The impact of social media on self-esteem and how to help
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For young people social media has always been there, it is an important part of their make up as a young person and a vital communication line to their friends and peers. While it may be easy to think that keeping safe physically and mentally is simply a case of switching off, the reality is that it would also cut off a lifeline of communication. While social media can be responsible for lowering someone’s self-esteem, the positives outweigh the negatives for many, and they will keep venturing into these spaces to socialise, be entertained and prevent themselves from being lonely and isolated. The answer isn’t to switch off, but to equip yourself with the knowledge and mental tools so that your self-esteem and confidence is not negatively impacted.
Social media isn’t just a pastime anymore, it’s an essential part of life. In many cases it has become more natural for people to socialise online than it does to actually meet up and do things. While some may view it with negativity there are many positives in the way it brings people together and allows people to socialise more than they would have otherwise. The Covid-19 lockdowns proved how valuable socialising online can be, with it becoming one of the only ways that friends and families could keep in touch in 2020/21. But social media is also a space that puts a lot of pressure on young people to look a certain way and to live a certain life. If you don’t, or can’t, live up to that perceived expectation then it can negatively impact your self-esteem.
Many understand that social media is not reality. It’s a smoke screen that hides real life, a carefully curated highlight reel that encourages envy and self-doubt while also masking the insecurities and self-doubt of the original poster. But even with the rational understanding that this is not reality it can still negatively impact self-esteem and mental health.
A survey carried out by Pew Research Centre in the US, Teens Social Media Habits and Experiences (2018), revealed that 43% of teens felt pressure to only post content that made them look good to others, and 37% felt pressure to post content that will get a lot of likes and comments. 26% of respondents said that they felt worse about their own life because of social media. Nearly half (49%) post their accomplishments on social media while only 12% posted about their personal problems. But, as expected, the positives of social media outweighed the negatives for young people with a high percentage feeling more connected and supported.
Looking for help
The Meic helpline, which deals with any issues presented by children and young people aged up to 25 in Wales, has received a number of contacts from young people that show a correlation between self-esteem and social media. There are certainly concerns that pressure from social media influences body positivity and self-esteem with contacts from young people worried about their weight and appearance. Online bullying through social media platforms is also an issue that has presented itself as having a negative impact on self-esteem.
One young person contacted Meic suffering with self-esteem issues after experiencing trolling on a social media platform which then spread on to a gaming platform. While this young person felt anxious about the trolling that was happening online, they still weren’t willing to leave that space in fear of missing out on other things. They were encouraged to talk to their friends about how they were feeling and come up with different gaming options together.
A young girl contacted saying that looking at her friend's photos on social media made her feel fat and ugly and that she had low self-confidence. She also mentioned that she was going to stop eating so that she could lose weight and feel better about herself. After talking to the adviser, she acknowledged the pressures that social media was putting on her and that she would cut down on her time to help reduce her anxiety. She was encouraged to find things that she enjoyed doing, and she said she was going to walk her dog more. The adviser also encouraged her to think about her good personality traits and qualities, to which she said that she was good at making people laugh. She was encouraged to speak to someone at school about her weight, and talk to a parent about eating more healthily.
Understanding the truth
One of the most important things when it comes to social media and self-esteem is understanding that the life you see projected on the small screen on your phone is not reality. Teaching young people to understand that people edit and curate their online lives is key. From their best friend to the influencers and celebrities they follow, most people these days filter their lives in one way or another on social media. There are many ways that this is done. It could be adding a filter to give them sparkly eyes and long eyelashes. Perhaps they use photo editing skills to add pecs or shave off inches from their thighs.
Even if they don’t edit their photos, their lives are usually expertly curated - sharing the good times and hiding the bad. Their social media becomes a highlight reel of achievements, experiences and perfection. The failures, the struggles and the mundane day to day things don’t usually feature.
Learning not to compare yourself to unachievable standards is hard at any age, but when you’re a child or a young person learning to adapt in life, it can be even more difficult not to let your self-esteem suffer under such pressures to look good and live a great life.
Meic has developed a lesson plan ‘How Instagram Fakes Reality’ on Hwb that can be used in the classroom or for anyone wishing to point out social media’s untruths to young people. It will help them to understand how people edit the way the look and the things that are happening in their lives. This article on the Meic website also questions ‘Is What You See On Instagram Real’.
Tips to help with self-esteem
- Unfollow - if an account makes you feel bad about yourself then unfollow/unlike. Fill your feed with people and things that make you feel good about yourself
- Take a break or reduce time on social media - you don’t have to switch off altogether but taking a little break from comparing yourself to how others look, dress or live their lives will help
- Distraction - doing other things will distract the mind from negative thoughts. Read a book, take the dog for a walk, hang out with friends, watch tv with family etc.
- Spend time with people in real life - think about the people that make you feel positive and spend time with those people
- Talk to someone - a friend, family, teacher, counsellor, helpline etc. Tell them how social media makes you feel
- Try something new - doing things you enjoy and trying new activities can be really positive experiences and are great to build confidence and self-esteem
- Keep-fit - physical exercise can have a positive effect on physical and mental well-being and it will give an increased boost of energy, making you feel good about yourself
- Positive thinking - write down some positive things about yourself. Think about the things you appreciate about your personality and qualities. If you’re struggling then think how your friends or family would describe you
- Take a look at the NHS advice on raising low self-esteem.
- Young Minds has some great advice for young people who are struggling with self-esteem issues.
- Meic’s ‘The Pressure Of Social Media’ article includes top tips for social media happiness. If they want to talk to an adviser free and confidentially, they can call (080880 23456), Text (84001) or chat online.
Stephanie Hoffman, Head of Social Action, ProMo-Cymru
Following her graduation from Swansea University, Steph has spent the last thirty years working mostly in a leadership role in the not for profit sector in Wales, in the fields of housing need, substance misuse, mental illness, relationship support, youth advocacy and information.
Since Joining ProMo-Cymru as Head of Social Action, she has been responsible for leading the strategic development, design and delivery of a range of helpline services aimed at providing information, advice, assistance and advocacy support.
Through her role with Meic, she has been instrumental in ensuring that the seldom heard voices of children and young people are listened to by key decision-makers and influencers to inform policy development; to bring about improvement in the day to day experiences of children and young people.
She has also been instrumental in promoting online / digital platforms as an essential ingredient of any prevention, early intervention and diversionary strategy, in the wider landscape of health and social care and support and information.
Steph is driven by and committed to values predicated on social justice and human rights.