“Look,” says Sasha, a 16-year-old junior in high school, scrolling slowly through her Instagram feed. “See: pretty coffee, pretty girl, cute cat, beach trip. It’s all like that. Everyone looks like they’re having the best day ever, all the time.”
Magazines and advertising have long been criticized for upholding dangerously unrealistic standards of success and beauty, but at least it’s acknowledged that they are idealized. The models wearing Size 0 clothing are just that: models. And even they are made-up, retouched, and photoshopped.
These days, however, the impossible standards are set much closer to home, not by celebrities and models but by classmates and friends. With social media, teens can curate their lives, and the resulting feeds read like highlight reels, showing only the best and most enviable moments while concealing efforts, struggles, and the merely ordinary aspects of day-to-day life. And there’s evidence that those images are causing distress for many kids.
Donna Wick, EdD, founder of Mind-to-Mind Parenting, says that for teenagers the combined weight of vulnerability, the need for validation, and a desire to compare themselves with peers forms what she describes as a “perfect storm of self-doubt.” She’s so thin. Her grades are perfect. What a happy couple. I’ll never be that cool, that skinny, that lucky, that successful.
Sometimes, says Sasha, looking at friends’ feeds “makes you feel like everyone has it together but you.”
Struggling to stay afloat
The fallout from these unrealistic standards becomes more dangerous once kids reach college, where they face higher stakes, harder work, and a largely parent-free environment. The pressure to look perfect to impress new peers, not to speak of friends and family back home, can be even greater.
After a recent spate of college suicides, researchers at Stanford University coined the phrase “duck syndrome.” The term refers to the way a duck appears to glide effortlessly across a pond while below the surface its feet work frantically, invisibly struggling to stay afloat.
Several students who have died had projected a perfect image on social media—their feeds packed with inspirational quotes and filtered images showing attractive, happy kids who seemed to excel with minimal effort. But behind the digital curtain they were struggling emotionally.
For kids experiencing anxiety or depression, carefully edited feeds can act as a smoke screen, masking serious issues behind pretend perfection and making it harder for parents or friends to see that they need help.
“It’s important to remember that just posting edited pictures online or pretending your life is a little more glamorous than it is is not in itself a problem,” says Jill Emanuele, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “Social media alone is unlikely to be at the heart of the issue, but it can make a difficult situation even harder.”
Teens who have created idealized online personas may feel frustrated and depressed at the gap between who they pretend to be online and who they truly are.
“If you practice being a false self eight hours a day, it gets harder to accept the less-than-perfect being you really are,” says Dr. Wick, “and as we all know there’s no harsher judge of a kid than herself.”
Other people’s perfection
Another, more prevalent problem, says Dr. Emanuele, is that for some teens their social feeds can become fuel for negative feelings they have about themselves. Kids struggling with self-doubt read into their friends’ images what they feel they are lacking.
“Kids view social media through the lens of their own lives,” says Dr. Emanuele. “If they’re struggling to stay on top of things or suffering from low self-esteem, they’re more likely to interpret images of peers having fun as confirmation that they’re doing badly compared to their friends.”
Difficult to resist
Sasha and her friend Jacob, 15, agree that constant exposure to social media has had an impact on how they view their peers and themselves. “It’s like you know it isn’t making you happy,” says Jacob of the pictures his friends post on Instagram. “But you still look.”
Even the knowledge that these images mask serious problems doesn’t seem to alleviate the pressure they cause.
“I knew a girl who had an eating disorder. We all knew it. It got so bad that she ended up going to a treatment center, but when she put pictures up of herself on the beach looking super-thin everyone liked them anyway,” says Sasha.
Logically, she says, she knew the pictures weren’t current and the girl was very ill, but that didn’t stop her from feeling a twinge of jealousy. “I remember thinking ‘I wish I looked like that’ and then being horrified at myself.”
Sasha also acknowledges the trouble of “liking” images that in this case provided dangerous validation. “It’s like we were saying, ‘Good job.’ ”
Social media and teenagers: How to help
What can parents do to help kids build a safe and reasonable relationship with social media before they’re out on their own?
Dr. Wick says keeping teens from falling into the social media trap is more complicated than it sounds. “It’s not about taking the phone away or having a single conversation.” She says, “Parents need to be diligent about making sure kids are getting a dose of reality and need to model healthy behaviors.”
- Take social media seriously. Don’t underestimate the role social media plays in the lives of teenagers, warns Dr. Wick. “The power of a visual image is so strong. It’s disorienting.” Many teens, she says, never knew a world where social media didn’t exist, and for them the things that happen online—slights, break-ups, likes, or negative comments—are very real. When you talk about social media make sure you’re really listening and be careful not to dismiss or minimize your teen’s experiences.
- Encourage them to think outside the (crop) box. When you talk to your child about social media, encourage her to explore it in a more critical way. A great way to start is to try asking her what she thinks has been cropped or edited out of her friends’ “perfect” pictures and why. That can lead to larger questions. Do you think your friends are really the people they appear to be online? Are you? What’s the purpose of posting a photo? What is it about getting “likes” that feels good? Does looking at social media affect your mood?
- Model a healthy response to failure. “Kids have to get the message that it is okay to fail,” says Dr. Wick. “And not only that it’s okay to fail, but that showing it is okay, too.” If parents hide their own failures, kids are less likely to be okay with anything less than success. “When things don’t work out as you’d planned or a project goes awry, show your child how to accept it with grace,” she adds. “Let kids know that failure is part of how we learn to succeed, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and let them see you pick yourself up and try again.”
- Praise (and show) effort. “Effort is something to be proud of,” says Dr. Wick. “It can’t be said enough.” Parents should let kids know that showing their work is something to be praised, not hidden. When your child has worked hard on something, praise her efforts no matter what the outcome. It’s also helpful to examine how comfortable you are showing your own efforts, especially those that don’t end in success. Being proud and open about your own work sets a powerful example for your child.
- Go on a “social holiday.” If you’re worried that your child is getting too wrapped up in social media, try taking a social holiday. “This means everyone,” says Dr. Wick. If you’re asking your child to take a break, practice what you preach and pledge to stay off media as well. It can be every bit as hard for parents to unplug as kids.”
- Trust people, not pictures. Finally, don’t rely on social media to let you know how your child is really doing. She may post smiling selfies all day long, but if she seems unhappy or sounds unhappy on the phone, don’t let it go. Make sure she knows it’s safe to talk to you by encouraging her to share her feelings and supporting her when she does. Reassure her that you’re not disappointed, and let her know you’re proud of her for reaching out. “I’m so glad you called. It sounds like you’re feeling really overwhelmed, I’m here and I love you. Let’s talk this through together.”
In the end, as a parent you want your child to be happy and successful. But making sure she knows you love her and you’re proud of her as she is—unfiltered, unedited, imperfect—will help her build confidence she needs to accept herself and stay safe and healthy when she’s out on her own.