Talking with Kids about the Truth behind Social Media

instagram heartSocial media is a public performance. On Instagram and Facebook, people broadcast streams of pictures of amazing parties, spectacular events and perfect faces. Never is there a dull moment or a bad selfie.

As an adult, I know nobody’s life is this perfect. Even so, scrolling through picture after picture, I can feel that tinge of envy. For teens and kids, still trying to figure out their place in the world, the parade of perfect moments can feel overwhelming and heighten insecurities.

Recently, I wrote about social pressure and teens for SheKnows, “how to help kids feel less anxious on social networks.” Here, I commented on a story written by a 15-year-old girl about how she felt after seeing her friends’ Snapchat Stories. Her quote that resonated with me was, “Snapchat Stories capture the very real insecurities of teenagers. This is different from direct cyberbullying. Nobody (hopefully) is doing it to make anyone feel bad, but it can make an insecure 15-year-old girl feel awful to see.”

When I see kids in elementary school on Instagram, I wonder how they will feel observing their friends lives. At our elementary school, kids cannot pass out birthday party invitations in class unless they invite everyone. When these same kids go home and open up Instagram, they will watch the party play out through pictures and comments. Dealing with the hurt of not receiving an invitation is one thing. Watching classmates and friends having fun without you is another.

These pictures often do not tell the whole story. These carefully curated newsfeeds only show the idealized version of ourselves, events and parties. Kids will never see a picture of a party rained out or guests leaving early. Lives seem perfect online.

The Myth of the Perfect Life

To give kids and teens a glimpse behind the social media curtain, parents should share with them the story of Essena O’Neill. Essena is a 18-year-old social media star. At 16, she started posting her workouts and fitness tips on Instagram. Today, she is the envy of many teens with more than half a million followers on Instagram. Despite all the likes and followers, Essena is quitting social media.

I’m quitting Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. Deleted over 2000 photos here today that served no real purpose other than self promotion. Without realizing, I’ve spent majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance. Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgment.

Instead of deleting her account, she revamped her Instagram Profile. On the pictures she chose to keep, she added real captions. The ideal selfie was really layers of makeup to hide her acne. The perfect bikini shot was a day of not eating and countless poses to create the most slimming picture.

essena oneil 1essena oneil 2essena oneil 3

Talking about Social Media and the Race for Likes

Scrolling through these photos together is a fantastic way to kick off the digital talk. Especially for teens, I highly recommend using real life stories. Often, I will have a tab open on my computer for weeks waiting for the moment to slip in a conversation about sharing online or a new app. We have the most robust conversations when I can share a story about someone their own age.

While looking at these pictures, families can talk about how people present themselves on social media. They can discuss the social pressures of sharing online and the race for likes. As Essena found,

I’m crying because I needed to hear this when I was younger, heck anyone who spends hours and hours on a screen wishing they could have a ‘perfect’ life, this is for you. There is nothing cool about spending all your time taking edited pictures of yourself to prove to the world ‘you are enough’. Don’t let numbers define you. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not enough without excessive makeup, latest trends, 100+ likes on a photo, ‘a bikini body’, thigh gap, long blonde hair.

Finally, families should not forget to talk about how teens can use social media to enhance friendships. Instead of trying to please their followers and garner more likes, teens can post about their interests, hobbies and talents. By sharing what they love, these feeds can help build connections and friendships.

As Essena discovered, “when you stop comparing and viewing yourself against others, you start to see your own spark and individuality.” 

For more information on her story, check out this article from the Guardian and Essena’s new website with her revamped Instagram pictures on Behind the Image.







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