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Teens’ Self Esteem and Social Media: What Can Parents Do?

by Kate Borsato

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One of parents’ greatest concerns about social media is that it damages teens’ self esteem.  A valid concern? Absolutely.

In it’s most basic definition, self esteem is the belief a person has about themselves, their sense of value, and worth. 

Given that, it’s probably not shocking for you to learn that social media is horrible for self-esteem If you are one of the billions of people using social media, they you’ll know first-hand the mixed feelings you get after scrolling for a while.

Sure, you might feel inspired, connected, entertained. But you’ve probably also felt some not-so-nice feelings after seeing everyone’s “amazing” lives… homes… partners… outfits… dinners… bodies… and their hoards of followers. And most importantly, the inherent evaluation of one another on social media platforms (think likes, followers, re-tweets, shares, comments) directly relates to how we evaluate ourselves.

Teens' self esteem can take a hit with social media. Find out what you can do to support teens' self esteem in these digital days.

 

When we think of teens’ self-esteem and their developing sense of identity during these tricky years, you are right on-target to be concerned about how social media affects them.  

The short of it: It’s brutal.

Social media offers endless opportunities for teenagers to be drawn into comparison. Some would say, “well that’s life…we compare ourselves on AND offline!”

Yes. Agreed. However, social media taps into a global network of the most popular, beautiful, rich, outrageous, talented, and business savvy people on the planet. You wouldn’t even know these people existed (nor have intimate access to their lives) without social media.

What teens consider “normal” has completely changed and the bar for comparison has skyrocketed on virtually every level imaginable.

In our highschool days, we may have compared ourselves to Susie who got an ‘A’ on every chem test, or to Karley who was always the best soccer player. Today, teens compare themselves (and others) with the world. How discouraging!

And no, life’s not always about being “the best”, but teens naturally try to figure out how they measure up to others. In this case, “others” applies to literally everyone else online rather than the rest of the kids in school. 

The biggest problem is that this “world” isn’t even real. It’s edited, highly curated, staged, managed, and only represents a sliver of a person’s life (or maybe just what they want their life to look like).

Given that social media is here to stay (and that you’ll likely have a hard time keeping your teen away from it), let’s talk about what we CAN do to support your teen’s self esteem.

How To Support Teens’ Self Esteem In the Social Media Era

I recommend 2 general approaches when considering how to support teens’ self esteem.

The first involves how they are engaging with social media and the conversations you, as a family, have about it. The second strategy is about helping teens develop other sources of self esteem so that they are buffered from the damaging effects of social media. We are going to talk about both approaches in detail. Let’s jump in.

9 Social Media Tactics to Support Teens’ Self Esteem

Here are some ideas that you can do to help teens build perspective around social media and buffer the effects of constant comparison on their self esteem.

1.Curated or Candid? Have the Discussion

Have honest conversations with teens about what is actually portrayed on social media. Most people only present themselves in the best possible light (which is normal…why would anyone post the bad shots?). But as consumers of media, we need to have this notion on the forefront of our minds.  

In actuality, it takes many outtakes and hours of editing for social media superstars to post just 1 picture. While they look candid, they usually aren’t anything close. Try to encourage critical thinking skills as much as you can so that teens learn to be kinder to themselves when their photos don’t quite measure up.

2. Limit Usage and Teach Tech Etiquette.

There’s a lot that parents can do to teach and monitor healthy social media behaviour. For one, don’t let your teens sit in their bedrooms all day or evening surfing on their smartphones. Just don’t allow it.

Instead, create a family charging station where the devices “live” so that you can monitor how much time your teen is spending on social media. (Learn more tips to manage social media & technology at home).

Limiting social media use directly decreases the amount of media consumption and encourages teens to find something else to do. It also implies that social media is not a high priority in family and life…they’ll learn these values if you instill them.  Also pay attention to what I call “tech etiquette” so that they use social media in a mindful and respectful way.  

Click anywhere on the button below if you’d like a free and printable tech-etiquette cheat sheet for teens.

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3. Talk About Who Your Teen Follows.

Who impresses them? Whose photos do they scroll through for hours and hours? Get curious about those accounts that are of interest for your teen and see for yourself what kinds of images they take in.

Be prepared to see some accounts that you wouldn’t exactly consider “inspiring”, and be sure to maintain respect and consideration for your teen and their interests. Try not to shame them for who they like to follow (even if you are underwhelmed), but instead, talk to them about these accounts and what your concerns are. Remember, your relationship with your teen is key to having any kind of influence on their decisions during these years.

4. Seek Out Positive Role Models

They do exist, really! There are so many people out there who spread kindness, acceptance, self-love, and positive connection. If your teen is open to it, show them some more genuine accounts that directly comment on the false reality of social media.

