Part 2 of a 2-part series on the harmful effects social media can have on our self-esteem and body image.
By Elly Byron It seems to me that at the heart of this issue is the origin of adolescent identity and self-worth. As women, we are prone to believing that our worth is dependent on something external to our-selves. Image, success, attention, money, power, beauty: each is a tyrant if it’s allowed, a parasite unknowingly fed by insecurities until its roots reach even to our understanding of who we are. Any time our definition of ourselves becomes tied to something that can come and go, our self-esteem, value and worth can go along with it. It is my belief that nothing fleeting should have that power, and yet every day we post pictures as if the number of “likes” they receive is some-how evidence of our worth.
So, how do we change the heart of an entire culture? How do we stop the sweeping influence of a cyber-world of validation that is so embedded in our society? Though there is certainly no easy answer, I believe the damaging effects of the excessive use of social media can be curbed by first increasing familial awareness of the issue. While some parents may talk to their children about the dangers of social media, warning them not to ‘friend’ anyone they have never met before, I would guess few remind their children that these sites are often misleading in their portrayals of the lives their peers are living. This is a conversation that is not being had, and yet caregivers could have an enormous influence on the way their children view and use social media. Especially because these sites instill a reliance on the opinions of others for validation, parents need to help their girls see their worth as something intrinsic and independent of their peers’ opinions (Manago, 2015). To encourage families to have conversations such as these, I would submit articles about the issue for publication in parenting magazines and on popular websites. I would have schools talk about social media in the same way they do bullying, sexual harassment, drugs/alcohol, etc.
Though I believe a push for family awareness of the issue is crucial, I think it would be most effective if followed by an attempt to change the standard of social acceptability on the networking sites. So much of what adolescents post is driven by what is ‘cool’ at the time, and there are certainly trends that are religiously followed by that age group. For instance, for a time, having every photo encompassed by a white frame was the thing to do, but that trend is now ‘out’. As silly as it may seem, popular accounts of singers and celebrities set real trends such as these: the ways they post, the filters they use, the captions they include all have an influence on young adults and the way they use social media. Thus, I would ask professional athletes, singers, actors, fashion bloggers, and fitness gurus to consider aligning themselves with a social networking campaign (i.e., ‘#AsWeAre,’ or ‘#TrueYou’) that seeks to end the pressure to live up to a certain standard. In the campaign, people would post the pictures of themselves they normally would not: the ones without the perfect makeup, outfit, and lighting, pictures where they don’t look like they have it all together. They would share their struggles and their insecurities, and hopefully, others would do the same.
Social networking sites are changing and being updated constantly, responding to what their users want in order to keep the site relevant competitive. If we were to succeed in raising awareness with families, schools, and users of the sites themselves, I believe the networks would be forced to change, if under enough pressure and negative scrutiny. For instance, perhaps the sites might do away with the feature of being able to “like” pictures, a feature I believe supports much of the comparison that happens on the sites.
However, there are many challenges a plan like this would likely face. For instance, there is a difference in the way social networking sites are used by different age groups. This means that those with the power and resources available to start the necessary campaigns and media attention to shed light on this issue are also those least likely to understand the struggles and insecurities of a teenager on Instagram. Additionally, much of what makes social media dysfunctional and damaging is also what makes it addictive and popular. Indeed, these sites have benefited greatly from the very issues I have mentioned. If we succeed in relinquishing the hold of social media on teens’ self-worth, we also succeed in making the sites themselves less popular. Despite these challenges, I believe this issue is crucial to the health of our society as a whole and thus deserves the effort. As someone who has been without a Facebook for three years, I have both witnessed and been freed from the social comparison it supports. The effects can be truly toxic. I am happier, healthier, and more confident without the pressure to prove my online worth, and it is my hope that in the future more young women can say the same.
Manago, A. M. (2015). Identity development in the digital age: The case of social networking sites. The oxford handbook of identity development. (pp. 508-524) Oxford University Press, New York, NY.