Children and Screens’ #AskTheExperts webinar “Picture Perfect? Teens, Media, and Social Comparison,” held on Wednesday, November 4th, 2020 at 12:00pm ET via Zoom, featured an interdisciplinary panel of leading experts who shared information about why we compare ourselves to others. Panelists also provided guidance on helping teens avoid falling prey to forming unhealthy expectations about themselves, their social status, and how they should look, especially while engaging with social media.
Mitch Prinstein, PhD, ABPPJohn Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences; Assistant Dean; Co-DirectorModerator
Sophie Choukas-Bradley, PhDAssistant Professor of Psychology
Allison Chase, PhD, CEDSRegional Clinical Director
Amanda MozeaEducation Outreach Manager
Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra: Welcome and thank you for joining us for today’s Children and Screens Webinar, where we ask the experts about the role of technology in adolescent development, particularly in terms of social comparison, popularity, self-esteem, stress reward systems, identity and body image. I am Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, founder and president of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, and host of this popular bi-weekly series. Children and Screens is a leading convener, funder, and curator of scientific research, and public educator of the intersection of digital media and child development. Our panelists have reviewed the questions you have submitted, and will answer as many as possible during and after their presentations. If you have additional questions during the workshop, please type them into the Q&A box at the bottom of your screen, and indicate whether or not you’d like to ask your question live on camera or if you prefer that the moderator read your question. I’m happy to share that we have over 400 people registered for today’s webinar, so although we may not be able to answer all of your questions, we’ll answer as many as time permits. We are recording today’s workshop, and hope to upload a video to YouTube in the coming days. Tomorrow, you will receive a link to our YouTube channel where you’ll find videos from our past webinars as well.
It is now my great pleasure to introduce our moderator, Dr. Mitchell Prinstein, John Van Seters distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Assistant Dean for Honors Carolina at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and co-director of the Winston Family Initiative on technology and adolescent brain development. Mitch’s research examines interpersonal models of internalizing symptoms and health risk behaviors among adolescents, with a specific focus on the unique role of peer relationships, online and off, in the developmental psychopathology of depression and self injury. Welcome Mitch!
Mitch Prinstein: Thank you so much, and thanks for inviting me to this panel, for asking me to help moderate, and for including me among the distinguished members of this panel, that include Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley, Amanda Mozea, and Dr. Allison Chase, and I’m excited very much to hear their comments coming very soon. I was asked to start us off by talking a little bit about the importance of online social comparison, and what we know about teens’ current use of digital media to engage in these types of behaviors. So, without further ado, I’m happy to share some of those comments with you right now.
Of course, it’s likely no surprise to people that are on this webinar that the rate of social media use has increased dramatically in the last 15 years or so. We’ve seen that in particular among youth, more so than those in other age groups. It’s important to know that not only have we seen more young people engaging in digital media use, but we’re also seeing an increase in the frequency of use. This graph shows the rate of use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders based on some available national data, and you can see that the rate is remarkably high for almost consistent use among children even as young as in 8th grade. There are many different ways in which the use of digital media might be enhancing psychological processes that we think could be very important to development. In this webinar, we’re talking about just one of those processes, but I’ll briefly mention that there are ongoing studies looking at the ways in which digital media and exposure to the internet and social media in particular, might expose children to maladaptive behaviors that are promoted in online contexts. They are encouraging status seeking among adolescents, they may be contributing to more friendship insecurity and lower levels of intimacy. The need to constantly stay in touch and respond to all the different platforms is creating digital stress. We’re also seeing that people are misestimating what might be normative, or what might be common versus or more exceptional or outlier kinds of experiences, we’re also seeing that vulnerabilities are being exploited. We should also note of course that there are ways that digital media and internet access might have very positive effects on adolescent development as well. We’re seeing opportunities for friendship formation, we’re seeing opportunities for community support within groups that are numerical minorities which might include racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minority groups, and we’re also seeing greater access and more immediate access to social support. Today we’re going to be talking specifically about social comparison, and social comparison is a particularly important process to really consider given that what we know is at the transition to adolescence. By that I mean starting at about a year or two before we see physical changes associated with pubertal development. There are changes that are occurring in the brain, and also in the United States for many kids, also in the social context. That becomes very powerful and meaningful. The changes in the brain make us particularly eager to obtain a level of status, visibility, dominance, and approval by peers. At the same time, we are also finding an opportunity to find our own identities as we individuate from our parents. The combination of those processes of receiving peer feedback and also striving to maintain our own sense of self worth and self identity, is a process that psychologists refer to as reflective appraisal, which very simply means that we use the feedback we get from others and we use our comparisons with others as a primary way of establishing our own sense of identity. This is important for all the things we’re talking about today, because as adults, we would hope that many individuals would have a more stable sense of identity, that is based on things that they know to believe internally themselves, regardless of feedback they may or may not have recently received. But remember that in adolescence particularly at that transition to the adolescent period, identity is very strongly tied to one’s perception of how one’s peers think about them.
We are currently teaching an undergraduate class to about 300 students here at UNC Chapel Hill, and we’ve been asking them questions about social comparison during the course of our studies. We asked them whether they believe that social comparison processes are more likely to occur now or less likely to occur, given the frequently with which adolescents are engaging with one another in tech-based interactions (in other words using digital media). As you can see, the overwhelming majority of students in our class told us that they believe that the tech world is making social comparison more likely than ever. We also asked adolescents if they believe, and these are young 17 and 18 year olds predominantly, if they have an easy time or a hard time stopping themselves from comparing themselves with others when they are looking at others posts, and the vast majority again that they find those very challenging to not engage in social comparison. In fact, a substantial portion, about a third, indicate that it is difficult to impossible to stop from engaging in social comparisons when interacting online. What we’re of course interested in is what adolescents are comparing themselves to, and we’ll be hearing about this more in the talks to follow. We hear lots of comments indicating that adolescents, perhaps especially adolescent females, identified as females, are comparing themselves based on physical appearance, including conceptions of beauty, or idealized body shapes and sizes. We’re hearing also that there is a strong emphasis on comparing one’s self and one’s social relationships to others. The extent to which you have as many likes, as many friends, as many followers, as many positive comments, or the extent to which you are invited to social activities that are being portrayed online that you are not a part of. We are also hearing that adolescents find information about cool products, gadgets, brands, so there is a marketing influence that is also occurring, that is through social comparison processes, and also activism including political causes and reliefs might be conveyed through social comparison to similar peers.