For example, I have come across several Instagram accounts that promote positive body image and illustrate differences between edited, posed, and highly curated content with what real-life actually looks like. Check out these examples: 

5. Unfollow Accounts That Make Them Feel Badly.  

A no-brainer, right? But it’s more complicated than you’d think. There’s the obvious accounts like people who directly bully, or spread negativity that we should all remove from our feeds but teens might feel like they don’t want to miss out on the latest gossip, even if it’s negative.

We must continue to emphasize that putting any energy into negativity is energy wasted, and only adds fuel to a fire that’s already too big.

The less obvious feel-bad accounts are those that are not necessarily negative, but that make viewers feel badly about themselves. You know the ones, where everything about the person’s life seems so amazing, and you end up feeling down about your own?

Yes, most people can relate. Any account that brings up negative feelings should be unfollowed asap.

6. Talk About Trolls and Online Bullies.

Speaking of negativity, it’s not surprising that online bullies or trolls can negatively impact teens’ self esteem. We should talk to teens about why people behave cruelly online (not to excuse those people, but to help teens understand that their behaviour is about THEM and their insecurities).

Part of teaching teens about responsible online behaviour is expecting respectful communication and refusing to tolera online bullying. Most teens have been bullied online, and most have also been the bully (read more about these stats): the cycle needs to stop.

Create an action plan or agreement about how you expect your teen to treat others. This could be as simple as communicating a zero-tolerance rule regarding bullying and implementing consequences if you find out about it (like removing social media privileges for a period of time). It’s imperative that parents send a clear message that this behaviour isn’t permitted.

When you react strongly to bullying, you demonstrate to your teen that this behaviour is unacceptable: in turn, they learn to stand up for themselves and not tolerate it in the same way that you demonstrated. Here’s some more information about online bullying and what you can do to prevent it.

7. Think Chemically.

It’s worthwhile to talk to teens about what is happening in their bodies when they see “likes”, followers, and get more social media attention.

In simple terms, a person’s reward center in their brain lights up when they use social media, especially when they get a lot of attention. Then, a loop is set up where people build anticipation of that same feel-good stimulation, feel pulled to check for it, and become preoccupied with getting more of it (more information about the brain & social media here). 

This is exactly why some doctors and mental health professionals consider social media and other forms of technology to actually be “addictive” and observe addictive-like patterns in the brain.  

8. Encourage Genuine Engagement & Connection.

I’m holding onto my belief that social media was created to enhance connection and sense of belonging (despite how it’s actually being used).  Have you noticed the difference between mindlessly scrolling through social media, versus actually engaging with real people? I sure have.

And no doubt this is exactly the same for teens.

It’s helpful to encourage teens to find genuine connections, search for relatability rather than simply scrolling, watching, and “checking” for their worth by counting likes and followers. The ever-present popularity contest makes it challenging to see past the social comparison, but still, we can encourage teens to participate more genuinely.

9. Encourage Positive Self Talk.

You’d be heartbroken to find out that your teen tags their face with #ugly or #loser, wouldn’t you?  Sadly, this is happening. 

Teens are turning to social media to assess their appearance by literally asking the online world to judge them and either confirm their fears of being “ugly” or convince them otherwise. Some teens take a different approach and put themselves down as a way of taking the ammo away from online bullies (basically, if I call myself ugly first, it takes away your power to do so).

This is gut-wrenching to watch. We need to emphasize to teens that respect begins with the way they treat themselves.  Intervene if you hear teens saying negative things about themselves, challenge them to have self-compassion and self-respect. And further, make sure to model self-respect so that they have an idea of what it looks like.   

These actionable tips described above will certainly have a positive impact on how your teen relates to social media and ultimately thinks about themselves.

However, as long as they are consumers of social media (regardless of their critical thinking skills and healthy social media engagement) they are still exposed to certain kinds of images and accounts over and over again and learn that these are desirable representations of self.

In other words, just like most forms of marketing, teens see what they “should have” or “should be like” and measure themselves accordingly… which usually results in feeling not-good-enough.

So here’s the key:

The most important thing you can do to support teens’ self esteem despite the potential negative effects of social media is to help them develop other areas of interest, connection, competency, and self-worth. 

The most problematic situation is when a teen’s sense of self is wrapped up in their online life because this is almost entirely determined by other people.

Instead, teens need to find internal and offline sources of self esteem that can’t be taken away simply because someone changes their mind, the trends shift, a rumor started, or Instagram’s algorithm changed.

Here are some ways to support teens self esteem in a healthy, well-rounded, offline way:

6 Ways To Enhance Teens’ Self Esteem That Have Nothing To Do With Social Media

These strategies are all about creating balance in teens’ lives so that their sense of self isn’t dependent on one particular source (you know…the “eggs in one basket” idea).

The idea here is that regardless of what is happening online, teens will have other areas of pride, interest, and connection in their lives that can support their self esteem when social media lets them down.

1.Encourage a Social Life Outside of Social Media.

