The Impact of Social Media on Girls and How Parents Can Help

In 2018, there is no shortage of social media apps, photo filters, emojis, bitmojis, text graphics, messengers, tags and hashtags for young women and girls to use to communicate, advertise and compare themselves with others. As adolescent and child therapists, we now hear about how a client’s “promposal” over Instagram compared to her best friend’s, or how a client’s friend did not maintain their “snapstreak” on Snapchat. These posts and interactions via social media both elicit strong, legitimate emotions in young women and also pose many questions about how we can best support them in a world where social rejection, comparison, and inclusion are literally at their fingertips most of the day everyday.

Research has shown that brief exposure to Facebook elicits a more negative mood in young women than brief exposure to an online fashion magazine; one possible reason for this is that Facebook provides women with a means for comparing themselves on a broad range of dimensions (beyond just appearance), such as social status and life experiences. Women may be judging others on Facebook to be happier or have better lives than them, which in turn could induce a more negative mood. In today’s world we now have more information than ever about those closest to us, be it on Facebook or on other forms of social media, that we can investigate privately, allowing for time-consuming judgment, self-comparisons, and jealousy.

Parents do not have control over how other young women may present themselves on social media and what that may elicit in their daughter, but they may also underestimate the impact they can have on how their daughter engages with social media. Here are some ideas on how to help your daughter have a positive relationship with social media:

  • Model it. Many adults now have numerous social media accounts of their own on which they like to post and communicate. If you are one of these parents, try not to post too frequently in front of your children; model modest frequency. This is not to say you are not allowed to snap a group picture of your family at the beach and share it with friends and family, but if you do, do not spend a lengthy amount of time editing it, posting it and checking back for “likes.” If you check social media too often, it models to your daughter that appearances and social approval/admiration are important and worth experiencing anxiety over. If you do post, do so cheerfully, briefly, and then return to giving your children, friends, family or task at hand your full intention. Additionally, do not spend what could be quality time with your children scrolling through feeds or messaging others, and never disparage other individuals’ posts to your children.
  • Respond empathically. If your daughter comes to you with a social media-related complaint, be curious before being dismissive. What on the surface may sound inconsequential could represent a big loss or hurt to your daughter (ex: the above mentioned promposals and snapstreaks.) This is an opportunity for building closeness, self-esteem, and teaching your daughter problem-solving in interpersonal relationships.
  • If your daughter posts content you do not approve of on social media, approach her with empathy, curiosity, and concern, not with the intent to shame, criticize, or punish. Young women already have enough insecurity about what they choose to post or share; if their parent shames them for this is it can negatively impact self-esteem even more or cause them to be more secretive about what they post in the future. However, you can explain that setting boundaries is part of being a caring parent and set boundaries on visual shared as well as content. And sometimes a parent setting a boundary gives a teen an explanation for their friends as to why they only post appropriate content, which makes it easier for the teen.
  • If all else fails, limit screen time. Taking away all social media from a pre-teen or teenager for a prolonged period of time is probably not feasible, practical, or even healthy, as teens can feel isolated and left out if they are unable to communicate with their peers in the normative way. However, if your daughter is consistently scrolling through feeds or communicating via messengers to the detriment of productivity or self-esteem, limiting screen time may be the simplest solution to minimizing self-comparison or need for social approval.