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Written by Children and Screens

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Every day, young people are bombarded with digitally altered ads of celebrities, and paid influencers with impossibly perfect bodies disguised as “living the dream.” While we’re all guilty of comparison, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to its damaging effects—and eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and dysmorphia can be the unfortunate results. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. During the pandemic, when used mindfully, social media can help your teens stay connected and at times even boost their feelings of self-worth and acceptance.

Children and Screens recently convened a panel of leading experts to share information about why we compare ourselves to others, and how to help your teens to avoid falling prey to forming unhealthy expectations about themselves, their social status, and how they should look, especially while engaging with social media. Read the key takeaways below!

When it comes to protecting young people from the negative effects of social comparison, the best defense is often a good offense. Make sure teens are well versed in “social media literacy” before they ever log on. Social media literacy refers to taking a critical and analytical approach to viewing and creating social media, challenging the truthfulness of images, and considering the motives behind commercial, celebrity, and peer posts. As many of the negative effects of social media result from making unfavorable comparisons with idealized, manipulated, or carefully selected images of a person or their lifestyle, challenging the reality of the posts and reducing comparisons made with them can reduce the negative self-evaluation that would otherwise occur. –Susan J. Paxton, PhD, La Trobe University Professor of Psychology and Public Health

It is important to remind young people that social media reflects a cherry-picked highlight reel of the best parts of peoples’ lives. Instead of viewing social media posts as competition, reframe them as a source of information. When seeing an Instagram picture featuring a friend receiving a scholarship, for example, instead of concluding, “I’m not as good as the friend,” a teen can take it as an opportunity to learn more about the scholarship. In the digital age, learning how to approach texts and images on social media in an adaptive manner is crucial for positive development. –Chia-chen Yang, PhD, Oklahoma State University Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology

It’s important to talk to your kids about how they choose to curate their own feeds. I’m struck by the amount of articles online that say something along the lines of, “Life is about creating yourself; be more interesting, be funnier, achieve more, be better.” At first glance, that sounds really great, but the problem is that the goal is infinite, and the result is that people can feel like they’re constantly failing. –Emily Downe, MA, film director and animator

While it’s unrealistic to expect that you can keep your teens off of social media altogether, it is possible to encourage them to consume healthy content in their feeds. Seeing images of one particular way to look, or one type of lavish lifestyle, can make any child or user feel insecure and not good enough. Oftentimes, the most popular content is actually perpetuating a beauty standard or social norm that is doing more harm than good. Talk to your kids about how the content they consume makes them feel and helping them make smart choices when it comes to who they follow. By unfollowing and muting content that negatively affects mental health and by subscribing and following educational and uplifting content, you and your child can curate a social media feed that is realistic and doesn’t damage self-esteem. –Victoria Garrick, TED Talk speaker and mental health influencer

People should choose accounts to follow as selectively as they choose their close friends. Even though social media doesn’t portray “real life,” it can have real life consequences. Instead of following people who trigger you or ignite unhealthy mindsets, follow people who inspire you and motivate you to be the best version of yourself. –Brittani Lancaster, body positive TikTok star

Adding body-positive accounts to kids’ feeds will provide visual reminders of size- and shape-diversity, which can go a long way. Ultimately, it’s up to parents to talk with their kids about the ways social media makes them feel and to encourage adolescents to think critically about the costs of getting too invested in it as a reflection of their self-worth. –Zoë Bisbing, licensed clinical social worker and founder of The Full Bloom Project

Negative body image is one of the most common issues young people face as a result of social media consumption. Fitspiration and thinspiration seem to have an insidious nature to them. It may be small, fleeting negative reactions, but given that many young people are constantly exposed to digital media, these small negative effects could add up over time, wearing away at body image, self-esteem, and mental health. One of the best ways to avoid these problems is also the simplest: don’t look! I encourage young users to be agentic in responses to social media, whether by shifting away from body-focused content, deleting apps, or any other means that work for them. –York University’s Jacqueline Hogue, MA

Parents can play a vital role in this process by fostering self-esteem that’s separate from appearance and by modeling their own positive body image. I recommend that parents take a non-dieting approach to eating, encourage physical activity for enjoyment rather than calorie burning, and eliminate any “fat talk” around the house. Talk to your teens about what they like about themselves (and what you like about them that has nothing to do with how they look), and remind them of the importance of balancing social media with “real life.” It may be impossible to get them away from their phones entirely, but you can encourage creativity through photography of things other than themselves and their friends. –Jennifer Mills, PhD, York University Associate Professor of Psychology

When I think about parenting challenges related to social media, I always come back to that quote from the movie Mean Girls: “I’m not like a regular mom, I’m a cool mom.” It’s the “regular” mom that kids need most, the one who can model healthy behavior and set appropriate limits even when it might not be the popular choice. The desire to look and act like others is only magnified by the constant presence of social media, and rules and boundaries at home are essential for developing teens. –Allison Chase, PhD, Regional Clinical Director for the Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center

