In a time when social media offers a skewed, seemingly perfect filter on real life, there are ways to break through the noise and support your teen’s self-image.
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It's no secret teens are spending a great deal of time on their screens. According to 2019 research conducted by Common Sense Media, 13- to 18-year-olds average about seven and a half hours of entertainment media use (excluding school or homework) per day. Even teens themselves are concerned about this trend: 41 percent admit they spend too much time on social media, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey

There are a multitude of negative effects associated with spending too much time scrolling through filtered selfies and Instagram stories—but experts have connected the dots between device use and teens' body image.

Christia Spears Brown, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, conducted a cross-sectional study, which followed a diverse group of 142 middle schoolers, and found teens who reported posting more pictures on social media had a heightened awareness of their appearance. That was related to feeling more negatively about their body. 

illustration of girl hugging herself through an instagram frame mirror
Credit: Illustration by Emma Darvick

And there are consequences to weakened body image. “When teens don't measure up to the ideals endorsed by social media, they feel inferior, which has a powerful negative impact on their self-esteem," says Barrie Sueskind, MFT, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. Weakened self-esteem can lead to poor school performance, high-risk weight loss strategies, eating disorders, or mental health conditions like depression.

Thankfully, there are tools parents can use to help their adolescent avoid falling prey to the pressures of faux perfectionism.  

Help Your Teen Build Their Self-Image

Set boundaries with device use. Given that social media can be detrimental to a teen’s body image, time spent disconnected from technology is key. And it's a good idea for parents to model that behavior. "If you're always checking Facebook and Instagram and don't put your phone away at meals, you can't expect your teen to take social media breaks," says Sueskind.

Lisa Crilley, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, agrees and encourages parents to “go for a walk and talk to each other, play a game after dinner”—whatever sets the stage for one-on-one bonding. The reason: “Teens will have an easier time disconnecting if they have a place to connect to that feels really good.”

Watch your own body-conscious language and behavior. “For a parent to be able to give body positivity to their teen, they have to have it,” notes Crilley. Show off imperfections and “embody the attitude of, ‘Why would I feel shame about how I look when there's nothing to be shameful about?’” 

Have an honest conversation about what’s real and what’s not. The more open and honest parents are about the falsehoods that social media sells, the better. “Talk to your kids frankly about the way social media promotes an unhealthy body image,” recommends Sueskind. Avoid lectures and instead ask them what they think about the images they see on social media. "Encouraging them to think for themselves will get them thinking critically about the images that bombard them.”

Remind your teen that social media users rarely highlight negative aspects of their lives. “Everybody is trying to show things—whether that’s a friendship, a vacation, a beauty product—in its best light on social media, and it's not real,” says Crilley. “What's real is zits and different shapes."

Celebrate their individuality. “Avoiding reality is not helpful,” says Crilley. But it’s OK to say that neither of you have that beauty blogger’s particular shape or that YouTube star’s hair. This will help your teen identify what makes them unique and embrace that. 

By identifying and celebrating what makes them unique, they’ll have an easier time being an individual in their friend group—and negative messages from social media won't penetrate as much, because they’ll have an appreciation and acceptance of themselves, says Crilley.

Counter unrealistic images with realistic ones. Whether you go to a water park or a department store that has a communal dressing room, bring teens to places where they can see a diverse range of body types. “Say, ‘This is what the world is—it isn’t what you see on social media or TV,’” says Crilley. 

Thankfully, there are examples of this in today's media that you and your teen can turn to. “For example, Lizzo, an immensely popular pop artist sings about self-love and scoffs at the ways in which her body may not fit conventional standards of body size/shape,” says Oyenike Balogun-Mwangi, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Salve Regina University. “Voices and bodies like Lizzo’s are immensely important in cultivating a culture where teens, no matter their shape/size, can feel seen and valued.”

Signs Your Teen May Need Extra Help

Body checking. “When teens spend a lot of time worrying about how they look and a lot of time making sure they look ‘perfect’ or not ‘ugly,’ that can be a red flag that a teen is struggling with body image issues,” says Christine Selby, Ph.D., psychology professor at Husson University’s College of Science and Humanities and author of The Body Size and Health Debate. Pay attention if they spend too much time looking in the mirror, have an extensive and time-consuming getting ready routine, constantly make negative comments about their body or the bodies of others, or consistently express envy or desire to look like others.

Feeling distressed after spending time on social media. If you see that your teen is almost always stressed out after scrolling through his Instagram feed, it might be a sign it’s time to limit their time on it or curate what they’re looking at. Have them unfollow accounts that share glaringly unrealistic, highly-filtered, and airbrushed posts and encourage them to follow more body positive ones instead, says Dr. Selby. Suggest they follow body positive hashtags like #HonorMyCurves and #DaretoWear, too.

Restrictive eating or a decreased appetite. If your teen is suddenly restricting the types and varieties of food they are eating, it might be a sign that your teen is struggling with an eating disorder. Lacking an appetite could also be a sign of depression, says Sueskind.

Extreme fitness habits. On that note, over-exercising can also be an issue. It can be difficult to know when someone is exercising too much, especially if they are an athlete. But some signs to look out for include "continuing to exercise or workout despite injury or illness, being irritable or depressed if one cannot work out due to injury, illness, or some other reason, and working out beyond what is expected or recommended by one's coach or athletic trainer," says Selby.

If you’re noticing any of the above red flags, check in with a primary care provider and/or a mental health care professional. If your child is in need of community mental health services, you can find help in your area.