Can social media affect self-esteem?

All social networks measure the popularity or reach of your interaction with the online community. Twitter has ‘retweets’, Instagram has ‘followers’ and Facebook has 'likes’.  This can be unhealthy if these online forms of kudos make or break a person’s mood or self-esteem.

This will help you to:

  • understand why social media is important to young people
  • understand how social media impacts on self-esteem
  • learn ways that you can help young people have a positive experience with social media.
Students on phone in playground

Why is social media so important to young people?

There are many reasons why young people love social media. It’s a platform for self-expression, as well as for staying in touch with friends. Understanding the benefits of social media will help you to keep up with the young people you work with.

Help young people have positive social media experiences

Young people place a lot of value in the feedback they receive on social media. There are lots of things you can do to help the young people you work with understand that social media follower count, likes, and interactions are not a measure of their actual worth.

  • Remind them that self-worth isn’t defined by likes or follows. Sometimes people need a little reminder that self-worth will never be measured by numbers on social media. Encourage young people to focus on the positive friendships and relationships that they have.
  • Discuss how social media is not a competition. Just because a person has more likes on their post does not mean their contribution is better or more interesting. Encourage them to focus on gratitude for their own lives, instead of making social comparisons with others.
  • Help them choose good online role models. It’s good to understand the connection between the images that young people consume online and their attitudes to identity and body image. You can help by encouraging them to follow positive and inspiring people on social media who promote a healthy body image.
  • Talk about the real word vs. the online world. An Instagram post is only one tiny (filtered) moment from a person's day. It does not depict the full story. It is important to remind young people to be mindful when using social media that posts rarely reflect real life.
  • Show them how to filter out particular content. If you know there is a person or theme (such as 'thinspo') that could upset a young person you know, suggest they unfollow or hide posts from this person. This can be a good way to protect them from comparing themselves to others

When to worry

It’s important to notice unhealthy behaviour relating to social media use. Ask yourself these questions if you are concerned about a young person you work with:

  • Are they valuing these online forms of kudos the same way as real-life interactions?
  • Do they have an unhealthy obsession over how many ‘friends’, ‘likes’ or ‘followers’ they have?
  • Do these social network interactions define your their sense of self-worth?
  • Do ‘likes’ on photos or more ‘followers’ generate a sense of accomplishment for them?
  • Are they comparing their online popularity to others?

What to do if you're worried

  • Encourage face to face interaction to nurture meaningful friendships and relationships.
  • Suggest positive role models for them to follow. Find some examples of people sharing content that is helpful and positive, and encourage them to have more of this in their newsfeed.
  • Encourage activities to do that don't involve screens. Sometimes all that’s needed is a little fresh air. Help the young person you work with develop a plan for activities (such as sport, movies, taking short courses, or outdoor adventures) that they can engage with instead.
  • Let them know they can take a break from social media. If their relationship with social media is getting out of hand, they can always deactivate their account and reactivate when they feel ready.
  • Get them to talk to someone. If you are really worried that their self-esteem is being impacted negatively, let them know that they can speak with a parent or carer, a school counsellor or a GP. If body image is a big issue, The Butterfly Foundation offers free counseling.

Next steps

  • Let parents know that they can help. It’s a good idea to encourage parents to talk about social media with their kids. Let parents know of the support and information they can access on ReachOut Parents about social media and teenagers.
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