While social media certainly presents its share of dangers for teens, it can also be an invaluable resource for them. When it comes to body image, it’s important to note that before the advent of social media, there was almost no representation of body or gender diversity. Your child gets to benefit from the proliferation of that representation and conversation, and participate in that process as they undertake identity formation. Empower young people to set their own boundaries, listen to their bodies, and act on their intuition when it comes to who and what to follow. –Virgie Tovar, author of The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color

No matter how well you prepare your teen for the pitfalls of social media, it’s inevitable that they can fall into the trap of comparison and negative self-image every now and then. The most important thing when that happens is to communicate with them and help them to get back on track. Assess the situation and find ways to deal with it together. Don’t overreact, but instead try to understand the situation and show your support. Some issues may call for advice from specialist organizations or even medical professionals, but it’s essential that your child knows you’re on their side and will be there to help them on their journey. –Linda Papadopoulos, PhD, Ambassador for Internet Matters

It’s important for parents to have open communication with their teens, encouraging them to honor their individual existence and not an idealized social media version. Teens are particularly susceptible to peer pressure, and having a parent there to help them navigate the lines between the virtual world and reality can make all the difference. –Roma Khetarpal, Certified Mindfulness Educator and award-winning author

Parents can do more than just talk with their kids. You might even go through your teen’s social media feed together with them, pointing out when depictions of others’ lives or bodies are realistic, and when they are not. Encourage them to reflect on their strengths, and on the things that are important to them outside of social media. Keeping things in perspective can help make those comparisons a little easier to manage. –Brown University Professor Jacqueline Nesi, PhD; UNC Chapel Hill Professors/Co-Directors of the Winston Family Initiative on Technology and Adolescent Brain Development Eva Telzer, PhD, and Mitch Prinstein, PhD

As with any tool, social media can be a positive or a negative force; it all depends on how you use it. Some forms of social media allow adolescents to stay connected with peers, which promotes mental health and wellbeing. But other social media experiences—passively scrolling through peers’ curated and Photoshopped images, for example—can do just the opposite. Talk to your kids about the way they utilize social media and promoting active, intentional use of these apps rather than mindless consumption. –Sophia Choukas-Bradley, PhD, University of Delaware Assistant Professor of Psychology

One way to help teens be more mindful about their social media activity is to encourage them to get in touch with any feelings that arise from it. Even seemingly healthy content such as fitness accounts can leave adolescents feeling “less than” their peers. Teens should unfollow or take a break from content that makes them feel bad about themselves and seek out body positive influencers who promote a healthy sense of well-being instead. –Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, PhD, University of Missouri Associate Professor of Communication

Before kids even choose to use social media, parents are putting their images online, which gives them the idea that they’re performers. Instead, minimize their exposure to digital media, delay the purchase of a smartphone for as long as possible, and instill a love of reading books early on. Despite their protests to the contrary, your kids will still manage to have plenty of friends without Twitter or TikTok, and you’ll be protecting their developing brains and preserving their attention spans in the process. –Nancy Jo Sales, New York Times bestselling author and award-winning journalist

Digital media, and particularly social media, are highly-visual and interactive environments, in which the distinctions between user-created and commercially-created content are increasingly blurred. Limiting the amount that youths engage with appearance and photo-based activities on social media is one of the best ways to minimize any negative effects. –Rachel Rodgers, PhD, Northeastern University Associate Professor of Applied Psychology and Director of the Applied Psychology Program for Appearance and Eating

Before kids can learn how to look at their newsfeeds, they need to learn how to look in the mirror. Educating your children on the pitfalls of social media, filters, and comparisons is important, but to educate them on themselves is essential. Helping them to think critically about who they follow, what they post, and why arms them with curiosity, which can help them combat insecurities and discover and value what’s really important. –Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies’ Lisa Crilley, LMFT

Part of the equation of helping young people have healthier relationships to social media is media literacy. I believe that in order to teach media literacy well, adults must engage with young people in conversations where young people feel that they can fully express their feelings, ideas, and opinions. Lecturing is ineffective while listening is the opposite. Getting teens to have these critical conversations lay the groundwork for questioning information that they previously accepted and internalized without hesitation. –Amanda Mozea, Education Outreach Manager at MEDIAGIRLS.

For teens and adolescents, it’s particularly easy to get lost in someone else’s fantasy world. When you find yourself saying how beautiful and cool and amazing some of these social media celebrities are, try to stop yourself. You’re basking in their glory when you’ve got so much more to contribute to the world. Probe, explore, and nurture yourself instead. –Richard M. Perloff, PhD, Cleveland State University Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Political Science

While social comparison existed long before the internet, the 24/7, in-your-face nature of digital media has without a doubt exacerbated its effects. With the right attitude and open lines of communication, parents can help their children avoid the myriad dangers of social media and learn to use it as a healthy source of inspiration and education.

Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness. For more information, head over to childrenandscreens.com.

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