How to help teens overcome social media complexes


According to revelations from the Washington Post published on September 14, 2021, internal Facebook documents show the damaging effects of Instagram on the way teens view their bodies. According to these results of young users living in the United States and the United Kingdom, 40% of those who consider themselves “ugly” say that this impression dates from their subscription to this social network. If the girls seem more sensitive, the boys are not spared. 14% would say Instagram makes them feel bad about themselves.

This information may worry parents and encourage some to prohibit the use of social networks to their children. Which could well cause major conflicts. Moreover, as young people often find a way to get around them, such prohibitions are doomed to failure. However, this news is an excellent opportunity for parents to discuss their online life with their children, to help them make their experiences on the networks more positive.

Unrealistic goals

That Instagram can have negative effects on self-perception should not a priori surprise researchers working on the question: a survey on the impact of social networks published five years ago established the existence of a link between their use, both by adults and by young people, and problems with body image or eating disorders.

However, this study showed that it was not necessarily the time spent on social media, but rather specific activities such as viewing, editing and posting of idealized photos that were the problem.

The photos or selfies posted by celebrities, influencers, even friends on the networks are indeed carefully staged and embellished with filters. Far from being a realistic reflection of a person’s appearance, most of these photos promote unattainable goals. People spontaneously compare their looks to these edited photos, and conclude that they are much less attractive.

In addition to having a negative effect on body image and overall morale, these kinds of comparisons lead to an increase in unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors. The impact of such comparisons is notably much worse than those one makes when meeting other people in real life. Indeed, on social networks, people believe that others are much more attractive than them, while they only find them a little more attractive when they really see them in front of them.

Places of sociability

Other studies point to the many positive aspects of social networks which, like older online spaces like forums and discussion groups, are essential places where people with eating disorders share their experiences and seek comfort. This only adds to the complexity of the current debates.

In addition, networks are a central element in the social life of young people; they allow them to establish and maintain friendships. In times of containment and Covid-19, this form of communication has proven to be vital .

Social networks hold an important place in the sociability of adolescents. Shutterstock

Since social media activities are part of the identity of young people, parents should try, as much as possible, to better understand these practices rather than systematically criticizing them. Parents who do not know how social networks work can ask their children to guide them on the different platforms in order to be a little more aware of the content offered to their offspring.

Such exchanges pave the way for a better knowledge of social networks, the mastery of which necessarily requires an ability to evaluate, analyze and question the messages and images found there.

Research has shown that social media education has a positive impact on the body image of young people. Parents can discuss filters, retouching images and videos with their children, and explain to them that what we see online is not always a reflection of reality.

Learn to chase away negative thoughts

Parents can also lead by example by avoiding appearance-centric conversations in life and on social media, including discussions that focus on their own bodies or their desire to lose weight. The studies are formal: parents have a strong influence on how young people perceive and talk about their bodies. It is good for them to speak kindly about their appearance or that of others, and that they do not praise their children only for their physical qualities.

By helping young people to make their experiences on social media more positive and rewarding, parents have a key role to play. Ask young people how they feel when they are on social media. If following a particular account makes them feel bad about themselves, tell them to unsubscribe or mute that person. Instead, encourage them to follow accounts that are interested in something other than appearance  : sports, travel, the arts, humor, etc.

Other studies have found that finding and viewing positive physical appearance content on platforms will tend to improve our overall mood. Parents can also help their children develop a wide range of coping strategies to counter any negative thoughts that come to them by using social media or in face-to-face meetings.

Like being self-compassionate with your body, which research shows has positive effects. The compassionate friend exercise, for example, is telling young people, “Be as lenient with yourself as you would if your best friend told you about her bad self-esteem.” his body. “

Some platforms, including Instagram, allow their users to open multiple accounts. This can be useful when young people see too much content that makes them unhappy. Research shows the positive effects of having several accounts, including under a pseudonym, on social networks, because they can express different facets of their personality in this way.

Author Bios: Gemma Sharp is NHMRC Early Career Senior Research Fellow at Monash University, Jasmine Fardouly is a Research Fellow at UNSW, Marilyn Bromberg is a Senior Lecturer in Law at The University of Western Australia, Tama Leaver is a Professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University and Ysabel Gerrard is a Lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the University of Sheffield