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How to Circumvent The Dangers of the Social Media Highlight Reel with Your Child

(5 ½ minute read) I vividly recall one Christmas break a few years back. My husband was scrolling through Facebook and saw all of the amazing places people were vacationing while we were on a staycation. He turned to me and said, “I think we are the only ones stuck in town, while everyone else is on vacation at a beach resort.”  My hubby is typically a happy, non-materialistic, non-jealous guy. So to hear him change direction in an instant was surprising. Of course it’s only natural to prefer laying on a beach reading a book while your kids splash around joyfully in the gorgeous blue water. But in the past it never bothered him knowing that most of our friends were out of town on a winter escape while we were stuck inside playing games by the fire and having movie marathons. The difference was that thanks to social media, where they were and what they were doing was now in our face. We got to see the gorgeous backdrop, the smiles on everyone’s faces, the sun shining down…you get the picture. That day my husband decided to delete his Facebook account and never looked back.

As much as I admire my husband for taking that stand, not all adults recognize the effect social media has on us. And even if we do, we may not have the desire or the strength to stay away. We scroll through instagram or Facebook, and see all of the wonderful things happening in the lives of our friends, families, and even complete strangers. Their great vacations to exotic places is just one aspect of what we see.  There are posts about their kids winning the soccer championship or shining as the lead in the school play. Romantic dinners with their loving partner. Parties with their friends. Exclusive events. And the list goes on.  

The reality is that most people only post what they want you to see – them looking and feeling their best and doing amazing things, in amazing places, with amazing people. Very often social media is used to create a highlight reel of people’s best moments.

It’s only natural that we experience feelings of envy, exclusion, inferioriority, anger, stress and/or depression as a result. It’s easy to compare our lives in a negative way to what we see, despite the fact that we have the maturity, experience, and ability to recognize that what we are seeing isn’t the full picture.

So the question becomes, if we as adults fail to process the fact that what we are seeing is just a facade (and rarely shows someone’s real life), how can we possibly expect children to understand that social media should not be taken at face value…literally?

What makes social media even more detrimental is that this false sense of reality is further exacerbated by pictures that are manipulated using filters and editing tools.  This makes it even easier for our kids to share the person they want to be, the person they think others will like — all in an effort to feel valued. And their value, their self-worth, is either strengthened or weakened by the number of likes they receive.

In fact, most girls are driven by the desire to achieve the most responses. So they often seek the perfect selfie to share. They spend a lot of time capturing it —  seeking the coolest location, the best filter, and coming up with just the right caption to accompany it (more on that in a later blog).

Based on all of this, is it surprising to hear that users of social media readily admit that the more they are on it, the worse they feel? That usage erodes their self-esteem? Study after study also shows that social media makes people more anxious and more depressed. In fact, suicide rates (and risk factors) have increased as a result.

To put it simply, social media adds another layer to the normal pressures of childhood – fitting in, being popular and looking good. But now, it’s not just the kids who don’t fit in who are bullied and suffer. All over the country, children who seemingly have it all are suicidal. Their stories, like  Madison Holleran’s are tragic. Madison was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. She was smart, beautiful, athletic (on the track team), and popular. On the outside (and if you followed her on social media) she seemed to have what every girl dreams of.  But on the inside, Madison was struggling. She felt an intense pressure to live up to the person she portrayed on her social media accounts. When it all became too much to handle Madison commited suicide. Through her story, we see how dangerous it can be to chase perfection. Unfortunately, social media makes it easy for us to just keep running in that direction.

Our job as parents, caregivers, and adults is to keep our kids from that same chase. The challenge is that their lives revolve around social media. Our children spend countless hours on it each day at the same time we as parents are working to build a solid foundation on which they can further enhance their social, emotional, and mental well-being.  

So what can we do?  It’s unrealistic tell our kids they can’t use social media. There’s simply no getting away from it. It’s an integral part of their lives.  Plus, we cannot discount the positive things social media does for teens; It provides them with a place to connect, make friends, get support and seek help.  

The best thing we can do is teach our children to consume, digest, and contribute to social media in a healthy and productive way. Unfortunately, that’s not so simple. But we’ve done our best to come up with some ideas.  Here are four suggestions on how to help our children embrace who they are and process what they see and feel when using social media.

  1. Be real and show all sides of who you are. Look at who the person is that people see on your account.  Does it show who you really are? Are there pictures of you when you’re having a bad hair day? Are there posts about how your child missed her friends birthday party because you messed up the time? Being open and honest about the UNglamourous side of yourself allows others to do the same. So if you expect your child to portray and see who others truly are, you have to start by showing the real you on social media.
  2. Respond to posts with words of support or inspiration.  When we are engaging with people on social media who actually matter to us, we tend to respond by liking, loving, or typing a few generic words. Why not give more? If your friend posts a picture shopping, how about responding by saying something like, “I’m sure you got some good stuff. I love your style.” Or if a friend shares a pic of herself on the beach in South America, why not tell her you’d love to know more about the culture there. On the flip side, perhaps your friend is taking the advice given above and shares a picture of herself in her pjs looking exhausted, tweets about how overwhelmed she is feeling, or posts her list of chores for the day, why not encourage her with a few meaningful words. Building people up doesn’t only happen in the form of likes, increased followers, and compliments about looks and glamorous lifestyles. Building people up means showing them you genuinely care, which requires more than a just a double tap.
  3. Follow the kind of people who build you up. Be honest with yourself. What really matters more, having 500+ followers who aren’t a part of your life or having 100 who actually support and care for you? Social media fads may emphasize quantity, but quality always wins. That might mean that you have to unfollow/unfriend some people. But do those people truly care about you and what happens in your life? Probably not. Ask yourself, what’s the point?
  4. Discuss the realities of what we see vs what we don’t.. Unfortunately, most children lack the life experiences and/or maturity to simply sit and have frank discussions about social media. At GAALS, we find that girls take away the most when they are actively engaged. That’s why at our social media, friend drama, and/or self-esteem workshops we play games that are specifically designed to spark important dialogue about these topics. You can do the same. You can ask your child to play social media hide and seek. Together, scroll through your friends’ posts on Facebook. Have her choose the mom(s) she would want if you weren’t around. Then ask why she picked who she did, followed by how can you choose based on photos?  Ask your child, do you think this mom yells or gets mad at her children? Why don’t we see pictures of it? This exercise gives you the opportunity to provide some color as to what life is like in other houses – fewer rules/discipline, more academic pressure, greater emphasis on excelling at sports, etc. Point out that these are all important facets of life that show you who a person really is yet you don’t see that when looking on social media.  OR, you can do a little research and find a celeb (one they don’t know) who has faced lots of difficulties in their life but has an active social media account. Together, look at her posts and ask about your child what she thinks that person is like. And then ask some real questions, ie: What’s it like to be popular or beautiful? Do you think it’s a lot of pressure? Then shed light on this celebs past and her struggles. Use this as an opportunity to discuss the fact that people tend to share the positive aspects of their lives, meaning that we often don’t see behind the scenes which is what makes a life, real. By helping to paint a realistic picture – not the perfect one that appears on social media – hopefully your child won’t take everything they see at face value, and will have the ability to realize that social media is a highlight reel. The goal is that when using social media, she won’t believe that her life compares negatively to what she sees shared by others.

It’s important to note that we are learning too and always welcome feedback/ideas. We recognize that social media, in particular, is an area that requires parents to work together to look out for children’s social, emotional and mental well-being

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