I will mention that the issues regarding comparison having to do with beauty and body shape are particularly relevant because during the same 15-20 years that we’ve also seen the rise of the Internet, we’ve also seen some dramatic differences in the ways that body shapes are being presented. This, you might recognize, is a picture of Strawberry Shortcake as she was depicted back in the 70’s. Her shape, and her body shape in particular, looks very much like a typical toddler, but as you can see, Strawberry Shortcake has evolved over the years. She now is meant to look slimmer and in a more fashionable type of pose, really emphasizing body curves and shapes that would be far more common among adults than among toddlers. So, while kids are spending more and more time on the internet, they are also being exposed to body images that are a bit more adult-like, and are closer to ideals, you’ll hear more about that later I’m sure. The same is also the case for body shapes of males. In the 70’s, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo we’re depicted much as their body shapes were in the movies. But today, those same exact movies are now transformed into action figures with a far more muscular shape, a lean muscular shape, that is really inaccurate compared to how these actors looked in the movie. But nevertheless, really emphasizing the change in the ways that kids might be comparing themselves to others. And I found it particularly odd, personally, the way in which even bears have been changed over the same period of time. Bears have gone from being plump bear shaped to as you can see, more slim and also holding more fashionable red carpet kinds of poses. I’m not sure why we need slim bears, they’re bears, but nevertheless, it seems that this emphasis towards more idealized body shapes is part of the ways in which we’re looking at these kinds of norms now, even for things directed towards very very young children. And the exponential way in which that’s communicated online is the subject of today’s conversation.
We asked kids in our class whether they often or infrequently kind of think about whether what they’re seeing might be fake or somehow altered images. We found the majority of kids in our class telling us that only sometimes or occasionally do they really remember to consider that the images that they’re comparing themselves to might be inauthentic, altered, or somehow curated, or filtered. We’re also interested in who it is that adolescents are comparing themselves to. There are different people that adolescents look at online, some are their best friends who they might have a number of offline interactions with. Others are popular peers, those who have high status and look up towards, but they might not have any actual interaction with. So, really, all the information that they have about these popular peers, and all opportunities for social comparison, might be coming from what they see online. But also, many report their influence of social comparison from what are called social media influencers. If you look at the social media influencers on popular platforms like Instagram or Snapchat, I can promise you that anyone over the age of 40 hasn’t heard of any of them. These are people who, for career purposes, have developed a fan following, and many many followers, but they possess no particular–in most cases–characteristics, talents, or achievements that would make them an influencer. We’ve asked students in our class whether they fear that influencers are doing more good or harm in our society. You can see that the vast majority feel neutral about these influencers, or they feel that they’re projecting bad imagery. We also asked the students in our class if they had children, would they want their own children to follow these influencers online, and you can see that the majority felt that at least some to all of them, they would not want to have their children following. So we know this is another source of social comparison and influence. We’ve asked people as well whether they see comments or likes, whether they think those represent the broad opinion poll of everyone who’s online, or just a few people that might have commented. And this is a complicated slide, I apologize, but it does say that most people, they have to stop and remind themselves that what they’re seeing probably represents a singular opinion, or just a few people who happen to like it, not what the majority believe. Most people feel that young adolescents might be especially likely to make this error, and therefore especially susceptible to social comparison issues.
In our own research, we have done studies among adolescents to look at whether those who use social comparison or use the Internet, specifically to compare themselves to others and gain feedback from others, might be at greater risk for depressive symptoms, and we do see a strong association, perhaps especially for females identified, and also for others who are unpopular and might be making some upwards social comparisons. In other words, those who have more friends or might have more access to things that make their profiles look good. I’ll simply end by mentioning that there has been a lot of talk recently about loneliness, and depressed feelings that occur when adolescents are spending excessive amounts of time online, perhaps for some of the reasons that we just talked about. One of those areas that has gotten a lot of talk has been non-suicidal self-injury. This is defined as behaviors in which adolescents damage their own bodily tissue, most often by cutting themselves, without intending to die, usually instead as a method of regulating their own emotions. In regular samples of middle schools and high schools, we see 8% of preadolescents engage in this behavior, 15% of adolescents. Among those adolescents who have experienced clinical symptoms of psychopathology, we see approximately half have engaged in non-suicidal self injury. We don’t yet know whether digital media might be causally associated with engagement in non suicidal self injury. We do know however, that there are specific places on the Internet that encourage adolescents to engage in maladaptive behaviors such as self injurious behaviors. Here’s an example of an analysis that was done to look at chat rooms in which adolescents are encouraged to talk about their self-injurious behaviors, and what you can see is that while some of the things that are on here that are being discussed are things would we hope would help adolescents, there are also other pieces on here that would be damaging to adolescents. Let me dive in a little bit and show you that when looking specifically at YouTube videos, more than half of the videos offer no trigger warning indicating that adolescents who watch the videos about NSSI might be more likely to engage in NSSI themselves. About a quarter of these videos are designed to explicitly encourage adolescents to engage in self injurious behaviors, and the purpose of the video for about one third is either mixed or again pro NSSI. Similar websites exist for other types of maladaptive behaviors, including eating disorders as well.
I’ll end my comments before introducing our next speaker simply by reminding you that if you or someone you know is experiencing severe difficulties and might be thinking about self-injurious thoughts and behaviors, including suicidality, there are resources to help, and calling and getting help is far more important and can save a life, rather than any challenge that might be experienced by pursuing resources.With that I am very excited to hear about the other presentations from our other panelists. And the first person that I’ll introduce is Dr. Sofia Choukas-Bradley. Dr. Choukas-Bradley is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Delaware, where she directs a teen and young adult lab. She is passionate about understanding the role of social media use, and adolescents’ peer relationships, body image and mental health. She is a fantastic speaker, and I am excited to hear her comments, thanks!
Sophia Choukas-Bradley: Thank you so much Mitch, that was a wonderful talk and I am now going to share my screen. Mitch, could you give me a thumbs up if you’re able to see my slides right now? Great. Alright. So I am going to be talking to you today about this idea of how social media affects body image, and how body image concerns in turn predict mental health concerns. And I call my talk “camera ready” because that is a very concise summary of a complex set of phenomena that happen online, where adolescents are excessively concerned in some cases about their physical appearance, and may be concerned about how they look to a social media audience whether they’re online or offline.
