Self-esteem is important for all of us, but the variables that directly impact our self-esteem are unique for each individual. Some people gain self-worth through measures of vanity, ranging from new clothes, new hair cut, or new car. Others experience improved mental health through accomplishments in the classroom or sports field. And, of course, many people feel better about themselves because of a new, high paying job. While all of these experiences can have a direct impact on self-esteem, increasingly more people each day — especially young people — determine their self worth largely in relation to social media responses by means of likes, comments, follows, and other measures of social approval. What psychological effect does social media validation have on people and their overall well-being? Are kids more vulnerable to self-esteem damage when their social media posts are ridiculed, or ignored altogether? And what can we do to shift self-esteem growth away from social media and back to real life interactions and experiences?
Social media endorphin rush
For those of us old enough, I doubt we could have ever predicted that we would eventually live our lives where so much of it is carried out through virtual interactions on the internet. Many things that we used to do in person (i.e. hang out) are now done online, and as a result how we think of ourselves develops largely from our online relationships and interactions. When we experience favorable “likes” and other social proof, an endorphin rush often follows where happy chemicals are produced in the brain to relieve stress and pain. Ironically, just as positive social media interactions can be healthy and build up self-esteem, negative posts (or no public response at all) can have the opposite effect. When social media experiences are negative, endorphin increases are replaced by anxiety and mood state decline experienced in the form of depression.
There are potential dangers when we place all our self-worth into the hands of social media validation. When we experience a lot of attention, can we assume those approving our posts genuinely like us a lot? If instead the “likes” and follows are just our friends conditioned to robotically click and say “you’re great,” are these legitimate ways to improve self-esteem? Conversely, when we do not receive recognition and praise online — or experience negative interactions — what is the net result? Social media is immediate, transparent, and public, resulting in a very different and new way to examine long-term personality development — especially with kids.
Kids, social media, & self-esteem
Young people today have never known a time where social media did not exist. Facebook and Instagram have always been around for them, and most of their lives can be accounted for by simply looking through the archives of their social media. Young people have become conditioned to post about themselves, pay close attention to the response rate and comments they receive from their posts, and in turn participate similarly when looking at others and their unique posts. While the real world goes on around them, most kids today stay tuned in to their phones and pads tuned in to the virtual world on their device. There are many consequences to this lifestyle, of course, including direct effects on self-esteem, confidence, communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and much more. Some kids experience a boost in how they feel about themselves, while others quickly retreat and experience distress while coping with negative posts — or being ignored altogether.
It is important for parents to help their kids successfully navigate social media by living beyond technology, and developing self-esteem independent of how much others “like” what was posted. Parents can help steer kids into living a more balanced life, and to place less emphasis on being virtually “liked” for everything they do and instead develop self-esteem based on simple, real-life things like actual interactions with people, and successful real-life accomplishments. Parents can also help kids tamp down the effects of negative social media in the form of anger, ridicule, and bullying. Yes, these efforts may take time and won’t always work in the moment, but it is most worthwhile for parents to guide kids into healthy ways of developing self-esteem that do not hinge on everyone “liking” what they post on social media.
Ideas for healthy change
Social media is here to stay, but increasingly more people are unplugging and/or taking time away from social media in order to recharge. Getting away from all the noise might be the best way to clear your mind, and if you decide to do this consider these ideas to help:
- Unplug with a purpose. If you decide to scale back from social media (or log off altogether), combine this effort with new future goals and experiences. What will you do with this newly found time? Is it time to start exercising again? What home projects have you set aside that can be revisited?
- Engage in real-life stuff. What real things can you do in place of being tethered to your phone? Rather than using electronic communication, can you carve out time to see people in person instead?
- Model real-life behavior for kids. If you are a parent who becomes regularly frustrated with how your children are always online, what are you modelling? Rather than telling your kids to go do something else, why not show them firsthand by watching you do things beyond checking your phone and marinating on Facebook?
- Talk about effects of social media. Have regular conversations about the impact of social media, the long-term consequences of self-esteem tied to virtual interactions, and the value of living beyond being tethered to a phone or pad.
There is nothing wrong with social media, but if we do not use social media responsibly we could soon find ourselves defining our lives by how many people like or follow us in the virtual world rather than people actually knowing us in the real world. For kids these concerns are amplified as they are more vulnerable to online criticism, ridicule, and bullying. It is for these reasons that we should regularly self-audit our social media usage and evaluate the effects of time spent online and the overall impact on our psychological development and mental health. Similarly, for parents it is important to tune in to how their kids are using social media, and the overall impact social media is having on self-esteem and well-being.