According to a 2015 Pew Research report, more than half of teens regularly use Instagram, and it’s likely that number has continued to rise. As a photo- and video-based platform, Instagram lets users share their own photos and scroll through other people’s feeds (ranging from people they know, like friends and family, to celebrities and well-known bloggers or industry leaders). It’s a way to gather inspiration about their passions, from fashion to cooking to video games, and be in the know about the people they care about.

But it can also breed competition, self-esteem issues, and an obsession with online attention-seeking and “likes.” Marketers use influencers (people with hefty followings) to sell everything from diet pills to designer clothing, and a massive “fitspo” (fitness inspiration) community promotes a hard-to-attain body. This can have an especially negative effect on teens, many of whom are already vulnerable to self-esteem issues.

“When models normalize a physical ideal, this can imply to a teen that they are not ‘normal’ and that there is something ‘wrong’ with their appearance,” says Dr. Carl Pickhardt, psychologist and author of Surviving (Your Child’s) Adolescence. “Because of painful self-comparisons they can generate in young viewers, icons of physical beauty do more damage to adolescent self-esteem than they ever do good.”

Concerned about your teen’s social media use? Here’s how you can help:

  • Encourage open conversation about social media, talking about the good ways to use it (i.e., finding recipes, outfit ideas, connecting with friends or family abroad) as well as your concerns (“I noticed that fitness blogger you follow is very thin—I hope you don’t feel like that is the body type everyone is supposed to have.”). Here are some tips to share with your teen.
  • Foster self-confidence and a healthy body image at home. Avoid negative self-talk (complaining about your weight)—research shows that what parents say about their own bodies can have a significant effect on their children’s body image.
  • Promote healthy eating and physical activity for their many benefits—such as a mood boost, stress reduction, and disease prevention—instead of to look a particular way or get a “beach body.”
  • Social media is so distracting and engulfing for teens that most can easily waste an entire afternoon scrolling through their feeds. On weekends or weeknights after homework, plan or suggest outings that they can organize with their friends that will get them out of the house and off their phones. For example, suggest that they go see that new movie, take a hike (if weather permits), sign up for a creative workshop or cooking class, etc.
  • Is your student dieting or exercising excessively? Pay attention for symptoms of eating disorders. If you believe they might be at risk, contact the National Eating Disorder Association. They’ll offer support and guidance to help you find the right specialist for your teen.

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Article sources

Carl Pickhardt, PhD, author of Surviving (Your Child’s) Adolescence and psychologist specializing in adolescent behaviors in Austin, Texas.

Jerry Weichman, PhD, clinical psychologist, Newport Beach, California.

Renee Engeln, PhD, psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Ronald Palomares, PhD, assistant professor and director of the School Psychology Doctoral Program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas.

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Student Health 101 survey, October 2016.