I want to start by highlighting some of the reasons that adolescence is a time when we see such a spike in increased body image concerns, especially for girls. And I want to note that throughout the talk, I will be focusing on cisgender girls and boys, when I say girls and boys I mean cisgender kids. I do have another line of work from my lab focused on transgender youth specifically. So when we think about cisgender girls, this is the time in life when biologically we see a number of changes including weight gain as shown here on the left hand photo, this is a screenshot from the recent film 8th Grade. Weight gain leads girls on average further away from the thin ideal, the current ideal body type that is promoted by mass media images, and we also see a number of interpersonal and cognitive changes. Interpersonally, as Mitch highlighted, this is the time in life when people are excessively concerned about their peers, and this is a normative good process in many ways. Adolescents are attuned to what their peers expect of them, they’re really motivated to gain social status, as Mitch mentioned, they really care about their peer relationships, and this is evolutionarily adaptive and normative. But when it comes to social media, some of this can get a little out of whack. In addition to those peer related interpersonal changes, we see this huge change in which on average, adolescents are initiating dating and sexual relationships, or at least thinking about them. And we know that physical appearance concerns go hand in hand with the initiation of dating and sexual relationships. Cognitively, this is a time in life when individuals begin to think more abstractly, and with the ability to think abstractly, comes an enhanced concern about what other people are thinking. Adolescents become very self-conscious, and they experience a set of processes we call in psychology the imaginary audience, which is exactly what it sounds like, adolescents imagine how they appear to their peers, even when they’re not around peers. And something I’m really interested in in my research is understanding how social media may make the imaginary audience no longer imaginary, where any moment can be broadcast to peers. And I’ll note that this photo is from the current Netflix TV show Sex Education. And for girls, there are also a lot of complicated gender and cultural socialization processes that affect the focus on physical appearance. Girls in the United States and many countries are socialized to think of their physical appearance as the most important part of themselves, as being central to their self worth and their worth interpersonally. So one’s body image is core to one’s identity during adolescence, and this doesn’t end in adolescence, but it’s really heightened during this time. And this image comes from the controversial film, Cuties. Mitch mentioned that social media use has increased dramatically in recent years. I want to note that when we look not just at kids who use social media almost every day, but who check social media more than once a day. The percentage roughly doubled from 2012 to 2018, and almost half of kids in 2018 reported that they were online almost constantly. Researchers and the general public (educators, clinicians, parents, teens themselves) are very interested in this question of whether social media use is good or bad for teen mental health. And media portrayals of research cause a lot of stress to those of us trying to do this complicated research, because mass media coverage of science, especially on social media and how it affects teen mental health, tends to be very sensationalized as shown in these two contrasting headlines. Is social media digital heroin, turning kids into–I can’t quite see the end on my screen–psychotic junkies? Or is social media as important for depression as the frequency of eating potatoes? So those are two extreme examples of a phenomenon we see a lot on mass media coverage regarding teen social media use.
What if this question is the wrong question? What if it is not logical or even reasonable to ask whether social media use is bad or good for teen mental health. Social media use is not just one thing, social media use involves interpersonal connection, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re really seeing how social media use is central to adolescents’ lives even more than before because they’re not seeing their peers in person, this is the way to connect. A lot of my research focuses on LGBTQ youth including youth living in rural areas, and social media provides a sometimes literally life saving way of connecting. And we don’t have enough research on what I just said, that is based on clinical and anecdotal experience, but for LGBTQ youth or groups from other minorities where they might not have in person support from other communities, social media can provide this. Social media as Mitch said can provide opportunities for activism, and some forms of social media use can cause problems for body image and mental health. And in my research, I’m really interested in understanding not this broad question about whether social media is bad or good, but I’m interested in understanding specific subjective experiences that affect adolescents’ body image and mental health. And as part of this, I am interested in several of these concerning behaviors. I am really interested in this idea of teens being camera ready, really concerned about the social media audience online and offline, and excessively focussed on editing, taking, and posting selfies. I am also very interested in understanding the effects of excessive investment in peer feedback, my research suggests that adolescents who are overly concerned with how many likes their photos get are more likely to report increases in body image concerns, and depressive symptoms over time. And what i’m really going to focus on for the next few minutes is this idea of upwards social comparison.
First I want to highlight that Mitch Prinstein, our moderator, and Jacqui Nesi, a professor at Brown University, and I developed this theory for how social media changed interpersonal interactions broadly speaking. When I give this talk to an audience that is solely composed of scientists I do it differently, but here I am going to focus on it using some images of cats to make sure we’re all completely on the same page and have a little bit of a break from science talk. This is a photo of my cat, very unhappy on her way to the vet, and this is a really bad moment for her. And prior to the advent of social media, adolescents could have bad moments that could be private, and maybe would be observed by a close peer. But now that peer is on social media, and interactions that used to be private are public, with social media available 24/7, kids often don’t have a break with interactions with peers, good and bad. And the publicness and permanence is really changing of peer interactions. And I’m also really interested in the idea of these features relating to visualness and quantifiability. So social media is a set of visual media, and what we see is, adolescents exposed to these curated, edited, idealized images which have often been photoshopped beyond recognition to adhere to body and beauty standards. And kids are exposed to these images where other peers and influencers and celebrities have carefully curated images of their bodies, as well as I’m really focused on body image, but lifestyle, moments, and dramatic vacations. They are able to manipulate their photos to adhere to beauty standards using accessories, or even to change their body shape, there’s a huge commercial element to all of this. And then we have this quantifiability, where kids are exposed to these metrics that tell them exactly how much their photos and other peers’ photos are liked or not, and they can compare.
