We get freaked out about how our kids present themselves on social media and what and how they communicate. Much of that freak-out is justified. But remember, for centuries we have been altering our public self-image. Directing portrait artists and photographers to present the best you; attention on clothes and makeup to enhance appearance, wigs to cover unwashed hair. Letter writing has always allowed carefully thought-out words as opposed to spontaneous and possibly awkward conversation. We have always cared about our public image. Nothing new here—except social media presents a constant reminder that one’s “real” self is deficient.
This is especially harsh in the teen years when normal development is a journey into the mire of who am I? Teens try on costume after costume, hang around with this type and that, figuring out the answer. Emerging from a pandemic after a year and a half is especially tough. What costume will I emerge in? Actually, What are the costumes now?
Who your teen is at home away from the world of critical eyes is quite a different persona than the one she presents to the outside world. It’s hard work to be two different people day in and day out. The more questioning going on in her mind, the more stress there is to release onto the people she doesn’t have to impress—Mom, Dad, sisters, and brothers get the brunt of her turmoil and are the last ones she wants to open up to. They’re all clueless. Her behavior gets negative feedback, convincing her all the more that no one understands.
This is naturally a fragile and insecure stage of development and fertile territory for social media to take hold and make her life both easier and more anxious. Now she can work on that public persona day and night at the touch of a send button. Her feedback is immediate—likes, comments, or nothing triggers the release of either dopamine or cortisol. Constant feedback keeps her in the loop of am I okay? as well as the images of others looking happy and perfect. Emojis allow her to express her feelings so she doesn’t have to process her emotions in real time.
Self-confidence is the antidote for falling victim to the influence of social media.
An involved, confident, active, connected-to-family teen is more likely to gain from the benefits of social media and not get sucked into the downsides of its influence. But the growth of self-confidence starts years before the stress of the teen identity struggle. You can’t just suddenly do something or say something to give your teen self-confidence.
When your teen is anxious and down, he will launch social media as his way to connect. That has been helpful for many during Covid as their only means of staying connected to friends. But if confidence is low and friendships have been tough, social media is more likely to pry apart the widening gap between your teen and his peers. In this case, you have a formula for depression and social anxiety.
Here’s what you can do:
- First understand what social media is doing for your teen and the reasons she cannot turn away from it. It is her means of connection. Find out if she is connecting with good friends or searching for them?
- If your child is not truly processing her emotions in real time with real friends, she needs to be able to do it with you if only occasionally. Doing so is a delicate operation and must involve listening and not questioning.
- Ask yourself if there is any area you might be putting pressure on your child to do what you think would be best—sports, academics, reaching out to friends—giving your teen the idea he isn’t doing it right according to you. Your job, especially in the teen years, is to offer opportunities but to follow your child’s lead.
- It’s critical to encourage your child, with your guidance, to voice his opinions, express his feelings, and make some decisions about his life for a long time before the teen years.
- In the teens, defer to your child’s decisions and trust who your child is underneath his behavior. If you don’t agree, discuss each of your agendas and make agreements. No more rules. No more saying, No you can’t.
- Determining when to push and when to pull back can be worked out through problem solving. I want this, you want that. How do we work it out so we both get what we want? When you must say no, cooperation is more likely when most other times are worked through together.
- Pay more attention to how your child is thinking about the decisions she makes more than what those decisions are. Ask her questions that help that process.
Never determine the good or bad of grades. Find out what your child thinks of them and what she wants to do about them.
- When talking about social media, instead of judging it outright, discuss with your child what persona she wants to put out there; what persona she sees as acceptable from her friends; and wonder out loud if they have different personas in their private lives?
Your connection with your child—meaning your child knows you are always safe to come to because you will listen and not give unsolicited advice or make judgments—is what builds self-confidence. You child gets to learn who he is in the reflection he sees of himself in your eyes.