“Mama, I don’t like the way my thighs look when I’m sitting down. Look how wide they are. I don’t want them to look wide. I want them to look like this,” she says as she squishes her right thigh with one hand on either side.
She is 8 years old.
My daughter and I speak often about how every person is different and beautiful in his or her own unique way. We talk about having a healthy body and mind and how there is so much more to us than our appearance. I don’t speak poorly about myself in front of her and I’m always careful to say things like, “you’re so smart,” “you’re such a kind girl,” and “you’re so strong” instead of things like, “you’re so pretty,” or “you’re so cute.” Right now, I play the largest role in shaping her sense of self-image, self-esteem, and self-worth, but I worry about the future when others will begin to have a greater influence, especially with the widespread and obsessive use of social media.
The use of social media has increased dramatically in the past several years and has become an integral part of the social life of our children. According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens report that they have regular access to the use of a smartphone, and 45% report that they are online on a near constant basis, mostly on various social media platforms. These numbers continue to rise and have caused researchers to start taking a closer look at the effects of social media use on self-esteem and body image, particularly in young girls. Adolescent girls are more likely to use image-based social media platforms that may be more likely to negatively affect their self-confidence and body satisfaction. Girls are being bombarded on social media with filtered, altered, and staged images posted by their peers and strangers, in an attempt to gain likes, comments, and followers. The more likes and followers someone receives, the more likes and followers they want, and thus starts the cycle. This can often lead girls feeling pressured to seek an unrealistic image of perfection. Sixteen-year-old Sahara wrote, “I am now caught up in this madness of perfection. I find myself saying, “This is the perfect lighting for a picture.” She also writes, “social media was the main reason I had increasingly sinking self-esteem. Seeing beautiful girls with perfect bodies and even more perfect lives made me feel bad about myself, that I wasn’t enough and would never be enough. In school, I was already dealing with people who would make me feel badly about who I was, and social media made that issue even worse. I tried so hard to release an image out to the world that I was this perfect girl with a perfect life.”
This terrifies me. I worry that my daughter may be engulfed by this exaggerated world of false perfection and I struggle with finding ways to prevent this. I fear that it will negatively affect her in so many ways.
So, what do we as parents do? Social media is definitely here to stay. It has become an integral part of our children’s culture, and although I believe that we need to be paying closer attention to how early our children are introduced to social media and how much time they spend on it, we cannot keep them away from it forever. Here are some of my suggestions, as both a professional and as a mother, on how we can help to preserve our children’s self-esteem and positive body image as they struggle though the adolescent years on social media.
~Start nurturing a positive body image now. It’s never too early. Don’t speak poorly about yourself, your body, or other people’s bodies in front of you child. When they are young, use phrases like “You are so smart” or “You are so kind” more often than “You are so pretty.” When looking at photos of other people talk about how they appear confident, strong, sad, thoughtful, etc. instead of how they look physically. Discuss how no two people are the same and that being different makes us unique and beautiful. Talk about how there is amazingness in in being ourselves and not striving to be like others. As they get older and begin to confide in you that they don’t like certain things about their body, sympathize with them. We’ve all been there. Listen to their concerns and let them know that it’s normal to feel that way sometimes, and that you struggled with this too. Help them find the beauty in their imperfections and let them know that you needed help at times too.
~Emphasize that a healthy body is a beautiful body. Enlist ALL family members to eat healthy and exercise together, even when they are young. Discuss how strong healthy bodies can do amazing things. Be mindful of how you discuss the times you don’t eat healthy. We all love a cupcake or some other treat once in a while, but if you child hears you saying you are so “bad” for eating that, or that that cookie is going to “go straight to my butt,” they will start to think similar things when they eat cookies… and all kids should be happy when they’re eating a cookie!
~Build resilience. Life can be cruel and raw sometimes, and your child will indeed face some tough times, just as we all do. Prepare them as best you can by being honest with your struggles and the struggles of others. Help them understand that not everyone will like everything about them (and some might even be quite cruel in letting them know that), but they can be strong enough to move past negative criticism. Stand up for them when they feel defeated, but don’t fight their battles for them. Too much coddling can make children feel like you don’t think they are strong enough to fight their own battles. Let them lead the fight; just be there to fight beside them if necessary.
~Be honest about social media and your concerns. As our children get older and are introduced to social media, be honest about what you know regarding its effects. Admit that you understand and accept that social media plays a significant role in their lives. You do not want to be the parent that “just doesn’t understand” and gets shut out of their daily struggles. Learn about the social media platforms that your child and their friends are using and talk to them about it. Let them teach you the details (they will LOVE being the expert). Then guide them with regard to how to think about and process what they see. Discuss the fact that people often post filtered, altered, and staged photos and that frequently what they are seeing does not reflect reality. Adolescents will forget this when they are in the social media “trenches.” Remind them and remind them often. They WILL start feeling as if everyone is better, more beautiful, more perfect then they are. Acknowledge that what they are feeling is valid and understandable, but remind them of their true beauty. It’s going to be your job to keep them grounded in reality and appreciative of their strengths and talents.
Parenting is tough. Let’s do it together.
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It takes a village.