Social comparison is a natural process among people, and among other primates. And I’m going to show a brief video that really highlights this. I need to see if I can turn off this sound, one moment. We’re going to look at it here. I know this is not ideal, but this is the way I can control the volume. And what you’re going to see here is the monkey on the left is going to be participating in a task, in which she hands over a rock and then she receives her payment, and her payment is a cucumber. And you’ll see that at first, receiving this cucumber is perfectly fine. This monkey is very satisfied with the cucumber payment. What happens when the other monkey performs the same task and receives a grape? And then, the monkey on the left performs the task again, receives a cucumber once more. That cucumber is no longer acceptable. This monkey is filled with rage at this injustice, based on upward social comparison. It goes on, you can see that the rage will continue and get worse. But just keep that in mind, social comparison is a normative, evolutionarily adaptive process. But, when it comes to beauty standards, things can really become complicated and problematic. From a mass media standpoint, for decades, women in particular have been bombarded with these unrealistic images that are photoshopped to the point that even the celebrities shown report that they’re comparing themselves to their own selves. Cindy Crawford famously said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford,” and that’s who we see here. On social media–I had a video, given my difficulty just now, I’m just going to tell you about it–you ever have an opportunity to look with your adolescent at what is actually on Tik Tok. What I had for you is a video showing just a stream, a constant stream of adolescent girls posing in sexualized ways–nothing explicit–but just in ways that show off their bodies. And many adolescent girls are exposed to these images very very frequently. And–it is starting, sorry, okay, I’ll try to get it going if I can turn off the volume, sorry for my many technical difficulties. Okay. So, you can see this just playing on the right while I talk to you, and if you find yourself being distracted, that is what your kids are likely experiencing as well, it’s very distracting. And, we know that social media affects adolescents’ body image both through an increased focus on other people’s physical appearance, so for example, if adolescent girls are exposed to the images we’re seeing here, they are going to be engaging in upwards social comparison. Social media also blurs the line between peer culture and celebrity culture through the influencers Mitch talked about. And kids may feel like they’re comparing themselves to realistic target of influence, but it’s not a realistic target of influence because these images have been manipulated in many cases, and because the people who receive such huge followings are more likely than the average person to adhere to arbitrarily determined beauty standards as we see here in this video. We also know that social media increases the focus on one’s own physical appearance, and this is where we get into this idea I’ve been developing and testing in my research on being “camera ready.”
Alright, why does all this matter? And Mitch or Amanda, who I see on my screen, can you give me a thumbs up if the video stopped effectively? Great. So, my research suggests that body image concerns related to social media are connected with increased depressive symptoms over time among both girls and boys. Most of my research so far has focused on using adolescents’ self report, asking adolescents to describe their own experiences, and then following changes in those experiences, based on self-report, over time. But, I am moving into research where I’m using eye tracking technology, fMRI, and observational coding to better understand these phenomena. And, I have preliminary data that suggests that some of these concerns may be exacerbated during COVID-19. For example, many people, many of you watching today, are probably having the experience where it can be distracting to see your own image on the screen during all your interpersonal interactions if your life is now on Zoom. And I found that adolescents, adolescent girls, who are more attuned to their own image on video chat, were more likely to report short-term increases in depressive symptoms. So for the parents out there, I want to highlight, it is totally developmentally appropriate for your teen to want to spend lots of time on social media. Social media taps into all kinds of natural mechanisms that make adolescents want to participate in it. But, the question is, how is your child spending their time on social media? Not all social media use is the same. Is your teen using social media for connection goals, for enhancing their relationships, or for validation in status goals, focused on physical appearance? And are they engaging in upwards social comparison? If so, how does that make them feel? I want to let you to know I’m out of time, I’m actually over time, so I won’t highlight this in detail, but I want you to know that many researchers, including myself, are working hard to develop interventions that help adolescents take control over their social media use and use social media more intentionally so that they can experience the positive effects without the negative effects. And my colleague Brian Galla at the University of Pittsburgh and I are just about to publish the results of one such intervention that I can talk more about in the Q&A if we have time. If you’re interested in learning more, please check out my website, shown here. In addition to my work on social media, I have a focus on adolescent sexuality and LGBTQ+ mental health that you can learn more about there. Thank you so much, and I’ll turn it back to Mitch now.
Mitch Prinstein: Thank you so much, that was a terrific presentation, dare I say it was “purr”-fect. Okay, I had to. I am excited to move on to our next presentation. And, our next presenter will be Dr. Allison Chase. Allison Chase has been working in the field of eating disorder treatment for over 20 years. Dr. Chase’s areas of specialization include child and adolescent mental health issues, the treatment of eating disorders, parental training and education, and family or team-based therapy, including advanced training in emotion focused family therapy. Very excited to hear Dr. Chase’s talk.
Allison Chase: Great, thank you so very much. Let me share my screen. Hello? Let’s see. There we go. Can everybody…How’s that? Are we, can I get a thumbs up from you, Mitch? Okay, great. Oh goodness, technology. We just heard how it impacts and affects our adolescents but it gets to all of us, doesn’t it? I am so thrilled to be here today and to be with our incredible panel, some fabulous research that has been done and so helpful for us. I am regional clinical director for the Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center. We are located nationwide, and we provide treatment at all levels of care. So, I’m going to talk to you a little bit about how some of these body image concerns, as well as some of the concerns that are happening from social media, with self esteem among others, moving into the realm of mental health. And, namely, I really want to spend time talking to you, parents, caregivers, loved ones, about what you can do about it. I don’t know about all of you, but after hearing the data that is out there, clearly, we do need to address some of it, and sometimes it’s really hard to know how to do that.
So, nothing different than you’ve heard, right? The pressures for children, tweens, teens, doesn’t matter, whether this idea of social comparison, as we hear about, “do I fit in?”, “do I not fit in?” And then there, of course, is that idea out there that somehow, being at a perfect weight or perfect size is going to solve all of life’s problems. These are just a couple of indications of some of the challenges that are out there, but they’re very real. And as we heard about today, right? So, and Sophia spoke about this quite extensively, but your typical social scene–this is not any different than probably what you see among your kids and the children and adolescents out there. And, again, as we heard, even quite young. So, the question is what do we do about this, if this is reality? And I think there needs to be a part of us that recognizes that this is reality today, and this is the direction we’re moving, and as we did hear, it’s not all bad, right? We know that. We know that being able to connect and have an avenue to do that for many, has been helpful. It’s a question of what impact is it having? So, one of the things that concern us is when we see that social media has taken that, really that toll on one’s self esteem. Now, we’ve been talking about self esteem in teens and adolescents for decades, really we have. As was articulated before, that adolescent time developmentally is really challenging, right? We have biological changes in our body as well as hormonally happening. We also have developmental changes around social functioning and emotional, and, of course, there’s the cognitive as well. So, all of these pieces have always made adolescence and just for those teen years a challenging time. So, the struggle of self esteem is not necessarily new, but it’s really important that we know what low self esteem looks like because as we have heard about, the influence of social media, the idea that it is around all the time, and the amount of engagement in this comparison in keeping up is really having it’s impact.
