Helping Your Teen Navigate Social Media to Encourage a Positive Self-Image

We don’t need to tell you that teenagers today are on social media constantly — if you have a teen in your home you already know this. 

Reports show that 95% of American teens have a smartphone with the ability to access social media platforms at any time, and that most youth use these platforms daily. Some of the most popular platforms among adolescents today are Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat.

But it comes at no surprise that these social media platforms may be harmful for a teen’s body image.

Girls and young women have been unhappy with their bodies long before social media existed, but things are different now with social networks in the mix. As a result of social media, there is now an amplification of body image issues.

First, there are countless filters and photo/video editing apps, which are hard to resist. There are also body challenges that go viral, such as the #KylieJennerLipChallenge (where someone puts a small glass over their lips and sucks the air out to make their lips bigger) from a few years ago, which may harm body image.

The highly visual and appearance-focused nature of social media is a hotspot for social comparison. And this can lead to feeling unhappy with one’s body.

Like it or not, social media plays a large role in a teen’s body image. And parents can help promote a healthy body image by helping teens better navigate social media.    

Beware the Influencer

Along with filters and editing, another big threat to teens’ body image is “the influencer.”

She has thousands, if not millions, of followers on Instagram. She is young and fits Western beauty ideals. The influencer posts regularly and looks perfectly glamorous and happy in every picture. She strikes a balance between being relatable and aspirational. Her timeline is aesthetically pleasing.

Every post has the same tones and color scheme. Everything about her is on trend: her hairstyle, her clothes, and her makeup. She shares wellness tips and subtly promotes brands and products like detox shakes, which you are tempted to try because hey, maybe you’ll then have a life like hers. You know her.

There are many influencers, both celebrities and non-celebrities (micro-influencers), on social media who try to sell a brand/product as well as a lifestyle to their followers. Research has shown that influencers negatively impact body image in young women due to the extremely idealized images posted that people compare themselves to.

To teens, influencers appear to be more relatable and trustworthy because they’re not traditional models. They begin as regular social media users. This may make teens even more susceptible to the influencer’s charms than adults. Also, developmentally, teens may not have as strong critical thinking skills as adults when browsing social media.

Social Media Is Not All Negative

We know that there may be concerns over social media, but don’t panic and run to take your teen’s electronics away!

It’s not realistic to simply tell your teen to get off social media.

And many adults have what is called an anti-tech bias, where they value face-to-face connections and relationships more than online interactions and think technology is all bad. They throw their hands up and say, “I just don’t get it. When I was young, I used to play outside not sit around on my phone!”

But make an effort to relate.

And to realize that social media is what you make of it, and it can be a positive space for your teen. It can be a way to connect with friends, learn new things, and engage with activism. Also, there are some great communities online, like the body positive and academic communities. It is the appearance-focused content that is dangerous for body image.

Shifting away from following highly appearance-focused accounts may be helpful for your teen’s body image. Types of non-appearance-focused accounts are pet, travel, or food specific accounts (for example, @pastagrannies on Instagram is the best!). Parents can guide their teens into more positive spaces on social media if it appears that their teen’s body image is being harmed by social media.

How Can Parents Help?

We need to think about our attitudes toward technology and social media, and recognize that teens are digital natives who may view technology differently than us. That is perfectly okay! Here are a four practical ways parents can help minimize the harmful impact of social media on their teen’s body image:

4 Ways to Help Teens Navigate Social Media

1. Don’t demonize social media and only suggest not having it.

If you approach a conversation about social media defensively by saying that social media is terrible and that you don’t know why teens use it, it won’t be surprising if your teen shuts you out. Be open and come to the table with curiosity about your teen’s social media life.

2. “Co-surf” social media with your teen.

Co-surfing is when a parent is present while their teen uses the internet. Co-surfing does not have to be a threatening, constant peering over your teen’s shoulder type of activity. When you see your teen on social media, you can start by simply asking, “What apps are you on?” Show an interest in what your teen is focused on and let them share what they are seeing on social media.

3. Conduct a “social media audit” together.

This is a great tip from Ruling Our Experiences (ROX), an organization that empowers girls. Have your teen get on Instagram (or any social media platform). Examine multiple posts one by one and reflect on how each post makes your teen feel.

Why do they follow that account? Does that account make your teen feel good or bad most of the time? Are their posts appearance-focused? Encourage them to follow accounts that make them feel positively about themselves and unfollow or mute the ones that do not. Remind them that they don’t owe anyone a follow either.

When looking at influencers specifically, doing this activity may increase critical thinking skills in your teen by helping them see the persuasive aspects of posts promoting a brand/product.

4. Empower them to avoid using filters and editing.

When we say filters, we do not mean the fun ones that give you dog ears or hearts for eyes. But rather the ones that aim to make you more “attractive” by smoothing out your skin, making your eyes bigger, and changing your face shape. Filters and editing photos or videos can be tempting, but it presents an unrealistic and unattainable version of your teen. And may make them unhappy with how they look in real life.

Inspire your teen to feel confident in their own skin by encouraging them to avoid altering their photos that they post on social media.

You may think that your teen is at a stage where they don’t care about what you think, but that’s not true. Research studies show that parents do indeed influence teens’ activities on the internet. And it’s all about relationship! If we want to connect with our teens and help them navigate social media, we must have a trusting relationship with open communication.    

Great Accounts to Follow

Are you on social media? If you are, here are a few body positive Instagram accounts which I personally follow and think you’ll enjoy, too. Some are focused on raising kids with a healthy body image. It’s a great way to gain more information!  

Guest Authors:

Kerrie Leonard, M.S. and Elizabeth Blodgett Salafia, Ph.D.

For more on encouraging teens to have a positive body image, see this post on Promoting a Healthy Body Image for Our Daughters.

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