The Effect of Social Media on Your Teen’s Self-Esteem

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As adults, we might think of social media as a fun way to stay connected with friends and family, many of whom we would have lost track of long ago. For teens and pre-teens, social media can become much more: profile pages and daily posts turn into a place to be praised or shamed, putting teens forever at the whim of their online friends and frenemies. Likes, comments, and shares on a post become a currency with which teens measure their self-worth.

That could have the potential to be positive if all your teen’s friends were on a mission to uplift each other, share accomplishments, and provide opportunities. Unfortunately, that’s not generally the case.

Effect of Social Media on Teens

Your Teen’s Newsfeed

That’s what your teen may conclude, too.

From Instagram to Snapchat to Facebook, users (adults included) are in the habit of sharing the highlights of their lives. If aliens from another galaxy were to learn about humans via social media, they would conclude that everyone is flawless and life is perfect: babies smile all the time and never wake their parents up, parties and concerts are daily activities, and everyone exercises and eats their vegetables.

Depending on your child’s age and maturity, he might have a hard time realizing that what he sees in his newsfeed is not representative of real life. People only share the photos that have them looking their best, even if they have to edit the images to appear thinner or more muscular with a smoother complexion or whiter teeth.

Bombarded with images like that (from people they know, no less), it’s easy for your teen to start feeling like she doesn’t measure up. Maybe she feels less beautiful or less talented, or that she doesn’t have the clothes or toys and gadgets that everyone else has. Considering that teens spend about nine hours a day online, they get an incredible amount of exposure to this “perfect world.” In this article, clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder is quoted:

“When we live in a world where you’re always on, that’s going to attack your self-esteem no matter who you are, but girls…are particularly vulnerable.”

Teenage girls looking at social media on phones


Forever comparing themselves to photos of people they perceive to be more beautiful or talented is damaging enough to teens’ self-esteem, but it doesn’t stop there. Cyberbullying regularly occurs on social media, and it takes several forms:

  • Ignoring and failing to like or comment on someone’s post, photo, or status.
  • Commenting negatively on someone’s appearance, hobbies, lifestyle, race, religion, etc.
  • Sending cruel direct messages.
  • Posting lies or rumors about someone.
  • Posting private or embarrassing photos or videos of someone.
  • Using a false profile or pretending to be someone else to either post or solicit information about someone.
  • Threatening to hurt someone.
  • Encouraging someone to commit suicide.

As this CNN article points out, certain games, competitions, and social media trends can also hurt your teen’s self-esteem. For example, the “Am I Pretty or Ugly?” YouTube videos got a lot of media attention a few years ago, and teens are still posting them today. As you can imagine, not all the comments are very nice, as one 13-year-old was quoted in a 2014 New York Times article:

“It makes me upset. There are people telling me to kill myself, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to know there are people like that out there.”

Because what is posted online stays there forever, cyberbullying can be especially damaging to a child or teenager. Bullying has long been shown to be related to low self-esteem, and that low self-esteem can lead to behavioral problems, health issues, poor academic performance, and even criminal behavior.

Mom and daughter connecting

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Development Institute, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have a few tips for helping your children build their self-esteem:

Helping Your Teen Develop High Self-Esteem

Encourage Their Interests and Help Them Develop Skills: Being good at something, no matter what it is, helps self-esteem. Give your teens opportunities to explore their interest in sports, art, music, woodworking, cars, martial arts, dance, or whatever it is they like (even if it might change on a monthly basis). When they know they’re good at something, they’re less likely to be impacted by someone who says, “You’re not good at anything” because they know it’s a lie.

Praise Their Good Work: Keep it sincere, but don’t hesitate to tell your teen when you see he or she is doing a great job. Also, take note of their good decision-making skills, and empower them to trust their own judgment when making decisions rather than always turning to a friend for a second opinion. Celebrate with them when they achieve a goal.

Criticize Constructively: You may not know how much criticism your teens are facing online, so be careful with how you criticize. Take care to be constructive, and avoid demeaning or shaming your child. Pick your battles: in the end, maybe it doesn’t matter that he’s wearing the same shirt for the third day in a row.

Model Positive Self-Talk and Confidence: Talk to yourself the way you want your children to talk to themselves. Don’t let them see you ridiculing your own body, “punishing” yourself by running extra miles because you had a piece of cake, comparing yourself to others, or beating yourself up for failing to meet a goal or accomplish a task. Speak up for yourself when it’s called for, and go after what you want in your own life.

Talk About What They See Online: Remind them that no one is sharing the boring parts of their lives on social media. Encourage them to talk to you if something they see online is upsetting or frightening. Introduce them to positive role models on social media, including people you might know and celebrities who volunteer and speak up for equality, confidence, and kindness.

Set Internet Guidelines
: By using trustworthy parental controls on your teen’s mobile device, you can limit their internet access and block certain sites and apps. It’s a simple step you can take to help your child spend more time in the “real world.”
As the Child Development Institute says, “Parents, more than anyone else can promote their child’s self-esteem. It isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do. If fact, most parents do it without even realizing that their words and actions have a great impact on how their child or teenager feels about himself.” Hopefully, it’s enough to combat the effect social media can have on your child’s self-esteem.

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