So, let’s talk about what it looks like when you have a loved one, a child or adolescent, experiencing low self esteem. Self critical comments–really important to tune in to hearing how they’re speaking about themselves. And it could be in the realm of everything from body image, to peer relationships, to how they’re doing in school. Decreased or more minimal friendships or connections or interactions–that’s something you also want to keep an eye out for. Are you noticing less reaching out, less connection? I know in our world of Covid right now, it may not be as obvious to see that, but the change should be more apparent based on what they’ve been doing. Increased frustration, right? Or easily angry. If you’re noticing that irritability and impatience with you, which I realize many parents are probably thinking to themselves, “I see this all the time in my kids.” And yes, you might, but we want to see when there’s an increase or a change in it. How about also a lack of willingness to be willing to try something different, or to engage in other kinds of new behaviors–this is something that is an indication that they’re really not feeling capable or confident like they can do other things, which is a key indication of self esteem, of low self esteem. So I’d be concerned. You need to be concerned because one of the things that we know, and the data is quite remarkable out there, that we know that low self esteem starts moving us towards a number of mental health symptoms and conditions. Namely, depressive symptoms, as well as anxiety as well, as well as eating disorders. So, we are seeing that, that’s where it lends itself, and so we really want to try to get a handle if we can on that self esteem, so we can hopefully reduce the risks of moving into increased mental health concerns. And then lastly, a question I often get from many families that I work with is, “How do I know that this is a mental health problem? How do I know there’s something wrong with it?” And I know this is a short answer written out, it’s a little bit, I can elaborate on it a little bit more, but to see impairment in functioning. So, what do we mean by that? When we are seeing a difference in one’s behaviors. When we can see that their life is impacted. When that is happening in a number of different realms, whether it be academics, like their school environment, again, I know we’re seeing it online as opposed to in person these days, but when you see changes in that, as well as social or emotional functioning. Again, seeing differences in relationships, when you’re seeing they’re more withdrawn, when you’re seeing they seem more agitated or anxious. If this is happening in a way that is impairing how they’re functioning and what they’re doing in the day to day life that you typically see them, then you know that you want to do something different.
So, let’s move on to that. So, what do we do as parents, right? And I just love this cartoon. True confessions, I’m a mom of two young adults at this point, and I know that there are a number of times it felt this way, right? Parenting is challenging, nobody gave you an owner’s manual, right? So, all we can do is the best that we can do, and so I want to give you that one, and I want for you to understand that many of us recognize that we are all being thrown new information, new challenges all the time. And again, doing the best we can is what we can ask for. So, how do we talk to our kids so they will actually listen to us, right? How do we do that? Now, I could be spending hours discussing this part with you, so I’m going to, but I’m going to keep it brief because I know my time, of course, is limited here. So, it’s about genuine communication, it’s about the importance of validating and using that. So, some parents may know my reference to this one, but back in the days of Charlie Brown, and the teacher that says “waa, waa, waa,”–that’s all we hear in the background, that’s what your kids hear very often when you start talking because the idea is that you’re not going to get me, you have no idea what you’re talking about. What happens is if you can use more genuine communication to really validate that you do get them, right, you do get that it is really hard to be the only one that’s not allowed to have their phone after 10:00 at night, or you do completely understand that all the “cool kids” are paying attention to X, Y, and Z, or they’re allowed to tune in to whatever channel, and you know, it’s really hard that you’re not, and let’s talk about why you’re not. So, that’s what we talk about when we’re using the validation of genuine communication. We’re talking about that ability to be able to say, “I get you, I truly get what’s going on, and I understand it.” I want to make it really clear that just because you get them, you’re not saying you necessarily agree with everything that they’re, that they’re saying, and you can still get them, right? So, I really want you to keep that in mind because it brings me to my next point, as I know I need to be wrapping it up.
So, this is from, who, who remembers Mean Girls? That classic movie that came out, right? The mom. This is her, this is her, a classic line from that, “I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom.” Well, I’d like us to shift from that kind of thinking. I know, I know it’s hard not to be a cool mom, right? But here’s the thing, your teenagers need you to be a regular mom. So, what does being a regular mom look like? Sometimes, being a regular mom means doing that really hard work. So, what are we talking about, right? Having really consistent rules and guidelines when it comes to social media use, right? When it comes to understanding and keeping yourself, of course, informed, which I’m going to talk about in a second, but, and sticking to those rules and being consistent. Your kids count on you to be consistent, and to have limits and to have boundaries because that is what actually helps tremendously in being able to contain their behaviors. Remember, we heard a little bit kind of talking about the developmental model and the brain, not fully developed yet. So, we really, they need us, as parents and caregivers, to do something about that consistent rules and guidelines. Also, please don’t run in to fix and rescue and take care of that all the time. Let’s help your kids problem solve. Let’s help them figure out, let’s say they are having a conflict, something’s going on online, something they’ve witnessed in social media, how can you help them learn to problem solve and really kind of understand it, as opposed to taking the phone and deciding you’re going to type something else to fix it for them. Valuable lessons. Also, stay informed. Please! Stay informed about what all these different apps are, and all that’s happening.
Now, it’s not easy for us that are over the age of 40, as was referenced before, or maybe older than that, it’s not easy for us to keep tabs on all of it, but the best we can do is to educate ourselves and know what’s going on, it’s really really important. And talking about a lot of the things that Sophia did such a great job articulating, as well as Mitch, about the fact that this is not reality. These are images that have been changed and altered and things, because, of course, everybody wants to look like they’re having the most wonderful life on social media, right? And then, lastly, be a role model. And that is hard too, I was thinking as Sophia was talking, you know how many parents, adults, caregivers, probably struggle with many of the data that we see on the adolescents today, which, again, makes sense. It’s really important as parents that you remember your role to show them something different. So when you can, I really encourage you to do that. So again, just a quote that I really love, that it’s really important for us to model the kind of person we want our kids to be, and that’s what they’re going to see in doing that. So, I am, I think I may have gone over as well, so, and I’m happy at Q&A to talk a little bit more about any of these clinical or related questions.
Mitch Prinstein: Thank you so much, that was terrific. And I think we do have time for a question or two before we move on to our final talk. One of the people joining us asks, “What are some telltale signs that a teen is ready to use social media, and what are some telltale signs that a teen is not ready?
