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This dissertation investigates how content posted on Instagram related to the beauty industry affects the self-images of Millennials and Generation Z females. It also aims to determine whether there are differences between these two generational cohorts. By investigating this, the study aims to fill in some of the gaps in the current academic research. This study provides a clear definition of both generations and gives an overview of their key characteristics, perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours in general and regarding their self-image and the role Instagram plays in this. This is done through two research strategies: a critical analysis of secondary data and qualitative primary research in the form of semi-structured interviews with several Millennial and Generation Z females. Data have been collected from online reports, books, articles, and interviews. This study identifies Instagram as being the most-used social media platform among Millennial and Generation Z females and challenges the argument that Instagram is considered the social media platform with the most negative effects on mental health and self-image among these demographics. Furthermore, the analysis of the collected data enables noting relevant relationships between the differences in macro-environmental factors influencing both generational cohorts affecting their social media use and the effect Instagram has on their self-image.
This dissertation aims to determine how content posted on Instagram related to the beauty industry affects the self-image of Millennials and Generation Z females and to determine whether there are differences between these two generational cohorts. This study defines the Millennial generation as everyone born between 1981 and 1996 and Generation Z as everyone born between 1997 and 2010 (Scott, 2016). Due to the constraints in the word limit and the amount of time that can be spent on this dissertation, the choice has been made to focus this study solely on these generational cohorts living in North America and Western Europe.
While both demographics have been shaped by similar macro-environmental factors like digital media, an unstable economy, and a potentially threatening environment with wars and terrorist attacks, there are some critical differences between the two that might affect the way they interact with social media (specifically Instagram) and how the images they see influence their self-image.
First, this study will give an overview of both demographics, what has shaped them, and how they interact with social media, focusing on Instagram and how this might have affected their self-image. It also provides a comparison of these generational cohorts. This will be done by conducting secondary research. In addition to the analysis of relevant secondary research, primary research will be conducted to dig deeper into the minds of the individuals of both demographics to gain a clear understanding of how the images they see on Instagram affect their self-image and how these feelings differentiate from one demographic to another. Since there is no comprehensive body of academic research available on this topic, this study aims to fill in some of the gaps in the current academic research that has been conducted so far.
Since the research question is quite current, not much academic research has been conducted so far. Therefore, the secondary research is based on industry reports from renowned companies like WGSN (2017), Nielsen (2018), Ernst & Young (2015), the Business of Fashion (2018), and the Pew Research Center (2018). All of these institutions are highly regarded and are considered suitable for this study, as they discuss both generational cohorts and the use or effects social media has on them. The strengths of these reports are that they are very factual and current. The weaknesses of the evidence presented is that the reports provide quite limited and basic information and do not give a comprehensive comparison of both generational cohorts.
A crucial theory relating to self-image in Maslow’s book A Theory of Human Motivation (2013) has informed this study since it forms a fundamental basis of understanding the human mind and its motivational drivers and is applicable to every generational cohort. The information presented in the next chapters forms the secondary research findings from which the primary research investigations will be built.
Generation Z, also known as the iGeneration, is the demographic cohort following the Millennials (or Generation Y). Defined as those born between 1997 and 2010, this generation outsizes the 60 million Millennial demographic with one million (Scott, 2016). Generation Z were born in a digital world and have grown up with technology at the forefront of their lives, meaning they have been brought up with the knowledge that they can speak to anyone, anywhere in the world with a single click of a button. Besides having the means for global communication, they are also used to accessing any information, anywhere, all the time. Generation Z is considered the first generation for whom the extraordinary technological advances of the twentieth century are just a normal part of life (Oxford Royale Academy, 2018). Moreover, 92% of US teens have been reported to go online daily, and 24% are online almost constantly, according to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center (Pike, 2016).
Born after 1997, Generation Z individuals have always known instability and even danger. They have experienced the Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s, the threat of terrorism and war, and cyberbullying. This turbulent upbringing has made them more self-aware, self-reliant, and driven, according to a 2015 study by Ernst & Young (Ernst & Young, 2015). Because they have been brought up in this environment, they are more cautious and considerate consumers, resulting in spending less than previous generations. They are less brand loyal and are more demanding of brands they want to purchase (Pike, 2016).
