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Social Media and Self-Doubt

How parents can help kids resist the pressure created by artfully curated social media feeds.

Writer: Rae Jacobson

Clinical Experts: Jill Emanuele, PhD , Kimberly Alexander, PsyD

en Español

“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.”

Hiding imperfection

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.’ ”

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?

  • 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

How are social media and self-esteem related?

Social media can make it look as though everyone else’s life is perfect. Impossible standards can be set not just by celebrities and models but by classmates and friends curating and filtering their pictures. There is evidence that this can negatively impact self-esteem.

Can social media be dangerous to teens’ mental health?

Social media can be harmful for teens’ mental health. Comparing themselves to others can undermine self-esteem, and a teen’s own carefully edited, perfect-looking feed can mask serious issues, making it harder for friends or parents or to see that they need help.

How can parents help teens have a healthier relationship to social media?

Parents can help teens by not dismissing the impact of social media. Check in regularly and if you notice your child is feeling down, ask them to think about how their social media use is helping or harming them. Encourage them to drop feeds and cut back on habits that are making them feel bad.

This article was last reviewed or updated on May 28, 2024.