Social Media and Self Esteem – What Parents Need to Know

Many of today’s parents think of social media sites the same way adults viewed the Beatles in the 60s – as harbingers of doom for the American adolescent. While issues of privacy, cyber bullying and online predators warrant a bit more merit than fearing a British rock band has the power to turn your child […]

Many of today’s parents think of social media sites the same way adults viewed the Beatles in the 60s – as harbingers of doom for the American adolescent. While issues of privacy, cyber bullying and online predators warrant a bit more merit than fearing a British rock band has the power to turn your child into a long-haired communist, many parents and media outlets hear phrases like “Facebook depression” and join the social networking witch hunt without any questions or hesitation. It’s time we put down our pitchforks and started looking at the bigger picture. Does social media help or hurt children’s self esteem? It does both, and learning why is the first step to making your child’s online experience a positive one.

Facebook Depression and Other Social Media Concerns

A recent study conducted by Common Sense Media found that 75% of teens have active profiles on social media sites. According to a Consumer Report from May 2011, 7.5 million kids on Facebook are under 13, and 5 million of them are under 10, despite the site’s terms of service which ban users younger than 13 from creating profiles. Many of the kids on Facebook and similar sites check in daily, some of them spending hours online every day.

You don’t need to be a social media expert to realize the online world children experience is much different from the world they inhabit in their homes and at school. The unique atmosphere social networking sites provide brings with it a special set of challenges, especially when it comes to identity and self esteem. For example, the ability to remain anonymous online allows even the shiest or weakest of children to inflict serious emotional damage on their peers with limited fears of reprocussions. More than that, the pervasive use of tech tools in our culture gives insults, threats and other forms of cyber bullying legs. Children can no longer leave their bullies at the bus stop – they follow them anywhere there’s a screen.

Not all esteem killers come in the form of cyber bullying, either. Some of the most insidious influences on children’s self image come from simply browsing sites like Facebook. Here, kids see their peers in their best outfits and their most flattering photos bragging about their relationships, happy families, brand new gadgets and other successes and priveleges. Faced with a constant barrage of peers who are doing their best to appear happy, talented and attractive, many kids look at themselves and feel like they don’t measure up.

In May 2011, a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics mentioned this effect in a single paragraph of a seven-page document, calling the effect “Facebook Depression.”

“Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.”

Media outlets took the phrase and ran with it, and the concept of Facebook depression went viral almost overnight. But as the AAP’s report gained more and more attention from the press, some started questioning its claims. Could social media sites like Facebook really be blamed for depression? Some experts pointed out flawed research, while others sited studies which proved the exact opposite – that networking sites had actually been shown to increase self esteem instead of lowering it.

How Social Media Boosts Self Esteem

The biggest issue with many of AAP’s sited sources (and many reported statistics in general) is that they rely on correlative, instead of causal, data. To say, “Out of a thousand students surveyed, our study found that those who spent more than three hours online every day were more likely to exhibit depression,” is a bit like saying, “Out of a thousand students surveyed, we found that those who owned a pony were more likely to get better grades.” In this (made up but still awesome) example, are ponies imbued with some kind of magical ability to imbue wisdom? Of course not, but children whose parents can afford to buy them ponies are likely more able to afford laptops, tutoring and tuition to highly-rated schools. The two facts are related, but one does not cause the other (sorry kids).

In the same way, children who spend more time online may be doing so because of pre-existing issues, such as social anxiety, family problems or other environmental or psychological factors. Pointing a finger at social media sites as the sole cause of these problems isn’t  just scientifically unsound, it also does nothing to help children, and in many cases can exacerbate the issue even further.

More than simply questioning these studies, parents and educators should also weigh them against conflicting findings. While the AAP’s report states Facebook and other social media sites may cause depression, a small study conducted at Cornell found the opposite to be true.

“In the study, 63 Cornell students were left alone in the university’s Social Media Lab; they were seated either at computers that showed their Facebook profiles or at computers that were turned off. Some of the off computers had a mirror propped against the screen; others had no mirror.

Those on Facebook were allowed to spend three minutes on the page, exploring only their own profiles and associated tabs. They were then given a questionnaire designed to measure their self-esteem.

Participants looking in a mirror and those in control groups were given the same questionnaire.

While their reports showed no elevation in self-esteem, those who had used Facebook gave much more positive feedback about themselves. Those who had edited their Facebook profiles during the exercise had the highest self-esteem.”

Jeffrey Hancock, associate professor of communication at Cornell University and co-author of the study told the press, “For many people, there’s an automatic assumption that the Internet is bad. This is one of the first studies to show that there’s a psychological benefit of Facebook.” Of course this study isn’t perfect either — it uses a very small sample group and only analyzes college age students instead of their younger counterparts.

A Social Media Action Plan for Parents

In light of these and many other conflicting reports, what should concerned parents do? For one, they should take care not to latch onto a single report, statistic or news article and use it to define how they’ll let their children use social media and other tech tools. Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician who’s researched the effects of social media on depression at the University of Wisconsin, told TechNewsDaily that parents should, “look at their children’s social media use in the context of their lives.” According to Moreno, “Parents don’t have to be overly concerned [as long as] their child’s behavior and mood haven’t changed, they have friends and their school work is consistent.”

Other parenting experts suggest creating a social media action plan, or better, a media use pledge for the whole family to sign. You can create your own pledge or use the one provided by The idea is to establish boundaries on media use instead of outlawing it completely. Allowing social media to have a time and place in your children’s lives lets them connect to peers and enjoy the positive aspects of these sites without becoming obsessive or placing too much of their personal worth on what happens online. It will also give your family some screen-free time which you can use to discuss your kids’ online activities or to do some old-fashioned esteem building on your own. The more engaged you are as a parent, the easier it will be for you to recognize self image or other social issues as they arise.

Above all, it’s important to remember that social media sites are still relatively new. As with television, cellphones, and the internet itself, understanding how to best use these sites will take time. Like all forms of media, social networking sites aren’t static – they continue to evolve daily. So instead of buying into media hysteria surrounding concepts like “Facebook depression” we need to view the issue as it truly is – nuanced. And instead of responding to our fears by forbidding online activity completely, we need to teach our children healthy habits online, and we need to learn to sit back and listen to their thoughts and experiences too, because as adults, we still have a lot to learn ourselves.

Published August 07, 2012