Harvard Book Prize 2019: The many filters of social media

By Justine Chan, Singapore International School (HK)
By Justine Chan, Singapore International School (HK) |

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Each year, the Harvard Book Prize sends students to the US to participate in the Harvard Summer Programme, a scholarship programme that is an excellent opportunity to experience living and learning in a different culture. This year, 245 secondary schools across Hong Kong and of all band levels took part. Deserving winners are selected for the scholarship based on financial need and the quality of the essay they submit. The students' work reveals a range of perspectives from the young people of our city, and are often moving and thought-provoking.

This year, the theme is based on the book Disconnected by Carrie James, a sociologist and Principal Investigator at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The theme calls attention to the moral and ethical blind spots, as well as the disconnects, in the use of the internet, particularly in social media and peer-to-peer online interactions. It also discusses the need to consider moral and ethical implications of online behavior to foster good citizenship.

Below is the winning entry by Justine Chan from Singapore International School (HK), which has not been edited by Young Post.

If I do this, will the world be better off? 

I'd just come back from my volunteer trip to a rural Cambodian village. I’d learned lessons of humility, shed tears of compassion....and, importantly, had a selection of Instagrammable photos, including one of me hugging an innocent child with a pearly smile beaming at the camera. Classic voluntourism; I press "Post". 

But the white glare of my phone is harsh and reprimanding. 

The red flicker of my alarm feels like a warning. 

Between flashes of red, the first dilemma strikes by dagger of guilt. The cheery child I was so lovingly posting about had never consented to it. To leave an indelible footprint on the internet in the shape of her small face was a clear violation of moral codes of respect for privacy. Some may assuage their guilt claiming she would never know - but that is not an excuse. Indeed, her not knowing may be worse. We have an ethical responsibility to uphold privacy standards. Posting her without consent isn't penalised, but moral conduct is when you do the right thing even with no punishment. Carrie James describes in Disconnected how privacy is human dignity - to violate this is a grave mistake. 

The second dilemma sneaks in more softly, but is just as pronounced. Is this post just a badge of kindness, something I can crow about online? Am I telling everyone how kind, how charitable, how selfless I am? Indeed this reveals a greater ethical problem: my contributions to expectations of a perfect "me" online. 

For much of my teenage life, I have sought after The Picture to craft the ideal persona: hair effortlessly swept back, coy smile, eyes just off camera in a serendipitous moment. In the frenzy of exams, when faced with classmates' "#hardatwork" Snapchat stories, I too have slipped on glasses, scattered neon highlighters, and boasted to friends of working late. 

Social media is a filter of filters - not just "Faded Vintage" colouring, but also a selection of our best moments. If a lie of omission is a lie indeed, then media makes us all mythomaniacs. There's no space for unhappiness against the cruel backlight of the cyber-world. A "good" profile exhibits a plethora of friends, awards, volunteering, fitness, clean-eating... This culture of picture-perfection blooms with the speed of a re-tweet and breeds with the malice of mental pressure. 

I'm lucky enough to have never been cyberbullied. Yet I am victim to and cultivator of a cycle of pressure: to be successful but relatable, to be pretty but effortless, to be studious but sociable. The tension created by our choices to "lie" online is unethical in normalising perfection and generating mental pressure. 

Unknowingly, there have always been three "me's": who I am, who my friends think I am, and who I think my friends think I am. Social media hides the first, lies about the second, and curates the third. 

I roll out of bed, turn on the lights, and delete the post.