Pressure to be perfect

How global competition on social media shatters self-esteem

Photo from CITTA’ NUOVA

6 min read

What does it mean to be a teenager in the 2020s? Compared to previous generations, today’s teenagers face an added challenge while coming of age: online peer pressure and a zillion possibilities to compare their bodies and their lives with others.

Before Instagram and TikTok made it possible to send a selfie or a video performance to the whole world with one click, opportunities were limited to real encounters and occasional media consumption like TV, youth magazines, local newspapers.

Let’s take a look at what teens say about social media use and peer pressure, then analyze the main differences and possible ways to counteract the negative effects.

The pressure to present themselves

In a 2018 Pew Research study, teens themselves describe platforms like Instagram and snapchat as a key tool for connecting and maintaining relationships, being creative, and learning more about the world.

But they also must contend with more negative aspects of social media use, such as drama and bullying or feeling pressure to present themselves in a certain way.

A majority of teens believe social media has had a positive impact on various aspects of their lives, the survey finds. Fully 81% of teens say social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, with 37% saying it makes them feel “a lot” more connected. And with the pandemic, this is most likely to be a lot higher.

But although sizable shares of teens encounter positive experiences on social media, 45% say they feel overwhelmed by all the drama on social media, while roughly 4 in 10 say they feel pressure to only post content that makes them look good to others or that will get lots of comments or likes.

Others believe social media has had a negative impact on their self-esteem: 26% of teens say these sites make them feel worse about their own life.

For some teens, sharing their life online can come with added social burdens. Close to 4 in 10 say they feel pressure to only post content on social media that makes them look good to others (43%) or share things that will get a lot of likes or comments (37%). Most teens post about their family, their emotions, their dating lives or events they attend.

The times they are a-changin’

Growing up comes with the most dramatic change in our bodies and our brains at the same time (not to mention the changes it brings for teens’ parents).

Most teenagers struggle with their changing features, and the pressure to be beautiful starts (at least for girls) at a young age. In a survey of girls aged 9–10, 40% reported that they’ve tried to lose weight, according to an ongoing study funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Before the internet made it possible to compare oneself with others on a worldwide scale, teenagers compared themselves to their peers at school, in sports, in the neighborhood. And while there are always beauty queens and sport heroes, the average high school is mostly frequented by… average teens.

Most teenagers were not backed by super-talented dancers, singers, makeup specialists or juvenile body builders. But their role models on TV, cinema, magazines, and social media somehow unconsciously lifted everything to a different standard. Not everyone could be a TV star or a magazine model.

Today, things are different: everyone must be on social media and present themselves always as pretty, trendy, creative, original. The positive effects—teens can easily connect and find a like-minded community—can backfire. In real life, only classmates see the pimples that have appeared overnight; online, a picture can go viral over different channels in a couple of minutes. So can mean comments, bullying, jokes.

It’s no wonder that young people spend a huge amount of time taking the right picture, using the best filters, and then post seemingly effortless, spontaneous pictures.

Growing anxieties

Young people 16–24 spend a median of 3 hours a day on social media. This can lead to anxiety, because while private messaging can be a great way to connect, group or public posts come with a trap. What if your post doesn’t get any attention? What if your friend always gets a lot more likes than you? Or your cool picture that you work on for hours is ridiculed?

Teens of past generations experienced being unnoticed or ignored once in a while in direct interactions, but now, a post can reach beyond your town, your state, your country.

Thinking of happiness about an achievement or a well-done dance? There’s always someone better out there, with better looks! This can fuel anxiety and the feeling of not being adequate, not worthy of a fulfilled life, or in the worst case, not worthy of love.

On the other hand, teens cannot miss connecting via online channels. Too much of our communication is on social media platforms and disconnecting a minor would mean excluding him or her from peer groups, friendships and possibilities to learn how to use these means in a balanced way.

There are other positive elements in communicating online. Especially during the pandemic, we all could experience that, while not a substitute for real-life encounters, social media is a blessing to keep in touch over a distance.

For teens especially, a cousin or friend who might live in another city can still be an emotional support in these challenging years.

Counteracting unhealthy elements

“If I was more like…” “If I was prettier, more athletic, more talented…” These type of “if” phrases do not lead to a happy and fulfilled life in the present.

We often take our worst trait and hold it up to others’ best traits. And compared with models, our looks may never come close. Comparing our life with the exciting posts by celebrities or clever influencers can only lead to the conviction that my life is dull, worthless, meaningless. We always seem to come up short.

Instagram’s mother company Meta (formerly Facebook) reacted to criticism by whistleblower Frances Haugen. It started offering “take a break” reminders if you’ve been scrolling on the social media app too long.

“We’re releasing this feature because we want people to be able to take a break and have their time on Instagram be intentional and meaningful — irrespective of whether that means seeing less ads or not,” Meta spokeswoman Liza Crenshaw said.

A feature the company says is coming in early 2022 will limit unwanted contact from strangers by preventing them from tagging teens in comments or posts.

The company also said it will roll out parental controls in March that let guardians see how much time teens spend on the app and set limits. Teens will also get the option to notify their parents when they report someone for inappropriate behavior on the app.

Tips for parents and teens

As Christians, we believe that God created us unique and loved just as we are. How can parents, teachers and ministers help young people to navigate the media world, and at the same time take care of their mental health?

Warnings and prohibitions often don’t help. Instead, being genuinely interested in their lives and boosting self-esteem might be a better way, according to the Child Mind Institute. Here are some tips:

Take social media seriously.

Don’t underestimate the role social media plays in the lives of teenagers. They never knew a world without social media, so the virtual part of their lives is very real. Parents or other adults should not minimize online experiences.

Encourage teens to think outside the box.

Without criticizing or undermining the importance of social media, encourage teens to explore them in a more critical way. This could lead to deeper questions such as whether their friends are really the people they appear to be online, or how getting likes (or not) affects their mood.

Show what a healthy response to failure looks like.

Kids need to get the message that it is okay to fail, and that failure is not the end. If parents hide their own failures, this will negatively affect their children’s resilience and ability to deal with setbacks. Adults can be a model how failure is nothing to be ashamed of, but an invitation to try again.

Praise effort.

Hard work — even if the result is not great — is something to be proud of and worthy of praise. It can also be helpful if adults are comfortable showing their own efforts, especially those that don’t end in success.

Go on a social media break.

Try to set family time aside without using social media. That means everyone! If kids see that parents break their own rules, they won’t unplug willingly.

During the struggles of puberty, teens being surrounded by people who love them for who they are helps them build up self-esteem. So does avoiding or reducing time on sources that feed insecurity, like some fitness or beauty apps.

In the end, a happy life does not depend on fame or celebrity status, but rather on the ability to find joy in daily life.

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.