The Truth About Instagram and Self-Esteem

Lynn Schreiber

If you believed the headlines about the social networking site Instagram and self-esteem, you’d snatch the smartphone from your daughter and never let her open the photo-sharing app ever again. “Most depressing social network”, “killing your self-esteem”, “Instagram Envy!”… were just a few of the articles I found when searching for information.

More than any other network, Instagram is criticised as a social media site that damages self-esteem. It is creating a generation of selfie-obsessed teen girls, whose only aim is to receive at least 100 likes on their uploaded photos. When their photos aren’t valued by their peers, the girls develop self-esteem issues, which damage them in other areas of their life.

It all sounds pretty scary, but what is the truth behind the headlines, and what can parents do to help their children to use Instagram to boost their confidence rather than dent it?

A recent survey revealed that some teen girls actually find selfies empowering. 65% of respondents said that posting a selfie made them felt better about themselves. According to Dr Pamela Rutledge, taking a selfie is a way for teens to be both the photographer and the subject.

It is a powerful tool to give young people; the ability to control the image of themselves that they share with the world. Why do some kids find it empowering, and what can we learn from them?

For children (and adults for that matter) to feel empowered, they have to feel in control, and they have to be informed. Some schools will talk about this with your children, but some don’t, or only concentrate on the scary side of social media, not the fun and empowering bit.

Here are some of the issues that might come up when your child uses Instagram, and what you can do to help them navigate the network with confidence.

Images & Likes

  The emphasis on likes is a big part of the reason that Instagram gets such a bad rap, when it comes to teen girls and their self-esteem issues. Instagram amplifies the problem, because it whittles down the elements of social media that are most likely to cultivate feelings of loneliness and self-loathing: photos and likes. Sonali Kholi, Quartz  When your teen posts a photo, she is inviting feedback from others. The more feedback (likes and positive comments), the more she’s seen to be popular amongst her peers. What if she posts a photo and no one likes it? She’s put her photo out there to be judged, and now it feels like she’s been left wanting.  Some users also start swapping likes, or join in groups to boost their followers, so that they end up with a huge amount of followers who just like everything they see. Likes become inflationary and with that, worthless.

What You Can Do

Initiate conversations with your kids about the users they follow on Instagram, and why they like them. Discuss the photos your kids share, and why they decided to share them. Talk to your children about the number game. Most kids know that there are ways to buy followers and likes, or to ‘trade’ them. Encourage them to think about whether that is valuable feedback. If you follow them on Instagram, tell them personally that you liked their photo, and what you liked about it. Discuss why some photos get more likes, and others less, and whether it’s important to them to collect likes. Encourage real life communication, which brings them honest and authentic feedback, instead of automatic likes.


Going Viral

going viral Some kids see ‘going viral’ as a shortcut to fame and fortune, or at least to popularity in school. In reality, it’s really very difficult to know if something will go viral – if it were possible to plan this, then every brand and company would be doing it all the time! Every couple of weeks, I see a photo like the one above, from teachers aiming to teach children about social media, and how fast a photo can be shared.  A teacher I follow on Twitter is very disparaging of this practice, as they are encouraging the viewing of [likes] and [shares] as a social currency, and I have to agree with his assessment. When a photo does go viral, it’s impossible to control, as this teacher found.

What You Can Do

Consider how you talk about viral news stories – do you give the impression that it must be so cool to ‘go viral’? Do you talk about how many people liked your posts on social media? Are you very competitive? Talk about the positive and negative sides of viral videos. Do they think that people’s lives are changed when they go viral, or does it just all go back to normal after a few days of craziness?


Fakes and Photoshop


Could you recognise a faked photo? Or one that has been manipulated so that the person looks better? Sadly, some of the most popular Instagram accounts feature heavy use of photoshop (I’m looking at you Ms Kardashian), and many young girls download apps to try and create a similar effect.

When girls have the impression that everyone else has better skin, smoother hair and brighter eyes, it can make them feel worse about themselves. And that leads them to try these apps, which makes them feel even worse.


What You Can Do

IMG_7287Talk to your kids about photoshop, and show them examples so that they can start to spot it themselves.

Once they can spot that someone has manipulated a photo, then they know not to feel bad about their own imperfections.

Here’s a fun activity – download Facetune, or one of the many other apps, and try it out with your kids. My daughter’s reaction to the “improved” photo of us? “If someone looking like that came down the street, you’d run away screaming. We look blank!”

Teens and Make-Up

When Millie Slavidou was researching an article into the wearing of cosmetics, she asked her Twitter followers what they thought of the word ‘cosmetic’, asking for their immediate reaction to the word, and if it was positive/negative/neutral.

I was intrigued by the replies. First of all, the response among women was overwhelmingly negative, with several people saying “fake”. Another popular answer was “artificial”. The majority of the men who responded said “neutral”, with just one person finding it negative. Two answered “products for women”.

We talk of “putting a face on”, and sometimes that is exactly what it feels like. Suiting up to battle the world. This can be positive, in that a slash of red lipstick can boost the confidence, and make us feel better about ourselves. Where it gets more tricky, when it comes to tween and teen girls, is when they feel pressured to wear makeup – from friends or from the perfectly made up Instagram or YouTube stars they follow.

Girls wear make up from a much younger age than when we were young, and very few schools ban make up completely now. And it’s not just a dash of lipgloss and some blusher that girls are wearing, as sculpted eyebrows and heavy makeup are often a normal part of school life. But what if your daughter doesn’t want to wear makeup (or in the case of allergies, can’t wear makeup)?

What You Can Do

Be open-minded about makeup, and allow your daughter to experiment, while emphasising that it’s really ok to go without. Depending on the school rules, you may have to limit make up to ‘natural colours’ during the week.

Be aware of the latest trends such as 3D eyebrows and contouring, which she may have the impression are ‘must haves’ from school friends. Encourage her to develop her own style, and not always follow the crowd.

Have a no make up day occasionally where you both go without – when you go swimming or to a fun activity. If your daughter never sees you without makeup then you can hardly complain that she’s following your lead!

Drawing Comparison

stop comparing yourself

Constant comparisons with the seemingly perfect lives of others can make girls feel that their life is lacking excitement and glamour. Some users of social media exaggerate for effect, either positive or negative. We all know someone who constantly posts passive aggressive cryptic updates, in the hope that many of their friends will express concern and offer support.

It’s important for teens to recognise that they aren’t watching a warts and all documentary of someone’s life on their social media feed, but a heavily edited selection of the best, funniest, and most visually attractive parts.

What You Can Do

Your teen picks up tips on how to use social media from their friends, but they also mimic their parents. Not everyone wants to talk of their troubles on social media, and many will have good reason to keep their problems to themselves, and others are generally optimistic (or lucky!). Don’t just show the bright side of life on your Facebook account, share the spilt milk and the burnt cakes.

Look at your child’s favourite Instagram accounts together, and point out how much work it must have been to create such perfect images, even if they look effortless. Some Instagrammers (even the very popular ones!) publish a ‘bloopers reel’ of the mistakes and disasters they’ve almost pulled off.


Further Reading

If your child has perfectionist tendencies, read our articles on how to cope with a perfectionist child, and recognising that mistakes can be a good thing.



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