Picture Perfect: How to Help Your Teen Survive an ‘Instagram-Ready’ World

As the mom of a teenage girl, I have a front row seat to the good, the bad, and the heartbreaking ways social media influences teens. The struggle to fit in with peers that every teen generation is tasked to navigate has only proliferated with technology. Now it’s not just presenting your best self at school, on the field, or at parties, the bigger challenge is perfecting an Instagram-ready look 24/7.

What’s the Instagram-ready look demand? Make-up on fleek, hair just right, clothes on point, and an aesthetic that visually competes. But what about flaws like pimples or cellulite? There are plenty of photo apps for that.

Sounds like a lot of work right?

Walk for a moment, if you will, in a teen’s shoes where the digital image is the reality. Perfection is the aspiration. You must portray the perfect friends, perfect body, and perfect relationships. Cleverness is a must (ordinary doesn’t get likes). Going viral is the dream (even if you try dangerous stunts). And, competing not just with peers but with beautiful bodies worldwide (usually photoshopped) is the social reality most teens wake up to each morning.

Here’s the reality:

  • People are getting plastic surgery to look better in selfies.
  • To visually compete online, the cost of prom has skyrocketed when you consider the promposal, designer dresses, professional hair and makeup.
  • Online pressure is leading to extreme behaviors. Sexting has been called the ‘new normal’ and even ‘first base’ among tweens and teens by some studies.
  • Constant connection and the pressure to be perfect online is affecting the physical and mental health of teenagers.
  • According to Anxiety.org, social media provokes anxiety and causes users to 1) compare themselves and despair over material and physical deficiencies 2) fear of missing out and being excluded  3) develop technology addictions.
  • A recent study reveals that women who spend more time on social media have increased body image issues.

While we can’t erase social pressure or put the Internet in a sleeper hold until out kids safely pass to adulthood, as parents, we can coach our kids through this digital arena with a shot of reality.

So what can we do to stop (or at least put a dent) in the madness? Here are a few suggestions.

5 tips to help teens relieve digital pressure

  1. Reshape ‘reality.’ Take the time (repeatedly) to remind your child that social media content is carefully edited and rarely reflects real life. Remind them that in spite of our distinct differences, we all share feelings of insecurity, fear, and  — they just don’t photograph and post those moments. A simple “I love you just the way you are,” from time to time is always a good idea.
  2. Challenge social comment paradigm. Teens tend to focus on looks when they comment on a peer’s photos. Unfortunately, if you read comment threads, the discussion ends at the surface. Teach your child how to express herself in comments beyond looks. For instance: Replace “hottie” with “love your confidence;” replace “#tbh you are gorgeous!” with “And, just as beautiful on the inside.”
  3. Initiate higher discussions. Talk to your child about the big stuff or someone else will. Get comfortable talking about the importance of a positive body image, the many ways to value women and their contributions to the world, and the unrealistic body images promoted by the media. Challenge your teen on how people modify their appearance online and her opinion on the issue. “Why do people do it? What do you think they gain?” Sometimes just voicing a feeling or opinion can make a teen feel less alone and begin to challenge the norm.
  4. Get personal. Ask your child how she feels about the comments people make about her online and how both positive and negative comments make her feel. Sometimes just voicing wins and hurts can open up fresh, realistic discussion around the issue.
  5. Watch the Dove videos. Sit down together and watch Dove’s powerful videos on body image and real beauty. If you’ve never seen these videos, your family is in for a refreshing shot of truth.
  6. Affirm, accept, repeat. Send your child a strong message that she is accepted, individually designed, and possesses an internal beauty all her own. Be careful not to focus on looks or make critical comments about your appearance or body or criticize the appearance of others.
  7. Build your bond. Building communication with your child strengthens trust and influence. The goal: That your feedback means more to your child than a like or a heart. Be sure to listen more than you talk and ask questions specific to your child’s interests.
  8. Encourage non-tech activity. Help your child develop interests (offline) that affirm her skills, build face-to-face friendships, and highlight her individual talents. Teens will rarely log off voluntarily so be prepared to step in and even create a no-tech schedule to give your child’s brain and heart respite from digital approval.

Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family

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