Social Media & Teens: How Pressure to Get Likes and Followers Is Hurting Them

Teen girls upset by social media

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Many of our children's values are being determined by the amount of Instagram and Snapchat followers they have and how many likes their pictures are getting. Being “Insta famous,” in one shape or form, is taking a toll on our children’s mental wellbeing. We have made progress in the face-to-face world with bullying and acceptance, but the negativity, comparisons, and bullying are abundant in the cyber world. All of this is taking place while our children’s brains are in the developmental stage. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, our brains aren’t fully developed until around age 25.

Related: How to Teach Teens to Respect Parents

Being a tween and a teen is a self-discovery time—a time to form the foundation of their identity. Adding cyber peer pressure and influence to the mix is making it more challenging for our children to find their core.

Comparison can be toxic—and high maintenance

Comparison is a confidence killer, and we have an entire world to compare ourselves to on social media. Many pictures have been altered, and we think that’s what we need to look like, achieve and be like. On the bright side, influencers are starting to reveal their raw, unedited pictures and videos to highlight exactly those points. Some admit to spending more than 30 minutes editing a single Instagram photo.

Photo-editing apps like the celeb-approved FaceTune are wildly popular and can help create nearly-unattainably perfect pictures. Influencers are even creating how-to videos to edit photos like a pro. Watch this video by Tashie Tinks:

Near-constant peer pressure parents didn’t experience as teens

Do you remember peer pressure and comparison when you were in high school? Yikes, it was hard to not look to others to find what was “cool” and what was accepted. Every detail of our lives was in one shape or form determined by what we saw, experienced and were pressured into by the influence around us.  For today's teens, they not only are experiencing this in the classroom, hallways, and lunchroom, but also on the screens and into the evening at home. Every time they hit refresh on their social media, which according to the Washington Post is on average of 9 hours per day (meaning they are scrolling or refreshing hundreds of times per day) they are comparing and valuing themselves based on others. Each time a teen opens an app they are met with emotions across the board, a burst of highs and lows all within a few seconds. Anxieties about if people liked a photo, or if their friends are out doing something without them, or if there’s a negative comment on their pic. The average kid may be opening their social media with fear rather than interest.  

Also see: My Husband Handles Our Child's Schedule & He Is Freaking Out!

Two of the main sources in the cyber peer pressure world are YouTube and Instagram. Other social media apps have challenges, but when it comes to comparison, fame, and influence, these are at the top of the list.  

YouTube

For content creators

Subscribers are the name of the game. If you have a channel where you post videos, the goal is to get as many views and subscribers as possible. If you thought that becoming homecoming queen was competitive, think about spending your time wanting acceptance by strangers and doing whatever you can to get it. The most watched videos are car crashes, people eating disgusting and often harmful things, nudity, and frankly, any kind of outrageous behavior. Going viral is the goal, and some will do anything to achieve their two minutes of fame. It’s a rush to see that people are liking what you are putting out. Unfortunately, it is harder for the quality content to get views or likes, so it can be tough on a young artist, musician, or filmmaker to publish their work online, only to not see a large audience of love coming back to them.  

Even with stellar content, there are “trolls” who comment to bring people down. Trolls are hard for anyone. According to Webster, "in internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response.” Even as a 30-something-year-old woman, trolls still sting me.

For those just watching videos

YouTube can be a confusing phenomenon for us adults. You mean you watch people opening Pokémon cards for how long? That kid just blew milk out of his nose for a half hour, and you watched it on repeat? I don’t get it. My step-son had a car issue, and I told him to wait until his dad got home to help him fix it, he said: “it’s cool I’ll YouTube it.” Is it okay to drive around in a car that’s been fixed by a how-to “life hack” YouTube video? Not sure...

Kids have become extreme fans of these YouTubers, they go to Vidcon from all over the world to meet them in person. The challenge is like anywhere; there are great influences and shady influences on YouTube and our kids are treating them like their gurus. Many are over sharing their personal stories, some to help others, but many to get likes and attention. Some teens who are struggling with a specific challenge in their lives are seeking guidance—not from the school counselor, aunt, or parent—but from YouTubers and Instagram communities joined together by hashtags. For those out there genuinely using their platform in an authentic desire to help others, I applaud you, truly. I want to warn of the others to help parents and teens vet their child's latest social media influence.  

