s beauty on a scale of one to ten, please do yourself a favour and try to love yourself.” 

This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge