Social media, the land where so many kids live today, presents myriad challenges for our youth. It can be a tough place to connect with people on any genuine level — and a place where criticism over the tiniest thing is plentiful.
Adults, of course, encounter these same issues in their own lives, though they’re better equipped to make sense of them.
According to research done for Dove, the beauty product, 8 out of 10 women encounter negative comments on social media about their physical appearance, while a whopping 72 percent of girls experience beauty “critiques” at least once a week.
“Body-shaming has sadly become a normal part of today’s online interactions, but sometimes we do not realize the role we are playing in that conversation — only 9 percent of women admit to participating in negative behavior on social media,” Jennifer Bremner, Dove’s director of marketing, said in a statement.
The recent #A4Waist trend is just another example of negative behavior on social media. Women are posting pictures of themselves holding and standing behind a piece of standard-sized paper in front of their waists to see if their waists are bigger than the vertically hung paper. They have eight-and-one-half inches to aspire to.
Dr. Jen Hartstein, a psychologist in New York City, says teen girls often strive for perfection even though they know it is unattainable.
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“It becomes damaging because girls often go to any length they can to achieve the unachievable,” Hartstein said in a statement. “Their self confidence and self-esteem can be damaged in the process.”
Hartstein said girls can experience depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other conditions as they attempt to reach an unattainable ideal. “In their attempt to strive toward perfection, teen girls end up hurting themselves much more in the process,” she added.
Changing the Chatter
What can parents do for both themselves and their children to create a more positive experience with social media?
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a New Jersey psychologist who runs a program on raising emotionally and socially healthy children, said most children’s online activities support and add to their real-life friendships. Most kids report feeling more connected to their friends, research has found.
“Just like face-to-face contact, online communication can be meaningful or trivial, supportive, discouraging, or hurtful, but it can’t replace face-to-face communication,” she told LifeZette.
“Both online and in day-to-day life, kindness is key,” Kennedy-Moore said. “Kids sometimes behave in unkind ways, but kindness is a worthy goal.”
The “Being 13” study — a first-of-its-kind CNN study in late 2015 on social media and teens — found that 42 percent of kids reported they have had at least monthly conflict with someone online. But most of the drama on social media involves people kids know in real life.
Because many posts can be anonymous, parents should encourage their kids to ask themselves, “Would Grandma like to see this?” before they start posting.
“Because online connection is possible 24/7, both kids and adults need to think deliberately about when they don’t want to be connected,” added Kennedy-Moore. Parents should stay off the phone during meals, family time and when they are reunited with their kids — as if this even had to be stated.
She recommends parents collect kids’ electronic devices at bedtime. “Your child will not thank you for this, but kids need sleep and nothing good happens during late-night digital activity,” she noted.
Managing Online Expectations
Keeping kids off social media may not be the best solution to avoid body image issues and drama. Kennedy-Moore encourages parents to talk to children about online etiquette and boundaries.
As for adults, leading by example is a good way to model desirable behavior. “Digital communication is very much part of our children’s lives. They need to learn how to manage it,” Kennedy-Moore said.
She cited 2012 research that found about one out of every four teens claim their parents are addicted to their gadgets. Unplugging once in a while can teach children a valuable lesson. “If we value face-to-face communication, and we want our kids to value it, we need to show the way,” Kennedy-Moore added.