Allison Chase: Such a good question, and of course there are nuanced answers to this depending on exactly what your teen is experiencing. But you really want to look for that developmental maturity. And when I say that, I mean you want them, first of all, you want them to be able to know that we’re going to have the ability to be able to share what you see and what you do, and this idea of passwords is quite lovely for others, however, parents, you should be able to have access to your younger kids’ information that they are using, and that’s something that’s really important. But namely, you really want to look for a level of maturity, developmental maturity is what I want to call it, whether they’re sort of socially appropriate, emotionally appropriate behavior for their age. So, really important to keep that in mind.
Mitch Prinstein: Thank you so much. I’m very excited to present our last speaker. Amanda Mozea graduated from Harvard College in March of 2018. Since then, Amanda has worked as the education outreach manager at Media Girls, a Boston-based nonprofit that works to empower middle school girls by teaching them to be critical consumers of media, and to use their own social media platforms to be authentic advocates for positive change. So excited to hear your comments, and welcome to Amanda Mozea!
Amanda Mozea: Thank you so much, Mitch, and thank you all for having, having me. And I don’t know about everyone else, but I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot and have gained a kind of new vocabulary for thinking about these issues, even though I’m steeped in it all the time, so thank you to all of you. I’m going to share my screen really quickly. Okay, Mitch, can I have a thumbs up if you can see? Great. Okay. So, I’m going to be talking today, a continuation of the themes that everyone else has mentioned, of just social media and how it impacts young people’s self esteem, body image. And, as you can probably guess with the title of Media Girls, we work with girls and young women. So, that’s what I’ll be focusing on. That does not mean that what I’m saying does not apply to boys, but our focus is girls, and I’m really staying in that lane.
So, something that we always do with girls, because it’s so tempting as adults to just fall into the negatives, the cons of social media, is to think about what are the pros of social media. Let’s kind of invert the normal question that we ask. What are the pros of social media? Why is it also a positive force in the lives of young people? And from the girls that I work with, that my organization works with, we hear a couple of clear trends of what they think are kind of the most positive aspects of being online, being on social media. You can voice your opinions, which is huge, and is incredibly scary especially for young people, but having that ability, having that platform is enormous. You can stay connected with long distance friends and family, so during COVID-19 that’s especially relevant, when even someone next door can be long distance if you can’t be in contact with them. You can send and receive love and support, it’s been a challenging year, and I think a lot of girls have felt that they’ve had to access this part of social media. And that is a definite benefit to this. It can make you laugh, smile, feel inspired, memes and meme culture, while it can present challenges, most definitely, it can also really be a source of stress relief for young people. And, really, social media gives young people a platform and a voice, you’re not only able to state your opinion, but you have an audience for that opinion. And I want to give some examples of this. So this is Zee Thomas, who is a Black Lives Matter organizer. She put on Twitter, “If my mom let’s me, I want to organize a Black Lives Matter rally.” And that’s exactly what happened in Nashville, it was thousands and thousands of people strong, and it was her and several other teens organizers that made that happen. And we, I’m sure, all know of Greta Thunberg who has a social media following of millions, who has really raised global awareness around climate change and what young people are doing to really fight this fight.
Now, that being said, there are definitely cons to social media that cannot be overlooked, and I’m going to focus on one of four that I’m going to list. So, the stress of following social media norms, this is something that girls and young people that we work with say that all the time. There are a lot of rules to social media that they unconsciously follow. And Mitch sort of mentioned this at the beginning. That’s an increased sense of stress. An increased sense of loneliness, despite this connectivity, if you are watching people hang out and you’re not invited, you’re going to feel very alone. Increased social comparison, most definitely, and more specifically, increased body comparison, which is what I’m going to be focusing on for the remainder of this talk. And I think a quote that definitely highlights the intersection of body comparison, body hyperawareness, and just being a young person on social media, is this quote from #Being13, “I definitely feel pressure to look perfect on Instagram, when I post, I’m thinking, ‘what will people think about this? Are they going to think I’m pretty?’” “I’m pretty” being the most important aspect of that platform post. So, I think it’s really important to now define social media standards of beauty, and these vary based on race and ethnicity. But, what we have seen, is that social media, in fact, has had a very homogenizing effect on the standard of beauty, so I’m going to give it some descriptors. So, there’s a ratio of big eyes, small nose, and big lips, small chin, that all of these, many many of these social media influencers all follow. There’s this idea of strong cheekbones, either naturally or accented through makeup, there’s dramatic eyebrow, blemish free skin always, there’s flawless and perfection, no scars, and then hair is also incredibly important. It’s usually long, it’s never frizzy, and it’s very shiny. And you can kind of see that from these images. The body is also really important to thinking about this, and there’s a little bit more variance in this when you think about kind of race and ethnicity. That being said, again, social media does have this very homogenizing effect on what is desirable. It’s this large bust, small waist, large hips, and even if you are skinnier as you can see with the images in the middle and on the right, there is still curves, and that is incredibly important for young people in thinking about how you’re posing on social media to accentuate curves. That’s where photoshop often comes in. No one is overly muscled, but you want to be toned. So this idea of strong but not too strong, toned but not too toned, there is a thigh gap no matter how big your thighs are, there is a thigh gap. Long legs, cellulite free skin, scar free, blemish free, stretch mark free skin. You’re starting to see, I’m sure, how difficult it is to attain this kind of body, and this kind of face. And it’s really important to notice, and to note, that these standards are impossible even for the influencers to meet. Cindy Crawford saying, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” These standards are so extreme that even someone like Kim Kardashian, who is really kind of renowned for her hourglass figure, will wear a corset that she had to take three months to fit into. Celebrities use face tune just as young people do to remove any kind of blemish or scarring. Posing is utilized to accentuate curves even if you do not have them. The small nose is faked using either explicitly a nose job and kind of body modification or makeup, and those cheekbones that are so striking on Instagram, like those of Bella Hadid, who is a model, were obtained through surgeries. And so, girls are sitting there, scrolling and comparing themselves to made up, manipulated, in terms of kind of the facetune element of things, posed, staged, perfectly light photos. And they’re sitting there comparing their everyday average self to that.
