Deep down, we all want approval. We want to know we’re worthy and that our work matters in the world. As children, we might have done that with good behavior, good grades, or athletic or musical achievements, hoping our parents, teachers, and coaches would tell us we were on the right track. Today’s teens are doing those things, too, but many are also looking to the internet for validation.
Teens and Online Approval
How Girls are Seeking (and Subverting) Approval Online, an article by Caroline Knorr, points out that documenting daily life activities on social media is “pretty much mandatory” for kids these days. It would be one thing if they used it merely as a visual diary of sorts and a means of jump-starting conversation, but those selfies turn into popularity contests and self-esteem boosters–or destroyers. For kids who already deal with negative body image and low self-esteem, this can be especially detrimental; considering that more than 50 percent of girls between the ages of six and eight already “feel their ideal body is thinner than their current body size,” having an anonymous peer comment negatively on their appearance can be devastating.
A teen might post a selfie and see who responds to it with likes and comments. In other cases, the teen asks for specific feedback, perhaps requesting a like on a Facebook post or asking, “Am I pretty?” in a YouTube video. As shown in this Yahoo News article from 2012, the comments someone can receive after posting something like that range from supportive to absolutely cruel.
The Role of Social Media
Knorr highlights Instagram, Snapchat, Hot or Not, YouTube, and #tbh as some of the tools teens use for sending and receiving feedback from peers. The hashtag means “to be honest” and it might accompany a request for judgment on a photo or a personal opinion of someone else’s photo. Instagram and Snapchat have recently become the most popular social media sites among teenagers.
Aside from the negativity that can stem from attention- and approval-seeking posts, there’s another issue: this type of approval focuses heavily on appearance. Teens aren’t generally asking for a thumbs up about their hobbies and activities and the associated skills. They’re asking about how they look.
The Focus on Appearance
Knorr mentions that girls are more affected by this than boys are, but boys, too, can succumb to pressures to look “cool” or achieve a muscular physique. Not only can the feedback lead to low self-esteem and poor body image, it could contribute to bigger problems like body dysmorphic disorder or eating disorders.
Empowering Your Kids
As a parent, what can you do to empower your children? How can you help them look inward for their own validation, rather than to social media?
Knorr suggests talking to your kids about why they post what they post, and asking them how the feedback they receive makes them feel. You can encourage positive body image by modeling it in your own life and identifying unrealistic photos and ideals in the media. You can also encourage your teens to post positive comments on their friends’ photos that have more to do with character and actions rather than appearances.
Cleveland Clinic also suggests several steps for enhancing body image, one of which is to “have positive experiences with your body.” This might include a sport or another physical activity like hiking or dancing. Encouraging your teens to get involved with these types of activities not only teaches them to develop skills and appreciate what their bodies can do (rather than only what they look like), it gives them the opportunity to spend some time away from their mobile devices.
Apps and sites like Instagram and YouTube provide a lot of positive opportunities to be creative and learn, while others, like Hot or Not and Rate My Body, are more focused on appearances and judgment. You should always use trustworthy parental controls on your teen’s mobile device to block apps like Hot or Not and any others you deem inappropriate, and to disable the internet entirely during the times you want your child to be engaging in a real-world physical activity.