Everyone has heard of the term “selfie” by now – it was even declared the Word of the Year in 2013 by Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
There is an art to taking the perfect selfie: it should be done at arm’s length (with your own arm, preferably), often in a mirror; you’re supposed to appear casual, sexy, provocative, or all of the above; and it is acceptable to take several selfies before you get the perfect one to post to the likes of Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr or Snapchat.
The goal is to control how you’re presented to the social media world (re: in the best possible light) and encourage as many friends and followers as you can to comment on your looks, Most users of social media are guilty of taking a selfie once in a while, but what if it becomes an obsession, especially if you’re an impressionable teenager hoping to look good in front of the eyes of your peers? What if you’re already plagued by the feeling that you’re not pretty enough, thin enough or cool enough? More importantly, why is this pastime so readily accepted socially, especially among young women?
What research shows
Recent studies have indicated that selfies can be attributed to narcissism, addiction, even mental illnesses, such as body dysmorphic disorder. You may also alienate the very friends and followers you are trying to impress.
For example, a 2013 study of Facebook users found that posting photos of oneself correlates with lower levels of social support from Facebook friends, apart from those in your “close friends” group.
According to a recent study conducted by Dr. Emily Kolpa and Dr. Megan Moreno for the Journal of Adolescent Health, young women share more photos on Facebook than older women and men, and women are also 3.5 times more likely to post on Facebook about their weight than men. They found that the majority of updates are negative in tone and deal with subjects such as diet or exercise. Many celebrities post selfies for their followers on social media to promote their “sex symbol” status, but this can be damaging to self-esteem to a young girl viewing them.
However, a recent study by a team of researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, the University of Iowa and Ohio University, demonstrates that friends’ photos on Facebook have a greater effect on women than images of actresses and models. They did not find a link between Facebook and eating disorders, but they emphasize that women should exercise caution on Facebook so they do not develop body image problems. Their message is to take every photo you see with a pinch of salt. However, there are tools that parents can use to help enhance their teenagers’ self-esteem.
Kids and mental health
Grace Ranke, an Australian-trained clinical psychologist currently working at Chatterbox in Grand Cayman is a passionate advocate for positive mental health in children, adolescents and their families. According to Ranke, the teenage years are marked by significant changes in physical appearance and an increasing awareness of outward appearance. “For teenagers, and indeed many adults, self-esteem is strongly linked to physical appearance and to feeling that they are attractive to others. Social media and the new social importance of selfie photos amongst teenagers has encouraged this trend – the comments and ‘likes’ received on their photos are highly valued, and reinforce the idea that it is outward appearance more than any other quality or ability by which a person’s worth is valued or judged,” she says.
“Unfortunately, relying on outward appearance and the judgment of others to estimate our self-worth is a recipe for disaster and low self-esteem. Research has shown us that low self-esteem is a risk factor for a number of mental health issues such as anxiety disorders and depression. It has also been linked to negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, poor social interaction and negative relationship experiences.”
Ranke says that in order to encourage healthy self-esteem, teenagers need to realize that outward physical appearance is only one of many aspects to a person.
“We need to help them learn to notice, cultivate and value the other aspects of themselves, such as their personality features, talents and achievements.”
However, she quickly points out that asking teenagers to completely disconnect from the demands and expectations of social media is not the answer, as social media has become an inescapable feature of our society that teens need to learn to deal with and to use sensibly.
“The good news is that while the media and society do influence our teenagers, parents are still more important than they may think when it comes to encouraging the development of healthy self-esteem.”
Tips for parents
She offers the following tips for parents:
- Act as a positive role model. Try not to talk negatively about your own body and appearance, and try not to calculate your own sense of self-worth or that of others on the basis of physical appearance.
- Be mindful of the way you speak about or focus on the appearance of others.
- Make sure that your praise for your daughter or son is not solely based on appearance. Focus your praise on efforts, accomplishments and character.
- Try to help your children to see that personal qualities (such as being kind, hard-working or considerate) rather than physical appearance are the important features that help define a person’s worth.
- Encourage your teenagers to be involved in sports or other physical activities. Regular physical exercise can enhance mental health and reduce symptoms of stress and depression. It also encourages teenagers to recognize the potential of their bodies – to do things rather than simply to look a certain way. This is especially important for girls.
- Try to watch movies and other media with your teenagers. Discuss the way people are portrayed and encourage reflection and debate.
- “The key is for parents to remember that while they may feel overwhelmed by the pervading influence of schoolmates, television and social media, they are not helpless when it comes to helping their teenagers to develop positive feelings of self-worth and self-image,” says Ranke.
- “As always, parents should remember that their teenagers will learn far more from what you do and how you act around them, compared to what you say to them directly.”
For more information, contact Ranke at [email protected] or 928-6976.