And so, that’s creating a real struggle for young people, for young women. And so there are two keys that I really want to highlight, two pieces of this puzzle if you will to how we can combat this. And that is to limit time on social media, and to more critically consume media. So for limiting screen time, my advice is to really enable functions, particularly on phones that track screen time, specifically and especially on certain social media apps. And parents, I would recommend again modeling this behavior with the young people in your lives. Enable these functions yourself, compare, and have a conversation about this with the young people in your life. So it’s not just them and not you critically analyzing their social media, but also you looking at your own screen time usage, and having a conversation about this. Turn off or limit notifications for social media apps, you might close out of the app if you’re a young person, and then you get a ping and you’re sucked right back in, turn off or limit those notifications. Getting smartphones out of bedrooms at night. So they can serve as an alarm sure, and to get rid of that function, get an actual alarm clock. Getting smart phones out of bed will really enable quality sleep time, which often times gets really stripped from young people because they’re constantly scrolling. Schedule explicit screen free time, or schedule time where you will have screens will be allowed, and follow these rules yourself. And explore screen-free hobbies, it’s a bit cliche, yes, but especially during COVID-19 when so much of our lives are on zoom, are on a computer, are on a screen, now is absolutely the time to explore alternatives to that.
Now for critical consumption of media, this is a bit more challenging to distill, so I’m happy to answer more questions in our Q&A. But really engage in conversations, and not lectures with young people. And I encourage the adults of the young people in our programming to do this by asking questions, approach it not from the I have answers and I want you to listen to them, but by I am also figuring this out with you, we are in partnership with each other, and we can learn from each other, so tell me more about. And so questions around body image can include how would you describe someone who looks perfect? And do you think it’s possible for anyone to meet all these different descriptors? Can you show me an example of a person who looks perfect on your social media? Do you think this person always looks like this? Are they always wearing makeup for example, and do they ever take off the makeup and wear sweatpants? Do you think they always look like this? And perhaps these questions are obvious and easy for a young person to say like no of course they don’t always look like this. But having them engage in that critical thought process is essential, really bringing to light and the forefront of their minds, questions that they would normally just breeze past, and kind of assume as facts. Around social media usage in general, how does your social media make you feel? Do you think you can change how it makes you feel? Is there a way that you can curate your social media so that it may be making you feel better? And what do your own social media posts look like? Do you feel like your own social media represents who you really are, why? Why not? These are really important questions to engage with the young people. Ok, so that is my presentation, thank you so much for having me Children and Screens, and I’m really excited for the Q&A part of this.
Mitch Prinstein: Thank you so much Amanda that was fantastic. We do have time for a quick question before we open this up to some group questions. One person writes, “I am a single grandmother raising a 15 year old, and it’s how to deal with the response of eliminating social media, how can I do that better?”
Amanda Mozea: I think that this is a fantastic question first of all. I think that with limiting social media, it should be done in steps and stages, it should not be delete it, you’re done. I would start with something like, on your phone, limit your use of the app of Instagram to one hour, and see if you hit that hour, and do you feel like you utilized that time well? Or even before that, if you feel like your granddaughter really kind of is resistant to that idea, just go over weekly screen time. How much time did you spend on this app? If it was over the course of the week 10 hours, that is a conversation worth having, worth nothing, do you think that was time well spent? Do you think that you would have other things that you would have liked to accomplish this week that you weren’t able to in part because of those 10 hours? So it is a conversation that happens in stages. So starting with looking at screen time, looking at time spent on these social media apps, and then perhaps thinking about how I can implement a kind of hour cap, or an hour and a half cap on this social media. And then you know adjusting the parameters of that based on how realistic it feels. If you know cutting out social media is too much, or limiting to an hour and a half is stressful, there are steps you can take, like limiting notifications and things like that to really get that screen time down. And say okay, so you spent 10 hrs on Instagram last week, let’s see how you did this week. It’s down to 7 hours? I would take that as a win. So it’s steps and stages.
Mitch Prinstein: Terrific, thank you so much. We have many many questions that have been asked to all of us as panelists, so I am going to go ahead and read the questions that we have, and please feel free for anyone to answer. An initial question is, “at what age are we free from the social comparison game? Are we ever free?”
Sophia Choukas-Bradley: I’m happy to get us started with that. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are ever totally free from this social comparison game. Social comparison is a normative part of life, humans are pre programmed to compare ourselves to others to make good decisions about how we should behave. At a very basic evolutionary level, we have to socially compare ourselves to figure out how to stay alive. And I think social comparison related to body image is worse for adolescents, particularly for adolescents girls, given all the different factors that we talked about, and all the beauty standards that target adolescent girls. But I think parents and adults who are not parents can also benefit from the things we’ve talked about as others have said.
Mitch Prinstein: It’s interesting isn’t it, there’s research from the Pew Research Institute that says that parents are very likely to talk with their teenagers about their offline relationships, that’s something parents do all the time. But they’re not likely to talk about what they’re seeing and doing online, mostly because it’s hard for us parents to kind of keep up with what’s going on, and even know what questions to ask. But I wonder what you all think, one of the ways that I’ve heard some parents talk about is to have parents ask kids, what would you do if your friend saw this on social media, what would you do if your friend posted this on social media, what would that be like? Why are they doing it? And that sometimes creates a safe space for kids to be able to talk about it without feeling judged. I don’t know if you’ve had thoughts or reactions to that possible kind of approach.
Allison Chase: I think that approach can be really helpful. It’s asking them to externalize it a bit and to put it on something else, which I think makes it easier for them to think about and talk about due to the sensitivity that does happen often between parents and children. Again, as far as kids feeling like parents don’t know what they’re talking about, it allows them to sort of take in and externalize it, so I do think it’s definitely one approach to do. I think sometimes going back to what the research has shown, that parents aren’t asking about the online piece because they’re also not as familiar, that’s not a world many parents live in to understand how it goes. And I loved where Amanda spoke about in her talk, that’s where you get to ask questions. That’s where you get to say, so explain this to me, how does it work? What is going on? And they may roll your eyes at you one time or two, but I really think they’ll appreciate your own sort of vulnerability asking these questions, and it really does open the door for the discussion, and parents can learn a thing or two about what exists today.
Mitch Prinstein: We all I believe posted example photos on our presentations of the types of imagery and body imagery that adolescent girls or bears might be kind of putting up on social media. One person asks, “what drives the need, do you think for young girls to show their bodies in this way on Tik Tok and other forms of social media?”
Sophia Choukas-Bradley: Amanda I have thoughts on this, but I’m curious if you do first.
Amanda Mozea: I was hoping you would go first, so you could provide the research and I could provide the more anecdotal what I’ve heard.
