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What I’m discovering about girls, social media and self esteem

Girls, social media and self esteem. What is, if any, the connection between how a young girl uses technology and social media and the health of their self esteem? If there is a connection, what comes first? An already existing low self esteem leading to trawling through social media feeds in an attempt to find connection and a place to fit in?  Or does trawling the highlights and fabulous feeds of friends and peers lead to a mind and body blow to even the more robust self esteem?

I guess it doesn’t really matter the reason, what we need to focus on is giving young people the control back. We want to ensure they recognise that which is helpful to their esteem, and that which is not.

In my work with teachers, parents and students themselves, I am always seeking to understand the role technology plays and more importantly how we can garner the positive elements of that role. We need to ensure that it becomes a welcome addition to their life and their sense of self worth and not something that tears at the seams of their social and emotional health and wellbeing.

To help understand this a little better, I asked 75 young girls between 12 and 17, about their views on social media and how it affects their self esteem. This was simply a survey and not an academic or scientific study of any kind, but it did give me valuable insight into the thoughts and behaviours of the girls around me and at the schools that I am working with. I also chose girls as I was doing a conference focused on girls education and the self esteem issues do appear to be more prevalent in girls than boys in relation to social media.  Here is some of what I found. Some not surprising, some a little more so.

Where girls are hanging out online

Overwhelmingly girls favourite social networks that they visit daily are Instagram and Snapchat. Closely followed by Facebook which may surprise some who think they are not hanging out there anymore because that’s where aunty and uncle and now grandma are spending their time. But it seems they are still using Facebook, just somewhat differently to the ‘oldies’. They are still engaging in lots of group chats on Facebook, organising and finding out about events and sharing videos. A handful are using Twitter, Tumblr and Whatsapp. Younger girls, (not from this survey) but those in lower primary particularly, are using Musical.ly, which yes, is very much a social network.

Removing a post that doesn’t get likes

Of the 75 girls surveyed, 30% of them had removed a photo because it didn’t get enough ‘likes’.

Other reasons girls gave for removing a photo from their feeds were:

  • ‘because I wasn’t happy with the image quality of my photograph’
  • ‘doesn’t fit feed, don’t like picture anymore’
  • ‘My boyfriend didn’t comment’
  • ‘because I changed my mind about what I should post on the internet’
  • ‘decided it was the wrong time of day to post’
  • ‘didn’t like the way it matched my other photos’
  • ‘cos I keep it to 23 posts’
  • ‘it was old’

I guess from some of these responses there is definitely a sense of keeping an eye on how they are being represented, which can certainly be a good thing. There are obviously some who are more concerned with how others are seeing them from a popularity point of view and possibly those worried about the aesthetics of their feed. Whilst we want a focus on being in charge of how they are being perceived online, we still want them to be comfortable with who they are, without relying on the opinions of others to dictate that self worth.

Self esteem, social media & comparison

Over three quarters of the respondents said they had experienced the negative feelings of comparison when scrolling and engaging on social media, but the degree to which it affected their self esteem varied.

Some of the responses to the effect of seeing the enviable things others were doing and the great photos that they posted were:

  • ‘everyone compares themself to someone online, that’s just life’
  • ‘I feel like I see it but I am not overly affected by it. If I am feeling particularly vulnerable, photos of models may make me question my body image but don’t have a dominating impact. I am probably more affected by seeing things I am not included in’
  • ‘I know I do feel bad sometimes, but I try my hardest not to’
  • ‘I do compare myself sometimes but people call me cute more often online so I feel more confident about myself online’
  • ‘people filter and edit their photos and make themselves look glamorous and you see them and your like I wish I looked like that or had a life like that’
  • ‘I used to be very insecure about my skin colour because I used to see lighter skinned models on social media and I used to compare myself’
  • ‘occasionally but my self esteem is already non existent’
  • ‘It’s pretty normal to feel not as pretty and stuff’
  • ‘I think a lot of people are but honestly I am not affected by it. I get that people only put their best selves on there and I do the same. It doesn’t really occur to me to compare myself but I 100% know people who have had adverse affects and become terrified of showing any flaws’
  • ‘I do see the comparisons, but I’m comfortable and confident in myself most of the time and try not to compare to others’
  • ‘To a certain extent, but I put a lot of effort in to not letting it affect me. I try and post photos of real happiness’
  • ‘ahaha oui! 100% I hate social media in that aspect but I just try to lurk memes but then I get self conscious when I see cool gals who are actually bitches in real life’
  • I couldn’t give a s#@t what others think’
  • ‘it affects me a little. More likes on a post affects my self efficacy but I wouldn’t say it changes how I feel about myself’
  • ‘I get jealous of other people but it never really affects my self esteem’.
  • ‘I always compare myself to others, social media or not’.
  • ‘Yes a little, but not a whole lot. I do find myself comparing myself to friends or other randoms on the internet’
  • ‘sometimes, so I will just lay low on Instagram and not post for a while’
  • ‘Yes I compare myself to others especially when I see a really thin girl’
  • ‘Yes but I do that in real life as well’
  • ‘not generally I don’t because i think due to tumlbr I’m much more influenced by a culture that promotes individualism. but generally I find my friends who use facebook more often do compare themselves a little but in a way that they try to be particularly outstanding from those people’
  • ‘generally I know the comparisons are there but I just post what I like and don’t really care what other people think’.

What do we know

We know that social media is and will continue to play a huge role in the social lives of young people right throughout adolescents and beyond.

We know that the health of their social and emotional development and wellbeing often plays out online as a result of what happens in real life and vice versa.

Comparison is going to continue to be something that everyone must deal with as we are bombarded with the often curated, filtered and specifically chosen images of the daily updates from friends, foes, randoms and ratbags.

Many have a healthy sense of self esteem and are not affected by what they see online and on social media.

Others recognise the effects  and accept them as part of this life, but do make an effort to avoid them.

Others know the dangers, but feel powerless to avoid for fear of missing out.

what do we want for girls?

We want a world where they recognise that the comparisons and the ‘in your face’ nature of social media may seem to demand they keep up, catch up or stay ahead of the game,  but the reality is that you can always feel that someone is better, prettier, skinnier, smarter, stronger than you. We need them to have some coping mechanisms and strategies to deal with this.

We need them to have the attitude this is ‘part and parcel’ of the world today. There is much I cannot change about what others are doing, but there is much I can control about my own experiences online and how I respond to the experiences of others.

We want them to know that whilst sometimes they may feel powerless, ultimately they have the ability to take control of the role social media plays in their life and how they let it play out for their sense of self worth.

For a great eBook for young people, Turia Pitt has written “Good Selfie: Tips and tools for Teens to nail life” and it is well worth the investment for the teens in your life.

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