One 17-year-old girl I see for therapy has a daily “selfie process” that can take an hour or more.
It takes that long for her to alter and filter a photo of herself enough to feel comfortable posting it on Instagram. She demonstrated the process once in my office, admitting that she knew it looked nothing like her. But the “likes” poured in so quickly, such that she knew she would be doing it again the next day.
She called it a “self-esteem addiction.”
Instagram can be a dark and troubling place for the minds of our kids, my teen clients tell me. Not feeling they are good enough to post a selfie, for instance, they will filter and alter the shape of their bodies to mirror those of celebrities or influencers whose physique they admire, many of whom, our kids are well aware, are doing the same.
The charade is addictive. I’ve worked with countless girls who have significantly altered images of themselves to look a certain way, and just as many who are traumatized when an image of them is posted. This group follows other Instagram accounts, but rarely posts images of themselves for fear of embarrassment or ridicule for the way they look: their weight, their faces, their hair, all of it feels on display for judgment to these teens.
In fact, according to research conducted by parent company Facebook, Instagram can exert a negative impact on the mental health and body image of teenagers, especially girls.
Self-esteem of boys is affected as well
It’s important to remember, however, that teenage boys are also at risk. Teen and tween-age boys often follow other boys and men they feel have ideal masculine bodies or are more attractive than they are themselves. They carry many of the same insecurities as their female counterparts but may be less vocal about them.
One boy I work with removes the Instagram app from his phone from time to time, fully aware that other kids in his class have far more followers and have accumulated far more “likes” than he does. This leaves him loathing himself, truly believing he must be unlikeable.
The teenage Instagram therapist
Even the teens trying to provide support and connection may be doing some damage. Trying to support peers suffering from depression, anxiety, attention issues or eating disorders on Instagram, they will post inspirational quotes, pictures of reasonable meals, and realistic photos of their faces and bodies, flaws and all.
Though it’s heartening that teens want to support each other, and much of it can feel quite helpful, it can be a dangerous thing. There are no trained professionals monitoring their counsel, and sometimes the advice and support can provide incorrect information that can prove counterproductive and, in the extreme, dangerous.
Too often, our kids become de facto therapists for one another with no loving, reliable adult available to serve as an ally or guide through the morass of images and information offered on Instagram. Many kids are not developmentally prepared for the hit their self-worth would take given all of these variables.
A significant part of the problem with Instagram is that it’s damage often takes place alone late in the night. Because our kids don’t usually turn to their parents when they’re hurting in this way, loneliness too often ensues along with these self-worth issues. In the end, a social network likely designed for fun and connection presents a far more grim reality to our kids.
Facebook’s research also suggests that Instagram can be a good thing for the emotional wellness of kids. On occasion, that’s true. I work with one teenage girl who found support for her eating disorder, and methods for conquering it primarily from Instagram. She has gone on to create an account providing support and encouragement to other teenage sufferers. But from what I see in my practice, I think the negatives far outweigh the positives.
It is therefore critical that adults take steps to ensure the use of Instagram does not cause undue damage to the self-worth of our teens and tweens.
Dark Instagram: Finsta and promotion of extremist groups
Ask any teenager, and if they are being honest, they will share with you that they have more than one Instagram account. A “Finsta,” or fake Instagram account, is a second private account kids reserve for selected friends. This is not the account they allow their parents to follow. A Finsta tends to carry racier content, sometimes inappropriate, that adults never see. There is a risk of a child creating an untenable situation for themselves even when adults think they are monitoring their accounts.
Some of my clients express radical or extreme thinking on these more anonymous accounts as well, from polarizing political ideology to accounts targeting certain groups, often boys targeting girls. I’ve worked with some kids who have gotten caught by their school or a family member with one of these accounts. The damage to the targets can be far-reaching.
The broader point is that Instagram carries social and emotional landmines for even the most mature and emotionally stable of our teenagers.
Now there is talk of an Instagram Kids, available to children from 10- to 12-years old. The utility of such a network is questionable at best. Our teens are hardly prepared for the emotional fallout of Instagram. I shudder to think about the negative impact such an app would impose on the psyches of our pre-teens.
And we should remember that many pre-teens are already on Instagram, either lying about their ages or through Finsta accounts. To expose even younger kids to Instagram seems like an unnecessary risk, at the least.
Don’t dismiss your children’s concerns
I have worked with some parents whose kids have told them openly in sessions that Instagram exerts a strong negative impact on their emotional well being and the way they feel about themselves, many sharing stories like those detailed above. Sometimes parents believe them without question.
Other times, parents are dismissive of their child’s concerns. These parents tell me they feel social media is a foolish, silly place to gain your sense of self worth. And that may be true.
But what they don’t understand is that social media is a core component of the world our kids inhabit now. And Instagram is now an important way for them to connect socially. When kids say they feel they may be missing out socially when not on Instagram — a crucial part of their social lives — this is their truth.
Talk to your kids
Talk openly with your kids about the nature of Instagram and other social media, both the pros and cons. And make yourself available to listen to them. Of course, parents of kids who are struggling with their Instagram presence can also acknowledge how difficult that must be for them, while also pointing out the many positive ways in which they see their child.
Parents can also be sure to provide their kids with multiple streams of self-esteem other than social media. These might include extracurricular activities such as sports, drama, music or art — anything that they have more agency over than the number of likes and followers they have on Instagram.
I also strongly urge parentis to take smartphones and iPads out of their kids’ rooms at night. These electronic detoxes will prevent them from falling into some of the self-esteem traps described here, to be sure. As an added bonus, your child is also likely to sleep more soundly.
The more opportunity kids have to accrue self worth outside the realm of Instagram, the more inoculated they will be to the negative potential impact of that site.