By Dr. Sean Paul
As a child psychiatrist who treats children, teens, and young adults, I have seen the impact of social media use. Because most people only present their “best selves” online, it can seem to your child that everyone has a perfect life but them. It is difficult to explain to a young person that what they are seeing online is not the full picture. I have coined the terms “visual UNreality” and “experiential Unreality” for the different ways this can manifest.
Visual UNreality occurs when photographs that are posted online are altered, modified, and even fabricated. A young person may see photos of a friend or influencer demonstrating a physical appearance, body type, or location that may not be realistic or even real at all.
With modern photo editing technology anyone can look like almost anything, anywhere. Their friend with what they deem to be the “perfect” body may be using software and other techniques to enhance their appearance in photographs. The influencer taking photos on a private beach may in fact not be on a beach at all. Reality can be distorted to great extents online, and we need to let our children know that they should not accept everything they see online as being real. I have seen first-hand how having unrealistic expectations of how to look, or where to be, can lead to many problems, such as eating disorders, depression, and social anxiety.
Experiential UNreality occurs when friends and influencers post only the best, and often exaggerated, experiences they have. Posts boasting about an exclusive event, travel experience, or the amazing things that someone’s significant other bought or did for them, can make those viewing those posts feel inadequate. Those people may, and likely do, in fact have daily struggles with finances, self-esteem, and relationship issues just like everyone else.
So what can we do as professionals and parents to help ease these pressures on our young people?
First and foremost, keeping an open dialogue with them about our own struggles and not talking and posting exclusively about only our “best selves” is critical. They need to know that they are not alone in feeling sad or inadequate or even jealous sometimes. These are normal emotions and we want them to feel comfortable not presenting a perfect front.
Other things we can do is reassure them that the images and posts they are seeing are one-sided and often meticulously planned and staged. Knowing the difference between reality and the front presented on social media will save many youth from getting down on themselves.
We can also and empower them to be the change and post something honest and real on social media, and hopefully others will then follow suit.
Sean Paul, MD is the founder at NowPsych and the Internet Addiction Center. He is a dual board-certified child/adolescent and adult psychiatrist who treats patients of all ages with anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism, behavioral issues, and OCD and also has an area of focus on Internet addiction and Video game addiction.