Lies and likes: Unlinking teen self-worth from social mediaWritten by Cara Plett
What's inside this article
Keeping up with the Joneses just isn’t good enough anymore – not for your teen anyway. In contemporary youth culture, "Mr. Jones" is only one of dozens – or perhaps hundreds – of picturesque peers whose perfectly posed, edited and digitally-altered lives parade across the pages of your teen’s Facebook account.
Each time your son or daughter logs on to Facebook, they enter a potential show-off showdown. Imagine this, for example: A friend changes her Facebook status to "In a relationship," uploads a photo album of her Caribbean vacation, then posts a video starring her gourmet lunch, which she says she can eat guilt free because she ran a half marathon this morning. These three posts by one person account for only a small fraction of the barrage of updates your son or daughter sees on Facebook each and every day. Talk about kindling for comparison!
The power of a page: Envy
The findings of a study conducted by two German universities1 reveal the outcome of this digital show-and-tell. In their survey of 600 Facebook users, nearly 30 per cent of respondents described their emotional state after surfing Facebook as mostly negative. They identified envy specifically as the root of this negativity.
What did these German teens envy?
Travel and leisure, happiness and social relations of others were the highest ranked triggers. The negativity doesn’t end there though. The toxic root of envy grows and begins to have much deeper and more life-altering effects. First results what the German researchers call the "self-promotion-envy spiral," with Facebook users "reacting with even more self-promotional content to the self-promotion of others." So begins a gruelling game of one-upmanship. Second, the study found that many social media users ride an emotional seesaw: as envy increases, life satisfaction decreases.
Self-esteem and the Facebook blues
By its very nature, Facebook’s social network can be two-faced, offering opportunities for both healthy and unhealthy use. One "face" involves congenially sharing life experiences with friends and family. On the flip side, however, adolescents may distort Facebook through inappropriate use, turning value into venom by basing their self-worth on the social network.
When teens strive to meet Facebook’s ever-shifting benchmarks, they risk self-esteem spikes and plummets with the ebb and flow of the Facebook newsfeed. Receiving a few affirming comments, for example, causes personal satisfaction to climb. Conversely, when contacts don’t comment, this lack of attention may be interpreted as virtual shunning, friendlessness and judgment.
"Likes" on Facebook are an especially valuable currency. Pursuing social wealth, teens participating in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey2 admit that they manipulate their profile content to amass maximum "likes," deleting photos that fall short of this objective.
In The Digital Invasion, Dr. Archibald Hart and Dr. Sylvia Hart Frejd caution parents about this rickety roller coaster of teenage emotional turmoil. They write that Facebook faceoffs make it easy for a teen’s "successes to feel diminished and [their] failures amplified." In turn, the resulting "sense of loss" leads to "Facebook depression."
Parental guidance is advised
As a parent, your task is to help your teen unlink their self-worth from their social media and to equip them to debunk Facebook fallacies. With your guidance, your teen can firmly ground their sense of value in God’s words and love, not Facebook comments and "likes."
To begin, ask yourself, How's my teen doing? Keep a keen eye out for signs that your son or daughter may struggle with Facebook depression. Be particularly attentive to sudden mood changes (especially sullen moods after using social media), withdrawal from real-life relationships and changes in eating habits3.
Under normal circumstances, it’s probably not necessary for your teen to boycott Facebook. Notably, the Pew survey found that some teens are migrating to other social networks, such as Twitter and Instagram, to escape Facebook drama. But this is a temporary, superficial fix at best, and hardly a solution. Rather, teens can improve their social media experience by guarding their heart.
With the four tips in this handy F.A.C.E. acronym, you can help your teen securely face social media:
Feeling: Does your daughter feel lonely when comparing her Facebook friends list to a peer’s 900-and-still-growing list of contacts? She needs to get honest with her feelings, say Drs. Hart and Frejd. For instance, she should ask herself, Am I really alone here, or am I surrounded and loved by real friends and family? In any case, God’s truth stands as a guideline for social media use: "Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you’ " (Hebrews 13:5).
As an aside, remind your teen that Facebook users inflate their friends list by accepting all and sending many friend invitations. In fact, 33 per cent of teens in the Pew focus group claim they are Facebook friends with people they’ve never met. Accordingly, Hart and Frejd say to make sure your young person knows that 700 virtual friends isn’t the same thing as 700 real friends.
Activity: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises parents to ask their teen daily about their Facebook activity. Ask, for example, What did you see/post on Facebook today? or I saw your post on Facebook today. Is everything okay? Then discuss with your son or daughter their motives for using the site. Are they trying to be socially active by staying in the loop of events? Are they sincerely engaging with their friends online? Or are they passively "creeping" acquaintances’ profiles to fill time or to satisfy curiosity?
Also, keep all computers in a high-traffic room so you can help your teen monitor their time surfing social media, the AAP recommends. Limiting time and secrecy protects your teen from dissociating from the real world for the World Wide Web.
Content: Help your son or daughter realize that Facebook content isn’t a reliable benchmark for success. People use Facebook to post edited, filtered and embellished content to their page, justifying lies for the sake of "likes" and a flawless Facebook façade. To put it simply, this "book of faces" is more fiction than it is biography! Consequently, for all your son or daughter sees, no one has a lonely evening, or a pimple or a bad hair day – except for him or her. Of course, this is false.
But the Bible is true. Peter warns in 2 Corinthians 10:12 that when teens compare themselves with one another, they aren’t wise. Instead, your teen is wise to know that God formed their "inward parts," and they are therefore "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:13-15). Consider writing these verses on sticky notes to post on your computer screen. Scripture is a powerful defence against social angst.
Engagement: To get the most out of a social network, teens need to replace much of their passive snooping with active engagement. Your son probably doesn’t need encouragement to log on to Facebook, but if he is prone to look, linger and lament, he needs to start actively connecting with his friends by posting positive comments or sending direct messages.
When increased Facebook activity isn’t the answer, the aforementioned German study states that one emotional coping mechanism is to limit engagement – to "hide posts from friends one feels particularly envious about." Alternatively, psychologist Amy Wood recommends that to break your daughter’s Facebook daze, graciously urge her to immediately walk away from Facebook and to visit with real people when she feels herself slipping into comparison.
Does social media seem outside your parenting comfort zone? Don’t worry, it’s not! If Facebook is unfamiliar to you, simply begin exploring the network. In the meantime, take heart. Your teen’s struggle to fit in is strikingly similar to yours when you were a teen – and now! With this common connection, loosen up and be real with your son or daughter. It won’t take much imagination for you to turn experiences with "the Joneses" into invaluable discussions with your teen.
1. Read about the study led by Prof. Dr. Peter Buxmann and Dr. Hanna Krasnova here. Or read their full report, "Envy on Facebook: A hidden threat to users' life satisfaction?"
2. Read the Pew Research Center’s report "Teens, social media, and privacy" on the Pew Internet & American Life Project website at Pewinternet.org.
3. For more signs of depression, read our Focushelps.ca article "Symptoms of depression in teens."
Cara Plett is an in-house writer for Focus on the Family Canada.
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