Social Media & Self Esteem | Girls
When nine out of ten girls throughout the world wish they could change the way that they look, and six out of ten girls actively avoid everyday activities because they feel insecure about their appearance (1), it’s easy to understand why there are people who fear that we’re dealing with a social media induced self-esteem epidemic.
“The fight for freedom from self-hate is one of the most important youth issues we are dealing with, right now.” – Oda Faremo Lindholm.
For a long time, feminist discourse has been anchored in a critical analysis of the representation of females within mainstream media, but the growing ubiquity of social media has given new momentum to such issues. Children today are growing up in an extreme media culture, and are becoming hooked on social media from increasingly young ages. The unfortunate reality of our times is that the girls who consume the most media have the most negative perceptions of their own gender (3).
“How does media shape our perception of reality? What is the perfect body? What role in society do I have based on my gender? These ideals change over time, they are not constant, but (social media) often portrays them as timeless facts.” – Oda Faremo Lindholm.
People have always regarded ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ as their inherent right. Yet, what are the implications of pursuing a happiness which is ultimately unattainable? Social media is a space where people can brag about their accomplishments, showcase their best experiences, or flaunt their good looks. What this means for today’s children and teenagers is that they’re being constantly bombarded with images of other people’s external perfections and ideals. Many of them perceive these greatly misrepresented social media lives as reality; a reality that demands perfection and is impossible to compete with.
This sets a conflicting precedent for young people, and is extremely difficult for them to navigate. Young girls’ self-esteem tends to drop in their pre-teen years, at which point they often begin to focus their self-worth more on their appearance and weight than on their knowledge, skills, or abilities. Research reveals that the content shared on the internet embodies the notion that being thin and conventionally attractive is more appealing and supposedly normative (7).
“Young girls feel they need to be perfect in almost all areas of life. Whether it’s Beauty. Body. Fashion. Or their relationships with their friends and family. And why shouldn’t they? Girls who consume media are going to be influenced by stereotypical images of uniformly beautiful, obsessively thin objects of male desire. Professional women are far less visible than their male counterparts.” – Oda Faremo Lindholm.
Social Media & Self Esteem | Boys
The conversation surrounding social media and self esteem focusses a lot on the implications for young females, but social media can also have negative effects for young males. These effects don’t often seem to be equally pervasive in males as they are with females, which could be due to the fact that boys and girls don’t tend to use social media in the same way, though it could also be due to the fact that boys don’t often talk about their feelings of low self esteem as openly with their parents or friends. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the effects social media can have on the self esteem of young males are serious and warrant consideration, particularly in the context of body image.
Increasing numbers of males are growing concerned with their shape and weight due to an onslaught of social media pressure (7). Much like how girls are bombarded with images of overtly sexualised ideals of the female figure, boys are now comparing themselves to similarly false ideals of masculinity while they’re still developing. Through social media, adolescent boys are confronted by impossibly chiselled and muscular male physiques, which can be hugely detrimental to their self-esteem.
“The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator… Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either.” – Dr. Raymond Lemberg.
Culture plays an integral role in body image. Boys these days are immersed in a culture that glorifies toned abs and bulging biceps, and it’s no wonder that it’s impacting their body image and self esteem as a result. In fact, boys as young as 6-years-old are already developing insecurities about their bodies (7).
Social media reinforces and perpetuates misleading and even dangerous perceptions of masculinity. Boys are not only feeling pressure to be athletic and strong but also, at times, reckless. Young males tend to post self-promotional photos of themselves partaking in risqué behaviours on social media, such as binge drinking or taking drugs. They can also feel pressure to engage in sexual behaviours as a result of how social media portrays male sexuality (7).
