How to Avoid the Self-Esteem Trap of Social Media
Originally published November 2021
By Adam Stone
Imagine a world in which all the other kids are living their most perfect lives. They’re having fun, they’re being clever—and they’re always pretty. Immersed in such a world, how could an “ordinary” child feel anything but inadequate?
Social media presents young people with just such a world. “Humans naturally compare ourselves to others,” says teen life coach Dr. RJ Jackson. “Social media has brought comparison to a completely different level—it really is an unfair level of comparison. Using social media, we can touch up photos, use filters, remove blemishes and always show our best, always appear happy. This gives a child the thought that something is wrong with them, because they aren’t happy all the time, they don’t wake up in the morning looking that good.”
In this sense, experts say social media poses a range of psychological risks, especially when it comes to issues related to body image. At there same time, there are practical steps that K–12 educators can take to help offset those risks. They can guide young people toward a safer and more thoughtful use of social media.
The jury is still out on what exactly the negative effects of social media may be on K–12 users. But there is ample evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, to suggest that trouble is brewing. Experts worry about how these platforms may impact kids’ social skills, and they’re especially concerned about the influence of social media around complex issues such as body image and self-esteem.
The Mayo Clinic, for example, points to one study of 12- to 15-year-olds, finding that “those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems.” They mention other studies as well that suggest a link between high levels of social media use and symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Researchers at the Child Mind Institute are particularly concerned about self-esteem outcomes. They note that “it is common for kids to feel bad about themselves when they see everyone online looking perfect. Teens often try to compensate by sharing pictures that make them look perfect, too. Then, when their social media identity doesn’t match how they actually feel, they can end up feeling worse.”
A professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education, Fran Blumberg researches the development of children’s attention and problem-solving skills. She’s concerned about the impact that idealized images might have on developing young women.
“As with our earlier concerns about girls’ exposure to unrealistic standards for beauty in magazines and on television, we worry that what is shared via social media may be idealized versions of what an individual should look like,” she says.
Beyond just the filters and other gimmicks used to touch up photos on social media, she’s concerned that younger participants in the social media world may not be aware that these tricks are even in play. “Children and even adolescents may be unaware that images they see via social media may have been fabricated or doctored in some way,” she notes.
David Donnelly is the director of DETOX, a film (currently in production) that looks at how technology impacts our health and happiness. He’s come away with concerns about how online interactions may impact students’ social skills, as well as their perceptions of themselves and others.
“The more time that is spent in the virtual world, the less time is spent developing and relating in the real world, which can distort a young person’s understanding of reality,” he explains. “This can reduce the amount of time a person has to ‘practice’ and learn social skills and communication, which can cause problems in their life later on.”
Not everyone is sounding such dire warnings. “Much of the current concern seems driven by the whistleblower leaks of Facebook studies concerned with body image,” says Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University. “But as multiple scholars have pointed out, those studies were not very good at all, mainly asking girls what they thought social media did to them. That’s a very poor way to get at the data, as people misattribute the cause of their behavior all the time and that type of question is pretty leading.”
Others say there are positive aspects to social media use that also merit attention. “Social media allows teens to create online identities, communicate with others and build social networks,” according to Mayo Clinic researchers. “These networks can provide teens with valuable support, especially helping those who experience exclusion or have disabilities or chronic illnesses.”
Still, there is widespread concern among educators. Many have seen firsthand an apparent correlation between social media use and weak self-esteem, in both young people and teens.
Heather Bard taught early elementary for two decades in New York and is certified in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention for Schools. “Children are especially vulnerable to the evils of social media because their brains are not fully developed until their early 20s,” she says. “The tools for self-regulation and for managing emotions are not even close to being fine-tuned enough to handle what can result from the scrutiny of social media.”
K–12 teachers can help here. In fact, some call this effort an integral part of the educational mission. “Families, communities, and schools have an obligation to nurture the intellectual and psychological development within each child,” says Bard.
How Teachers Can Help
Efforts can begin at the school and district levels. “It is more important than ever that kids are also encouraged on a daily basis to have conversations and to learn how to actively listen to each other,” Bard says. To that end, K–12 “must have a social and emotional learning program actively used on a daily basis. Children must be intentionally taught about self-compassion, inclusion, and social awareness.”
Beyond such high-level policy, experts point to a range of classroom strategies that teachers themselves can implement to help students make sense of social-media messaging.
Classroom environment plays a part. “The best thing teachers can do is inculcate an atmosphere of kindness,” says Ferguson, who urges educators to “both model and teach children kindness and empathy.”
At the same time, he adds, teachers can and should talk directly about social media itself: how it works, how students use it. “Help kids understand how social media tends to promote outrage, and that doesn’t reflect the real world. Even the ‘social justice’ campaigns on social media are often driven by extreme views.”
“Basically, remind kids that social media isn’t real life,” Ferguson advises. “Be a listening post when kids have social media drama, and listen without judgment. Being the ‘abstinence advocating school marm’ will have the same effect that highly moralistic teachers have had in generations past: none.”
That being said, a little abstinence advocacy may not be out of line. “The conversation should also introduce the idea of ‘digital detoxing,’ where students do not use their devices for set times every day and instead engage in real-world activities, especially spending more time in nature or outdoors,” Donnelly says.
Recognizing that kids will nonetheless continue to monitor their social media “likes,” teachers need to talk to them about that experience.
“A teacher can successfully start the conversation by sharing or reading a recent news article about social media and then leading a discussion on the findings,” says Jackson, the teen life coach. “Another conversation starter would be to have the class take a confidential survey—allowing the teacher to receive feedback on questions that students might not feel comfortable answering otherwise, and then letting the survey ‘results’ drive a class-wide discussion.”
Such conversations can put special emphasis on the use of images in social media and how “idealized” pictures can impact self-esteem. “Share information about how to interpret or think about the images that [kids] see via the Internet and social media,” Blumberg says. By adding such context, teachers can help students to more realistically evaluate the images that may be shaping their own body awareness.
Along those same lines, experts say, educators can help to address some of the negative self-esteem impacts of social media by taking extra care around the ways they themselves talk about appearance in the classroom.
“It is very easy to slip into ‘fat talk’ (self-deprecating commentary on our own appearance) [or] complimenting people on weight loss,” according to the PSHE Association, a UK-based association for education professionals.
Teachers need to avoid “implying that someone’s appearance is the most important thing about them” and even steer clear of “chatter about unflattering photos of celebrities [or] talking negatively about how appearance changes with age,” the PSHE notes. “Young people are saturated with these messages on a daily basis. We can play our part by stepping back from reinforcing them, as much as possible.”
Educators can instead look for messages that reinforce the wholeness of a student’s experience. “We need to praise them in specific language which helps them celebrate their achievements that have nothing to do with physical appearance,” says Bard.
To that end, she suggests teachers look for ways to encourage students to unplug, to engage in activities that take them beyond their daily digital encounters. “Kids need to be a part of the physical world, not just the virtual one,” she adds.
In the real world, those idealized images recede, and students become freer to discover a path to their true selves.
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.