A friend of mine recently talked about how her teens never actually play with other kids. Instead, they meet up online, Skype, or just text each other after school. It seems like the days of getting together in person are lost.

Parents should encourage teens to create in-person social connection as much as possible. And as part of good tech etiquette, teens should also be encouraged to stay offline when they are hanging out with friends (rather than scrolling through social feeds beside one another).

Encourage them to invite friends over to the house, go to movies, the pool, the beach, something other than sitting around on their phones.

Teens need a reprieve from social media, some space to breathe and get away from it all. If they have friendships offline, they are given this much needed break.

2. Foster an Interest in a Variety of Activities.

There are infinite ways that teens can be entertained and captivated that don’t involve social media, gaming, or Netflix. Set the expectation that your teen will find other activities and foster these interests.

In my work as a therapist, I have heard parents say that their teen doesn’t want to do anything else besides stare at their phone. I don’t doubt this, however, that doesn’t mean parents throw their hands in the air and give up.

Parents must continue to offer different activities and model an interest in activities themselves. If you don’t show your teen what it looks like to have hobbies and varying interests, they won’t see this as normal or even possible for them. If you sit around surfing your phone for entertainment, why wouldn’t they?

By finding entertainment and joy in other activities, teens will feel less inclined to turn to social media all the time, and will begin to define themselves in other ways. Maybe they aren’t “good” at making cool Snaps or Instagram Stories, but they might be really good at skateboarding or baking.

3. Play Sports.

Research continues to highlight how athletic involvement does wonders for self-esteem, especially for girls.  By participating in sports, teens access a healthy outlet for competition (that has nothing to do with likes or followers).  They learn about teamwork and collaboration, hard work, the benefits of exercise, comraderie, and genuine fun.

Of course, competitive team sports are not for everyone, but the idea holds true: physical activity has an amazing impact on mental and physical health. We need to encourage teens to find opportunities to be active and enjoy movement.

Plus, any opportunity to perceive the body as strong, competent, healthy, and good enough is valuable for teens who use social media and are consistently presented with much different messages about the body (usually either sexualized or berated for not being good enough in some way).

4.Encourage Volunteering.

There have been some interesting studies that show how altruistic behaviours make people feel really good about themselves. But you already know this from experience, don’t you? Helping others, especially strangers or through random acts of kindness, make you feel so good! 

As a society, we typically see “helping others” as virtuous and positive. So, when we act in kindness and support of others, we see ourselves in this positive light. Makes perfect sense right?

While your teen may feel like they are losing the popularity contest online, they may be able to develop positive core feelings about themselves by engaging in volunteer work with those in need. Talk to your teen about the social causes they’d like to support (maybe they have always had an inclination to support the elderly, homelessness, or even at the animal shelter).

Noticing a trend? When teens feels confident about a variety of areas in their lives, social media won’t have the same negative impact on them. In other words, they’ll be more able to brush off negative feelings.

6.Encourage Self-Acceptance

Self-love. Self-acceptance. I want to let out a sigh when I say these words.  I leave this for last because this is what I want you to carry with you the most.  I believe that one of the most important life tasks is to learn to truly love ourselves. And I call this a life task because it will likely be challenged every single day of our lives.

Teens are given so many opportunities to NOT love themselves, and social media has only made this task even more challenging. We need to begin and continue conversations with teens about self acceptance. For some, the idea of fully loving and accepting themselves is probably foreign.

Let’s make the concept familiar. Let’s make it okay to proclaim that we love ourselves! To shout it out loud! Let’s encourage our teens to talk about what they truly enjoy about themselves, about their abilities, their personalities, their strengths, challenges, and even their bodies. What do they love?

And most importantly, let’s encourage them to accept that they are a work in progress and always will be. Sure, they will have things they’d like to change, and that’s okay too.  They are good enough as they are right now.

A daily gratitude practice is known to support mental health and overall well-being (learn more). Why not encourage your teen to start a practice?  

Some teens love to create gratitude bullet journals or an inspiration board that supports self esteem.  For example, including inspiring images, poems, and quotes about self-love and acceptance could be powerful for young people (and also spark creativity!).

Below I have given you access to free quote cards that I created to help support teens’ self-esteem. These can be printed and used as daily reminders to love and accept the self.  Print them off, cut them out, give them away, or put them anywhere you’d like as self-love and acceptance reminders.

However teens choose to put these thoughts into practice, gratitude is a surefire way to bolster their sense of appreciation for themselves and their lives and ultimately buffer the negative impacts from social media.  

Final Thoughts

You’ve gathered a ton of strategies to support teens’ self esteem when it comes to social media and I’m confident you will be able to make a significant difference with these ideas.

Remember the key: teens need to build self-esteem in ways that have nothing to do with social media so that regardless of what is happening online, they have a solid foundation of self-worth, self-acceptance, entertainment, and connection in their lives.

I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below with any other ideas, questions, or thoughts!  We are all in this together.

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