Even though it may seem that the world has become a more dangerous place, it has become a more accepting one with the input of Generation Z. They are considered the most accepting generation to date (Pike, 2016). They have been raised with Barack Obama as the president of the United States, LGBTQ+ rights being openly discussed, and with the fact that gender roles are ever-changing and fluid. The fact that this generation is more self-aware and self-reliant has resulted in this generation being considered the entrepreneurial generation. In fact, 62% would actually like to start their own companies rather than work for an established business, while only 43% of college students (the youngest of the Millennials) feel this way. Eighty-nine per cent say they spend part of their free time in activities that are productive and creative instead of just ‘‘hanging out’’. Moreover, 80% of high school students believe they are more driven than their peers (Ernst & Young, 2015).
Lastly, mental health and wellbeing are important for Generation Z. This generation drinks less alcohol, smokes less, and goes out less than previous generations. This partly has to do with the rise of social media. Generation Z individuals do not have to go out to socialise with their friends; they can do it online from the comfort of their own homes, which is also known as ‘’isolated socializing’’ (Daly, 2017). However, according to Chloe Combi, former secondary school teacher and writer of Generation Z (2015) in conversation with Vice journalist Max Daly, the most crucial effect on levels of drinking and drug use is the fact that social media has created a whole new level of vanity.
We live in a society that is becoming vainer and image conscious. It’s like, don’t take drugs, eat kale. Teenagers are thinking that if they don’t drink and take drugs, if they sit at home drinking green smoothies and meditating, they’ll be beautiful and have really shiny hair. And shiny hair looks great on Instagram (Daly, 2017).
Another pointer that might have influenced this behaviour from Generation Z is years of public health campaigning. A Business Insider analyst reported: ‘‘Twenty years of anti-drug, anti-smoking and anti-alcohol education has done its job: it is no longer ‘uncool’ to not drink or take drugs’’ (Taylor, 2018). It might be concluded that Generation Z is fundamentally different from earlier generations when it comes to their perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs that have been formed under, one may argue, turbulent circumstances in an extremely fast-paced digitalised world. This has resulted in the key characteristics of Generation Z being self-aware, persistent, realistic, innovative, and self-reliant (Ernst & Young, 2015).
Millennials (or Generation Y) is the demographic cohort following Generation X and can be defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 (Scott, 2016). Just like Generation Z, Millennials have also been brought up in a world filled with danger and uncertainty, whereas Generation Z has not actually experienced 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Even though Generation Z is being described as the most diverse generation to date, most Millennials were between the ages of 12 and 29 when the first black president was elected, when the force of the youth vote became part of the political conversation and helped in the election. Additionally, Millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in the nation’s history, according to Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center (Dimock, 2018).
Perhaps the biggest difference between Millennials and Generation Z is that Millennials are often described as Generation Me: being self-obsessed, narcissistic, and coddled. The 2008 book Trophy Kids by Ron Alsop discusses how many young people have been rewarded for minimal accomplishments (such as mere participation) in competitive sports and have unrealistic expectations of working life (Main, 2017).
This can be linked back to the fact that Millennials have grown up in an era where the Internet was gaining importance and Apple introduced a brand-new iPhone with a front camera designed for taking selfies. According to USA Today: ‘’The trend is more of an emphasis on extrinsic values such as money, fame, and image, and less emphasis on intrinsic values such as self-acceptance, group affiliation and community’’ (Healy, 2012).
However, this rise of individualism among Millennials has also brought its upsides. Because Millennials focus on the individual, as opposed to the collective, they are considered more open-minded, liberal, diverse, and accepting compared to previous generations (Dimock, 2018). They prefer to validate individual strengths and qualities rather than group people into categories. Because of this, they feel the urge to stand out rather than fit in, which is also how a generation of young entrepreneurs like bloggers and YouTubers was born. Millennials have found ways to create their own jobs instead of following the known path of climbing the corporate ladder. To summarise, some of the main characteristics of Millennials can be described as self-centred, entitled, idealist, creative, and dependent (Ernst & Young, 2015).
Perhaps the biggest difference that can be seen when examining the key characteristics of both generational cohorts. Generation Z is self-aware, whereas Millennials are considered being self-obsessed. Generation Z is focused on evolving and improving themselves and becoming a better person as well as creating a better world for themselves and future generations to live in. Whereas Millennials strive for personal success, wealth and fame (Ernst & Young, 2015).
