Social Media and Teenage Self-Esteem: Should You Be Concerned?

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Overview: Social media and teenager self-esteem have complex links, yet it’s clear that social media can be a factor in teens’ views of themselves and their mental health in general. Teens and tweens should learn to think critically about the social media they consume. Parents can help them learn to recognize the link between social media and poor self-esteem.

Self-Esteem in The Digital Age

Social media, like any technology, has positives and negatives for how teens view themselves. One study found that while teens found their overall social media experience to be a positive one, there were highs and lows they struggled to navigate.

There are definite positives. For example, teens who have medical conditions, gender identity or sexuality issues, or other personal struggles can find support from peers who are dealing with similar concerns. Or they can see that their problems aren’t unique or weird, just part of growing up.

On the negative side, the social media that kids spend so much time interacting with often makes unrealistic bodies and achievements seem normal and everyday. Sometimes, this is blatantly done to to sell products, but in many cases, it’s simply the by-product of celebrities and influencers selling their “brand.”

As a case in point, a recent Wall Street Journal analysis of Facebook’s own studies found that Instagram was “toxic” to teenage girls, and nobody at the company could figure out how to limit that toxicity while sustaining the platform.

Teen leaning on a fence.

A 2020 survey of studies conducted on social media and self-esteem found that as social media consumption went up, subjects who were otherwise healthy showed more signs of body dissatisfaction, were more likely to consider restrictive diets and more likely to be overly concerned about the “healthiness” of certain foods. Another study found that kids who used social media to compare themselves to their peers were more likely to have a negative body image.

But self-esteem is more than just body image. High achievers can find themselves mired in the trap of comparing their projects and grades to total strangers, for example, or can put kids in the crosshairs of cyberbullies and other cruelties. 

Over a quarter of LGBT+ teens, for example, reported being cyberbullied for who they were in a 2019 survey. Enough abuse can chip away at even the most confident person. 

So what can parents do to keep social media from becoming toxic?

Make Space To Talk

Mental health is a complicated topic, even for the most well-adjusted tweens and teens, and even carefully curated and sensible approaches to social media can raise questions or emotions kids are not sure how to deal with.

Making sure they know they can speak to you about these questions is key, and they should also have peers or professionals they’re comfortable reaching out to for questions they may not want to ask you. Growing up can be awkward and confusing for everyone, and being able to turn to somebody who’s not peddling something can have a significant positive impact on mental health.

One final step is for kids to learn to ask themselves how something makes them feel. If an endless scroll of a seemingly perfect person is making them feel bad, then they should be comfortable with simply unfollowing that person and getting on with their lives.

Learn Social Media Self-Defense

Thin teen and overweight teen.

As a parent, you can also make a difference by being sure your kids know how to defend themselves on social media. For bullying, this means learning to block, mute, and report.

Dealing with the influencers your kids follow is a bit more complicated. For younger users, you might implement an “IRL (in real life) rule,” where they only follow and interact with people they know personally. Even with that in place, though, posts their friends and family like or share will turn up in their feeds, so you won’t have perfect control over this. 

A more effective tactic that works for older kids is to teach them to think critically about what they see online. Encourage them to ask the question, “Who profits?” Why is this person posting this photo? Are they with a product in the photo, or talking about a product? Some estimate the number of influencers who don’t mark their posts as advertising is as high as 90%.

On an even deeper level, teens should ask themselves why this person is posting, why they’re choosing the photos that they do, and why they write certain captions in certain ways. In many cases, if an influencer isn’t trying to sell a product, they’re trying to sell themselves. Either way, the content is suspect.

The key lesson teens should learn is that strangers on the internet are not friends. Most of the time, they are  trying to sell something. Kids should learn to think it through, then decide for themselves if they want to keep interacting with this person or just unfollow them.

Question Photos and How They’re Shot

Another important question to ask is whether the influencer is selling anything resembling reality. There are filters and “beautifying” widgets all over social media. In fact, some of them are even built into the camera apps on phones. For example, Apple’s “portrait mode” uses artful blurring performed by software to bring faces forward while deemphasizing the background.

But even without such software, somebody who knows what they’re doing can create all sorts of effects using lighting, camera angles, model posture, and other tricks without disclosing how hard they’re working to look good in a still image.

Teens should first learn how to spot them, and then to ask why they’re being used. What is the photographer’s intent? If it doesn’t make them feel good, unfollow.

Use Natural Limits

Teen appearing upset on a bathroom floor.

There’s only so much time in a day, and kids have obligations — school, chores, activities, family time, and other commitments. Start working with your family to establish certain times of day when social media is off limits so kids can focus on those responsibilities. 

This should be a whole-family initiative, with no phones at the dinner table and phones locked away at bedtime for everybody, parents included. 

Keep Track of Usage

Part of the reason Apple introduced an app that tells you how much time you spend on your phone is that the results can often shock users into reconsidering their phone time. Or so they thought. The reality, it turns out, is that most of us just keep on staring at our phones.

Use Parental Monitoring Software 

Parental monitoring software like WebWatcher can help you keep track of what your kids are doing online and open the door to what can be difficult conversations. It can also help you set limits to the time your kids spend online and guide them away from some of the more toxic effects of the internet.