"A troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response.” —Dictionary.com

Instagram

Being “Insta-famous” is something on many teens’ minds. It’s a reachable way to achieve being known and liked by many, and there are various ways teens do this. It’s stressful to say the least, to always put out what you think others will like. We often talk about wearing "masks" of what we want people to know about us. A mask of “I’m the popular one,” I’m the “quiet one,” I’m the “smart one,” and so on. Our screens can be the strongest mask we have ever worn. Our teens get to be, say,  and do whatever they want online, and we as parents often don’t know what that is. They are clever to hide pictures, “finstas” (fake Instagram accounts), and other things to be sure that parents are out and the rest of the world is in.

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Recently, a high school teacher asked her class to finish this statement: “What my parents and teachers don’t know about social media is…..” She said that the entire class had negative encounters online that their parents did not know about. Teens use finstas to share their darkest emotions and feelings. In return they receive attention (sometimes negative) for sharing their thoughts. Instead of getting the help they may need from family and counselors, they are receiving advice from strangers who don’t know the full context of their posts. This is damaging to our children's emotional health and can take them to a dark head-space quickly.

Like YouTube, there are social media celebrities who set the tone for what gets likes. Whatever Kim K (or another famous poster) is posting is inspiring thousands of young posters to post in the same revealing clothing with the same hair, same everything. The standards our kids are living by are being set by the Insta celebrity world. The trend of posts, language, and clothing, is being carried over into our kids’ everyday lives. Our parental voice is getting drowned out by the thousands of posts our kids scroll through every day. Our kids will push the envelope if they feel it will help them achieve that same level of celebrity. Once they post that one pic and get extra likes, they are likely to push the envelope further and further to get the high they felt from the instant inauthentic popularity that they felt for a moment. This happens to the best of kids. It's human nature to be liked. Even our strong kids want to feel accepted, and we all are more vulnerable to rejection when it's not an in-person interaction.

Teen girls bullied on social media

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

What can you do?

Here are a few suggestions and guidelines to help you and your teen:

  • Remember, social media isn't all bad and often has benefits, especially in YouTube. The key is age appropriate education with our kids. 
  • If your child wants to use YouTube or Instagram for their art—if they are, say, a musician, actor, or maybe even a model—it's a great tool. Help them to have the right mentality towards the comments and start them slowly with you moderating their account and only sharing the good and the constructive criticism, and go from there.  
  • If social media (including YouTube) is negatively impacting their emotional health, it’s okay for them to not be on it. They will have stronger more meaningful relationships face to face.
  • Help your child choose their online influences wisely. Have a conversation about what they are seeing and hearing and how it is impacting them.
  • If you notice an emotional change, take a second look at what’s going on your child's social media; it could be a part of their pain.  
  • Make a list with your child about the positive impact we can have on social media and how they can make adjustments to oavoid the negative emotional triggers your child may have.  
  • Look out for secret accounts, like finstas, they may have, by identifying who their friends are following. I don’t say this to be sneaky, but you may find another account where they are venting some real issue they are facing that they may need help with.  

Education is key. This is the world they live in, so saying they aren’t going to be on social media isn’t practical. So here are some discussion questions to start the conversation with your teens:

  • What do you like about (the app your child is on) and what’s fun about it?
  • What kinds of pictures and videos do you post?
  • How does it make you feel when that content doesn’t get likes or receives only a few likes?
  • What do you do with those emotions?
  • Do you ever delete it and post a pic that you know people will like more just to get likes?
  • How do you feel that is impacting what you think about yourself?
  • What are the negative emotional triggers for you on social media? Example: When I look at a post with someone doing a close-up selfie with clear skin it makes me feel insecure. How can you avoid those triggers the best you can?
  • Has anyone ever directed a negative comment, post or DM (direct message) towards you? Discuss this.
  • Who are your favorite people to follow on YouTube and Instagram (other apps too)? What do you like about them?

Go from there and discuss the emotional impact, ask the hard questions, and encourage them to be open with you about their self-identity journey and how you can help.  Consider taking a social-media fast for one week with our kids and journal every day about it. 

At the end of each day answer: Did I notice I was more present in my relationships? Did I feel more emotionally balanced today? At the end of our week if you choose to come back to social media share your experiences with all of us. #socialmediafast

Kacee Bree Jensen is the founder of Let's Talk Teens, a place parents and teens can go to find resources and tools to navigate the modern world we are living in. Kacee is a youth advocate, speaker, contributor, parenting coach, and mom of four including a teen, who has spent the last 16 years helping families, schools, and communities across the country navigate the ups and downs of the teen years.