In September, the Wall Street Journal reported on internal Facebook research findings indicating that social media is particularly hard on the mental health of teenage girls. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” read one slide from an internal meeting. The WSJ also reported on another slide that read: “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” The WSJ expose on Facebook and Instragram has now resulted in two congressional hearings on the negative effects of social media on children, including one held on Capitol Hill just yesterday.
As a therapist, it is not news to me that social media dampens the self-esteem and body image of teenagers, although it helps to have empirical evidence to prove what we have known for years. We can only hope that Facebook and Instagram integrate these findings into making their platforms less damaging to children’s self-image. However, social media is here to stay. What then, can parents do to inoculate their children from the self-esteem-draining effects?
Ideally, the best thing that a parent can do for their child is to help them cultivate emotional security and a foundation of healthy self-esteem before they reach adolescence. This means being physically and emotionally present from birth through adolescence, modeling good self-esteem and body image for them, being aware of their environmental, social, and emotional challenges, de-emphasizing achievement and emphasizing connection, and getting help for them early rather than later in their development.
It is also critical to monitor for any signs of body image issues that may arise during adolescence. I have heard some parents say things along the lines of: “Kids will outgrow their self-critical and self-disparaging or harsh feelings about themselves or their bodies.” This is an act of denial; parents should never ignore any early indications that their children may have an eating disorder or body distortion, no matter how subtle the signs. Self-acceptance and self-love are not a given but the result of the belief that we are imperfect but loveable, and it is the responsibility of parents to do their best to instill this belief in their children. By doing so from an early age, children, especially teenage girls, will have less trouble with social media-inspired body-image issues.
Another thing parents can do is to check their own perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionism has become an obsession in our society, and the bar continues to be set higher as each of us have continually increasing, all-access internet passes to see the best of the best of everything across the world. Perfectionistic tendencies and unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our lives are expressed not only in the focus on superficial traits and body images, but in lifestyle, achievement, and social expectations. If parents get swept up in constantly comparing themselves and their lives to what they see on social media, this characteristic will rub off on their children.
Finally, I would agree with Professor Twenge’s recent Institute for Family Studies blog post and recommend that parents not allow social media until at least middle adolescence, or ages 14 to 18, and only allow it in a limited way from the beginning. An adolescent girls’ brain is particularly susceptible to the harsh criticism and increased demand for perfection on social media, so the longer you can delay it the better. The longer a young girl has to develop a supportive social group and to learn to accept her strengths and limitations without social media, the better. Parents can play a big role in helping their daughters celebrate their strengths and accept imperfections before they have access to social media. Once they have access, I encourage parents to set limits on social media and internet usage from the beginning, when they first start using a smartphone. It is far easier to set limits from the start than to try to implement them later.
At the end of the day, we cannot keep social media from influencing our children. It is unfortunately here to stay. The best thing we can do is ensure that children enter into adolescence with a full tank of resilience and a well-rounded sense of their own self-worth, lovability, and attractiveness—based not on how thin or tall or short they are, or how big their breasts or noses are, but on their innate value as human beings who we love unconditionally. As parents, we can de-emphasize the outside and emphasize the inside. We cannot eliminate social media from children’s lives, but we can set them up for success rather than failure in our parenting approach.
This article was originally published on the Institute for Family Studies blog.