It can be hard being a teenager. There are so many spoken and unspoken expectations, realizations, and rationalizations they have to deal with on a daily basis, and adults often don’t fully appreciate the complexities of today’s teenage world. Teenagers have always struggled with the need to fit in with their peers, and sometimes this desire spills over into a drive to seem “perfect.” Green Ivy Educational Consulting founder, Ana Homayoun, details strategies to help young women cope with this phenomenon in her book, The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life. Likewise, in Social Media Wellness: Successful Strategies for Parents, Educators and Students, she dives more specifically into the impact of the digital world and social media on tweens and teens, and presents tactics and solutions that advocate for a balance between digital consumption and personal well-being.
One area Ms. Homayoun covers in her book is the impact of social media on the emotional and physical health of teenagers. While long term research on social media’s mental and emotional impact is ongoing, it has been noted that adolescents who spend much of their time on social media develop unrealistic expectations of body image. The impact is felt among young girls in particular, and in one study, 20 percent of 9-year-olds and 40 percent of 14-year-olds admitted to wanting to lose weight. Although media use of excessively skinny models or those with chiseled abs isn’t a new phenomenon, the saturation of these images in our everyday lives is a fairly recent development. The rise of social media coupled with the ubiquitous photo shopping and airbrushing of celebrities has left teenagers feeling more pressured than ever before to be look perfect. If that weren’t enough, apps are now offering image filters and editing features for photos which teens can use to entirely erase any actual or perceived flaws. As a result, un-retouched photos are quickly becoming a thing of the past, which only adds to our current unrealistic standards of beauty.
The good news is that awareness around social media’s impact on teenagers’ perceptions of themselves is increasing. It is a pervasive enough that one high-school student from Cincinnati wrote the New York Times with a proposal to add social media education regarding body image to the broader curriculum. Her ideas are widely applicable outside of the classroom as well, and all of them encourage students to think critically about the various pressures social media puts on both girls and boys.
While social media may not be the sole cause of low self-esteem or body issues among teens, it can definitely play a role. However, given the medium’s peer-to-peer aspect, there are many tools at teens’ disposal to potentially change the landscape. As a first step in the process, we at Green Ivy recommend talking with your children about the pitfalls of internalizing unrealistic and potentially harmful online messages. We also suggest reinforcing positive social media use, whether that be less screen time or an overall digital detox, which will help set up a structure to both protect and empower your children.