McCoy & Hiestand Attorneys at Law

By J.R. Whaley

While parents have had to deal with, and attempt to successfully raise, teenagers for eons, no previous generation of parents has ever had to do so when faced with the challenges of social media.

Selfies. Likes. Thumbs up. Check-ins. Emojis. Stories. It can be exhausting trying to understand, much less manage, all of the facets of social media. But like it or not, social media is here to stay. And today’s parents must be made aware of the impact social media can have on the self-image and self-esteem of teenagers.

In fact, a survey titled “Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image” found that many teens who are active online fret about how they’re perceived. Some of the statistics showed that:

  • 35% are worried about people tagging them in unattractive photos
  • 27% feel stressed about how they look in posted photos
  • 22% felt bad about themselves if their photos were ignored
  • 41% of survey takers admit to using social media to make themselves look “cooler”

While it is a wonderful technology that allows us to connect and stay in touch with friends, to receive news, enjoy entertainment, and to communicate with the larger world about daily events—social media also has serious pitfalls.

A recent U.K. study determined that confidence in teenage girls has fallen dramatically in the last seven years. The health department that conducted the survey works with local authorities to assess the health and wellbeing of secondary school pupils across the country. It conducts a study of 17,000 teenagers each year.

The survey showed that just 33% of girls aged between 14 and 15 felt good about themselves—compared to 41% in 2007. Researchers believe that the decline in girls’ confidence and self-esteem could be directly linked to their online activity. They cited two factors—images easily exchanged online and the changing face of bullying.

Social media can create not only an impossible standard of celebrity lifestyle to compete against but can cause teens to judge themselves against their peers. Each post seems designed to encourage envy because of the fun, or the good looks, or the fabulous lifestyle of the teen making the post. While teenagers of a previous era had to deal with such competition during the school hours, images are now blasted out all day, every day. This constant bombardment, and the failure to put it in proper perspective, has an effect on some teenagers’ self-esteem.

But all hope is not lost. Parents have an opportunity to combat this trend. Here are some strategies that experts recommend to deal with teenage use of social media and the possible toxic effects caused by it.

Take social media seriously. Understand that teenagers are dealing with a technology that no other teenager has dealt with before. Don’t minimize the impact that social media can have on teenagers’ self-esteem, even though wiser (and older) heads might not experience the same impact.

Ask questions. Try to understand how social media might impact your teen’s self-esteem and instruct them that—perhaps—everything they see online is not real. Ask questions about what they are seeing. Ask if they think certain photos have been copied or edited. Ask how it feels to get likes or for posts to be ignored.

“Do as I say but not as I do” doesn’t work. Not sure if this parent’s age-old instruction has ever worked, but it certainly won’t with social media. Be aware of how you interact with your mobile devices in front of your kids. Do you walk in the door from work, head buried in your iPhone to check those last e-mails? Are you checking your Facebook page when you could be interacting with your kids? Social media and digital technology can dilute the parent-child relationship. Be aware if you are the one guilty of the dilution.

Set limits—on ourselves. Set limitations on when and where social media and digital devices can be used in the house. These technology-free zones/technology-free hours should apply to everyone in the house. No iPhones at the kitchen table, no checking social media until all homework is done and after a certain time at night. Some even go on a “digital diet” wherein they take one day a week to completely take off from all digital media. It is not as hard as it sounds. Give it a try.

Encourage your teen’s outside interests. Help your teen build esteem about what they do, rather than how they look online.

Lessons learned during the teenage years are critical for socialization and assimilation. Social media can help in that process by allowing teenagers to communicate with peers and become aware of the larger world. But there are pitfalls that parents need to be aware of and have a strategy.

© 2014
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