Another key difference, which is particularly relevant for this study, is the fact that Generation Z are digital natives, whereas Millennials are merely tech savvy. According to Kent State University: Millennials learned to use notebooks and tablets as those technologies became available to them. As toddlers, Gen Z played with iPads they found lying around the house. For Millennials, technology advanced faster than the guidelines for its use were established. They posted private information on Facebook then later discovered that their employer was monitoring negative postings they had made about the company, creating unforeseen consequences. Gen Z has already heard about these consequences. The cautionary guidelines for use of technology are provided to them at the moment they first gain access to that technology. Their views on privacy are different. Their views of what to share and how to share it are different. Their views of sources of information are different. Millennials find “how-to” instruction on websites. Gen Z prefers instructional YouTube videos. (Kent State University, 2016)
It will be interesting to see how these fundamental differences and similarities between these generations will play a part in relation to the influence Instagram has on their ideal self-image. To gain in-depth knowledge and a clear understanding of these differences and similarities, qualitative primary research will be conducted in the form of semi-structured interviews with Millennial and Generation Z females.
Facebook has always been regarded as the most popular social media platform, however this is no longer the case among youth (aged 13–24). YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram are the three most used platforms among Millennials and Generation Z, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018. According to the same survey, 95% of teens and young adults have access to a phone, and 45% claim to be online ‘’almost constantly’’ (Anderson & Jiang, 2018).
Even though YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram are the most used platforms among both generational cohorts, slight differences can be seen in their usage of these social media platforms. To put it into perspective, 85% of Generation Z say they use YouTube, 72% use Instagram, 69% use Snapchat, and 51% use Facebook. Among Millennials, these figures change quite a bit. In addition, 94% of Millennials say they use YouTube, 71% say they use Instagram, 78% use Snapchat, and 80% still use Facebook (Smith & Anderson, 2018).
Social media has become an increasingly important leisure activity for these demographics. These individuals interact with social media platforms to engage in many different types of entertainment, like playing games, socialising with their peers, passing time, communicating, and posting content (Andreassen, Pallesen, & Griffiths, 2017).
Nowadays, social media is part of the daily life of many individuals, and concerns have been raised regarding the potential addictive use of social media and concerns that some individuals are being driven by an uncontrollable motivation to log on to or use social media and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important areas of life (Andreassen, Pallesen, & Griffiths, 2017).
Research has shown that addiction to social media is most visible in those in the demographic with the following traits: younger individuals, females, and single individuals (Andreassen, Pallesen, & Griffiths, 2017). According to this same study, research indicates that personality plays a role in the addictive use of social media (Andreassen, Griffiths, Gjertsen, Krossbakken, Kvam & Pallesen, 2013). Individuals with low self-esteem who believe that having a large following or a large group of friends might change the perceptions of themselves are more likely to use social media in an addictive manner. The same applies to individuals with elevated narcissistic traits who want to portray their successes and ambitions to the world. These individuals might addictively use social media as a gratifying medium (Andreassen, Pallesen, & Griffiths, 2017).
When looking a bit deeper into the potential positive and negative effects that social media might have on Generation Z, a mixed response can be seen: 31% view the effect of social media as mostly positive, 24% view the effect as mostly negative, and the remaining 45% says social media has neither a positive nor negative effect on them (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). Most of those individuals who believe social media has a positive effect on their self-image named connecting with family and friends as the main reason. This was followed by the ability to always stay on top of the news and having information at their fingertips. Individuals who believed social media has a negative effect on their self-image named bullying and spreading rumours as the main reason, followed by a lack of personal contact and having an unrealistic view of others’ lives.
In her book Face Value (2016), Autumn Whitefield-Madrano wrote the following: Digital photography and social media have combined to give us the illusion that we have control over our image. And to a point, we do. But when I think back to his profile picture – and to my own selfies, which reveal not so much how I actually look but how I want to be seen – I realize that they’re less about asserting control and more about fleshing out the ever-increasing self-consciousness primarily as a feminine attribute, a result of the mix of glorification and oppression that has marked womanhood for centuries. (Whitefield-Madrano, 2016: 173)
Even though the above-mentioned numbers clearly state that only 24% of Generation Z view social media platforms as having a mostly negative effect on their self-image, a recent study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health states that social media has been described as being more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. In addition, according to the study, the use of social media is closely linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression, and poor sleep and might be fuelling a mental health crisis. The #StatusOfMind survey included the input of 1,479 youngsters between 14 and 24 years of age from across England. The study looked at several social media platforms: Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. YouTube was the most positive platform, whereas Instagram was found to be the most negative platform regarding the way it influences the self (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017).
Since this particular dissertation focusses on Instagram, the effects as found by the Royal Society for Public Health will be outlined here. Among the negative points were aspects such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, lack of sleep, body image, bullying, and fear of missing out. Some of the positive points were awareness, access, emotional support, self-expression, self-identity, real-world relationships, and community building.
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