By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (June 1, 2012) – Although the creator and many users of Ugly Meter – one of the most popular Apple applications – say it’s all in good fun, some people who work with teens say it also can inflict emotional damage on people who already struggle with body image.
“For most of our students this is a silly game and an opportunity to make fun of friends and to tease one another,” says Ben Kerns, pastor to children and youth at Marin Covenant Church in San Rafael, California. “It seems that where kids get hurt the most is on the junior high level. They are just now beginning to be socially aware, and then drink from the fire hose of social networking only to get crushed.”
It has been around since 2011, but recently beat out Angry Birds as the most downloaded app after Howard Stern interviewed creator Jo Overline. Kerns notes that similar apps and websites have attracted a lot of users. YouTube has been a popular place for students and even adults seeking opinions on whether they are “hot or not.”
The basic version costs 99 cents, but a “PRO version” is $4.99. Users of the pro version can take pictures of themselves and then have the app rate them based on a mathematical formula. The app will then tell the user whether they are attractive or ugly. The score determines the intensity of the praise or derogatory comments.
Youth always have needed people to help them work through esteem and identity issues, but social media broadens the circle from which to get opinions. Users of the PRO version can post their photos, allowing comments from others.
Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, recently wrote, “But while the Ugly Meter may not pose a credible threat to the nation’s self-esteem, it does come at an interesting moment in the history of navel gazing. ‘Who’s the fairest of them all?’ was once a private discussion between ourselves and our mirrors. But now we’re casting a wider net, crowdsourcing our looks, yearning for a quantifiable metric.”
Even if most people view the app as humorous, users suffering from insecurity seek approval through it and social media because they are desperate for positive feedback, Kerns say. “Apps like this are the beginning of understanding how the outside world thinks of us, but unfortunately (teens) have little practice or stomach for the cruelty of their friends.”
“I suspect our need for public validation is also the product of a culture whose obsession with image is matched only by its obsession with classifying and ranking things,” says Lisa Holmlund, director of student ministries at Montecito Covenant Church in Santa Barbara, California. “In a sense, our whole world has become an Ugly Meter.”
The meter also is at work in churches and families, says Holmlund. “I have known of a few high school senior girls who were given the graduation gift of plastic surgery. This is the extreme, but sadly these are also girls who have grown up in a church.”
Churches can help meet the need for affirmation with the kindness that reflects God’s love, but getting students to listen often is difficult, youth leaders say. Sharing scripture that emphasizes the teens’ worth goes only so far.
“The kids know these verses by heart, but they still will choose to get their outer beauty validated by others,” says Holmlund.
Holmlund emphasizes it is important for parents and students to put boundaries on social media sites. “Some of the healthier boundaries I have heard of have been, ‘ I will not allow my child to be in a social media photo without being fully clothed. No swim suits allowed.’ ‘I do not want pictures of me on Facebook that would bring me or my parents embarrassment,’ and ‘I have chosen to put limits on who can view my pictures on all social media sites.’ ”
Putting up the boundaries won’t heal someone’s insecurity – but it won’t hurt.