From FOMO to gaining ‘likes’ and suffering low self-esteem, children and teens have it tough right now.
In a world where being an influencer is a full-time job, stranger-shaming is commonplace and apps exist to make you look skinnier and glossier, it’s no wonder the internet-age is a difficult one to grow up in.
Education secretary Damian Hinds is calling on social media influencers to take more responsibility, and says their young audiences aren’t seeing the real picture.
“Children are growing up with a warped view of what is normal because so much of what they see on social media is false,” he says. “I want social media influencers to think about what they are putting on their platform – is it honest? Is it authentic? Is it too image-focused? Use your access to educate young followers rather than focus on body image.”
Meanwhile, a Priory poll of 1,000 parents found that 92% of parents think social media and the internet are having a negative impact on the mental health of young people, with cyber-bullying (50%), lowering self-esteem (41%), anxiety over getting enough likes/followers (40%) and loss of face-to-face interaction (47%), being the main reasons.
So as children with smartphones and access to social media seem to be getting younger, and more time than ever is spent on Instagram or SnapChat, what kinds of things should parents be saying to their super-connected kids?
It’s a highlight reel
Each and every person with a social media account is presenting a highlight reel of their lives to the world – and essentially showing off. Even the most famous people, as well as all of your children’s peers, are battling their own difficulties and insecurities.
“Every child has stressful situations to cope with, including pressures about the way they look, which can emanate from social media and its reflection of a ‘perfect world’ adorned by ‘perfect people’,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, from Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford. “So remind your child you love them unconditionally.
“Explain that social media offers a filtered world which is often far from the reality.”
So many photos are edited
It’s impossible to know how many images are altered in some way before being uploaded, but when there are celebrities who already fit the ‘perfect’ definition of beauty, editing selfies to make them even more beautiful, it’s a minefield. From Instagram filters that make skin look clearer or more tanned, to editing apps that can add make-up and give you bigger lips or a smaller nose, your child will never really know how much someone has changed an image before it lands in their feed.
“Priory consultants visited a school where the vast majority of girls said they felt compelled to digitally enhance their image before even displaying it on social media, which is very worrying,” says van Zwanenberg. “So helping children develop a positive identity, by building confidence, self-esteem and interests, without reference to weight or looks, is imperative. Ensuring they understand that social media presents a distorted reality is crucial.”
Spending too much time on visual-focused sites could affect how they feel about their own body
It’s no secret mainstream media has presented unrealistic beauty standards for decades, but now children are faced with an even greater confusion, with this narrative also being pushed by ‘real’ people on social media.
“Young people find themselves chasing ‘likes’ and becoming very anxious about their appearance online and offline, and feeling they can’t ‘disconnect’ as that could be seen as socially damaging,” says van Zwanenberg.
Which can lead to even more serious issues
“I have seen a rise in young patients citing use of social media as a major contributing factor to their developing depression, anxiety and eating disorders,” she says. “Young people are increasingly exposed to unhealthy and unrealistic physiques.
There are many beautiful shapes and sizes
Try to make sure the language you use about your own body, and other people’s, is positive. Commenting on someone’s appearance on TV, or complaining about your own hangups, for example, can trickle down to children – subconsciously making them believe it’s OK for them to criticise other people’s bodies, or their own.
Encourage them to follow a range of accounts, so what they’re consuming is a balanced view of the world. There are some wonderful body positive activists on Instagram, for example: @bodyposipanda, @chessiekingg and @selfloveclub.
Real time social interaction is more important – and far more fun
Make sure you’re teaching your kids how to become good communicators in the real world, ensuring plenty of opportunities for them to meet new people, talk about themselves and engage in discussion, so their confidence grows away from the screen.
“Encourage activities that involve meeting and seeing people, such as attending clubs, having friends over, playing sport or just going to the shops. All these offer opportunities to build self-esteem and allow for healthier social comparison – away from the digital world,” adds van Zwanenberg.