What You'll Learn
- How does social media affect teens?
- What can parents do to help?
Social media can be fun, exciting, even helpful. But for some teens, all those pictures of awesome vacations, perfect bodies, and great-looking lives can fuel self-doubt. How can parents help teenagers have a healthier relationship with their social feeds?
Keeping teens from falling into the social media trap is harder than it sounds. Parents can start by taking it seriously. Social media plays a huge role in teenage life. Many teens never knew a world where social media didn’t exist. For them the things that happen online — fights, break-ups, likes, mean comments — are very real. When you talk about it with your teen, let them know you take their feelings seriously. For example you could say: “That comment was pretty mean. I’m sorry that happened. How are you feeling about it?”
Encourage teens to take what they see on social media with a (large) grain of salt. Asking questions can help. For example, are their friends are really the people they seem to be online? And is your child the person they seem to be online? Why does getting likes feel good? Do they feel better or worse after looking at social media? Check in regularly and if you notice your child is feeling down, ask them if their feed is helping or harming.
If you’re worried that social media is taking a toll on your child, family “unplugging” can help. That means everyone (yes, parents too) agrees not to use social media for a few days. It can help to set a goal to work towards during your detox. For example, learning to knit, or watching a series of movies as a family. Check in regularly, and notice how you feel without the social feed. If kids report feeling better, you could make the unplugging a regular thing.
In the end, remind your teen that your goal is to help them feel happy and safe. Understanding how they are affected by what they choose to do, online and off, will help.
“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.
Sometimes, says Sasha, looking at friends’ posts “makes you feel like everyone has it together but you.”
For kids experiencing anxiety or depression, carefully edited social media posts 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, Senior Director of the Mood Disorders Center 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.
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, referring to 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.’ ”
What can parents do to help kids build a safe and reasonable relationship with social media before they’re out on their own?
- Take social media seriously. Don’t underestimate the role social media plays in the lives of teenagers. Visual images are very powerful, and teenagers today, 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 their experiences.
- Encourage them to think outside the (crop) box. When you talk to your child about social media, encourage them to explore it in a more critical way. A great way to start is to try asking them what they think has been cropped or edited out of their 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 is it about getting “likes” that feels good? How does looking at social media affect your mood?
- Model a healthy response to failure. Kids need to learn that it’s okay to fail. Instead of minimizing your own failures, let your kids see you being open about them and accepting them with grace. Show them that you treat failure not as something to be ashamed of, but something to learn from.
- Praise (and show) effort. When your child has worked hard on something, praise her efforts no matter what the outcome. It’s also helpful to show 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. And if you’re asking your child to take a break, do the same yourself. You may find it just as challenging as kids do.
- Trust people, not pictures. Finally, don’t rely on social media to let you know how your child is really doing. They may post smiling selfies all day long, but if they seem unhappy or sound unhappy on the phone, don’t let it go. Make sure they know it’s safe to talk to you by encouraging them to share their feelings and supporting them when they do. Reassure them that you’re proud of them 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 they know you love them and you’re proud of them as they are — unfiltered, unedited, imperfect — will help them build confidence they need to accept themselves and stay safe and healthy when they’re out on their own.