Social Media & Self Esteem | The Pressure To Be Liked
The relationship between social media and self-esteem often seems to be inherently negative. While social media can certainly help to uplift us, it can also be quick to drag us back down. Even before the Internet, people would share their stories and anecdotes in the hopes of eliciting either laughter, praise, or shared outrage from others – but the pressure to receive likes on social media has redefined the way that we attribute value to our own lives. If our status or picture doesn’t get enough likes, we delete it. Within an economy of attention, we’ve productised our lives. We let others attribute value to us, and when we don’t garner enough public approval, we simply take our product off the shelf (4) …and the truly scary thing is that our children are doing this too.
To make matters confusing, there is a body of research suggesting that social media can be good for self esteem (6). While it is true that social networking sites allow teenagers the freedom to trial new identities and establish a sense of belonging, it can also exacerbate the pressures associated with growing up. Social media provides minority groups with a platform from which their voices can be heard throughout the world, and yet they’re still amongst the least understood, most marginalised, and most vulnerable users of the internet (4). Furthermore, certain young people will go through a narcissistic stage as they attempt to find their place within society, and the difficulties posed by this developmental phase can be negatively amplified by social media (6).
“Even as the internet provides us great advances, it also segments us. We have social-media tribes and our self-esteem is based on likes and retweets.” – Erick Erickson.
For most people, self-esteem is something that will invariably fluctuate over time. Certain things in life make us feel better about ourselves while other things make us feel worse. (For example, a friend reaching a major milestone in their life might make a person negatively reflect on their own life.) To an extent, this is both a normal and healthy symptom of self-awareness. Yet, in the context of social media, the issue of self esteem is amplified because of the way in which we’re using it.
“We are trying to sanitise the messiness of human experience. Modern life is hard. If we deny our own messiness, we can’t really connect with other people and their own messiness. And that is really lonely and isolating. We’ve broken ourselves into bite-sized chunks. We are infinitely more complex than a selfie or 140 characters. If we believe that’s who we are, it becomes impossible to tolerate the complexity of ourselves and other people. It’s a huge struggle to be authentic warts and all, and social media isn’t helping.” – Lucy Clyde
Social Media & Self Esteem | How We Can Help Our Children
Social media is teaching our children that they’re not good enough because they’re constantly comparing their behind the scene moments to other people’s highlight reels. What we’re seeing more and more evidence of is that when these micro-moments of low self esteem stack up, they can become a macro problem (4). Teenagers are no longer as engaged in healthy or joyful activities because they’re so preoccupied with documenting them on social media. It’s the type of voyeuristic pleasure-seeking that can predispose children to a range of negative outcomes, such as eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.
“I want (my children) to do what is right, not what is popular, and I want them to measure their self-worth by being ethical individuals, not by the applause they receive on social media.” – Erick Erickson.
So how can parents help their children to safely and healthily navigate social media and self esteem? The first thing to remember is that prohibiting your child from using social media isn’t necessarily the best solution. Not only does blocking their access to certain apps avoid addressing the underlying issue, but it also severs your child from a social sphere that, when used correctly, can be beneficial and positive. This is a classic case of when saying yes is more constructive than saying no, so long as the yes is accompanied by stringent rules. These may include:
Auditing your own social media engagement and ensuring that you model exemplary behaviour
Helping your child to create a better online experience by encouraging them to unfollow friends or celebrities that make them feel bad
Make sure your child knows that you’re proud of them the way that they are: unfiltered, unedited, imperfect
Try not to focus on looks. This includes negative comments about yourself, or even positive comments about others, such as “you look great, have you lost weight?” – such comments may seem harmless, but they risk placing unnecessary emphasis on the importance of looks
Talk with your child about the things that they post and try to understand what motivated them to do it. It’s natural for teenagers to experiment with their identity, but discussing this with them will help you to understand if they’re acting out of pressure
1. Dove Self Esteem Project. Uniquely Me. A parent’s guide to building girls’ body confidence.
2. Tazghini, S. & Siedlecki, K. (2013). A mixed approach to examining Facebook use and its relationship to self-esteem. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 827-832.