Sophia Choukas-Bradley: Yeah so decades of research long before the advent of social media suggested that girls and women are socialized to think of their self worth as being driven by physical appearance. And then the question is, ok so girls are socialized to really care a ton about their physical appearance for good reasons. For example, adhering to beauty norms makes it more likely that girls will have good romantic partner options, will be treated better at school and in the workplace. There’s all kinds of research to suggest that trying to adhere to beauty norms, while it can cause a lot of distress, does make sense developmentally and across the life span. But this question of why these norms? Many marketing researchers and feminist scholars outside of psychology have written about the commercializing aspect of all this. So in order to sell beauty products, companies have to make people feel bad about their bodies, and then put their products and services, so for example makeup or surgical procedures, in the position of fixing those perceived or invented body flaws. And as Amanda highlighted, the norms have changed such that they’ve become just off the wall unrealistic. In the early 1900’s, girls and women were once focused on facial experience, according to research and diary studies for example looking at adolescent girls’ personal diaries. And now they’re products and services targeting every single part of girls and women’s bodies. So I’ll pause there and pass it over to Amanda, but I think it’s really important for parents to have empathy for why girls post and try to emulate these standards, it does make sense developmentally, even though I think it’s deeply concerning from a broad societal and an individual psychological perspective.
Amanda Mozea: I think something that we highlight in our programming is how we’re constantly told that the most important thing about ourselves as young women is how we look. And just like you said Sophia, there is research to back up kind of the validity of caring about physical appearance, unfortunately. And if this is the most important aspect of who we are, then I don’t think we can blame anyone, any woman for going out and marketing her looks because that is what she’s told is the most valuable thing about her. And so that’s where you get an influencer culture for example that’s excessively focused on looks and not only physical appearance, but lifestyle appearance. For example, if we are told that this is what matters most to women, cash in on it. That is a mindset of a lot of people, and because that is sort of touted as the pinnacle of looks, being able to use them to leverage a lifestyle of luxury, wow that was a lot of l’s, then we are seeing that really trickle down on social media into the everyday average young person really concerned of a branding themselves if you will on social media.
And we see this and have seen this for decades and decades and decades in mainstream media which is where the commercialization aspect comes in. Where young people, no I’ll take that back, women of any age, men of any age, are told that this is how you should look, if you buy this product, this will happen. If you buy these running shorts, you’ll run faster, you’ll be fitter, you’ll be thinner, and you will get all of these perks. That’s the sort of connection that advertising has kind of constantly played in their products, some on a very explicit level. And you can google all of those, you know, sexist advertising. But a lot of them are on a much more subtle level saying if you buy this, you will be better. Because the self worth of particularly women and young girls is so tied to physical appearance, you will be better is the natural outcome of improving appearance. You will be worth more, you will be more worthy than you currently are. And so like Sophia was saying, you cannot blame girls, young women, grown women for really being bought into this mindset. I think what to do about that, because that was very dramatic and a little heavy, is to start to dissect self worth from physical appearance. And that is something that will take years and perhaps a lifetime to unlearn because we are so conditioned to tie those two inextricably together. So something that we do in our programming, is really get girls to name why are you important, why are you valuable, why are you essential the way you come right now. And you cannot say anything related to looks. And a lot of them struggle, like Alison was saying, with low self esteem because they’re struggling with this, they have nothing good to say about themselves. And so what we have girls do is turn to a friend, now say what is amazing about your friend because we’re so much kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves. So say what is great about your friend, and friend do you hear that? You are all of these amazing attributes, write it down because it’s true. So that is really kind of the most foundational fundamental part of all of this. But we can’t blame or hate or really criticize, we have no legs to stand on, this has been happening for a very long time. But that’s sort of the foundational problem here. And so starting to separate self worth, self esteem, from physical appearances is really kind of the crux of it.
Mitch Prinstein: I really appreciate these comments, I think that makes perfect sense. And it really does speak to the need for conversations between parents and kids about what they’re seeing and doing. And, it’s related to one of our questions. Someone writes, “With youth having phones, it’s hard for parents to know who friends are, or I might add, what it is that they’re seeing on there. Should we go through their phones and see what kind of conversations they’re having?”
Allison Chase: That is such a good question. I’m sure Amanda has definitely some thoughts about that as well. And I’m sure you’re going to love that we started out with, it depends. And again, it’s about age. It really is about developmental maturity because it is important that our kids do have some sense of sort of privacy of their own self, they need that, and that’s really important. And at the same time, if there’s anything indicating or concerning, whether it be the lower self-esteem, the preoccupation with one’s weight and shape, you’re noticing changes in their emotional functioning or something else going on, you have every right–you are their parent–you have every right to find out what’s going on and to do that. You know, I always love it when their young adults are about to turn 18 and they claim that, “I’m on my own,” “you can’t send me to treatment,” or “you can’t bother me.” And my thought is always, “Well like, who’s paying for your cell phone?” So, let’s be honest here, who really is able to do that? And I think you need to keep in mind, you, parents, you own that cell phone and you pay for it in most cases, and therefore, if you’re concerned, it is your job to take care of your kids. And if you are concerned about them, you have every right to do that. Now, I do, again, want to repeat how important it is that depending on developmental level, autonomy is really important and to being able to give kids that opportunity to do that. It is not really an easy question to answer, but it’s one in which you have to look at all the different factors.
Mitch Prinstein: We’ve been talking a lot about–oh sorry, Amanda, did you want to add something? Please.
Amanda Mozea: I just wanted, yes just briefly, Allison highlighted almost everything that kind of popped into my mind at first. But I think that having joint social media account access, especially when a young person is first getting on social media, is really important. And, there are ways to kind of get peeks to the social media life of a young person without saying, you know, “Give me the phone.” And that can come through asking questions. And saying, “What are you seeing? Can you take me through your feed? I’m really curious, I want to learn more.” That can be an initial surveillance of what’s going on, and then, at the end of the day, just like Allison said, “I’m paying for that phone, give it over.” That can be a sort of last resort, if you will, to busting open the doors of the bedroom for example. Yeah. Go ahead, Mitch.
Mitch Prinstein: No, I think that’s a great point and probably good for us to remind people not only to get access to the profiles you know about, but to ask about finsta and other kinds of profiles that might be under different names that parents might not know about. Those are often more of the authentic and sometimes dangerous posts we find.
I did want to segue, we’re talking a little bit about adolescent girls. We’ve had some questions and thoughts about whether there are any things that we would say differently for adolescent boys, or for non-binary teens. And I’m happy to personally start us off by just throwing out, for adolescent boys, there is also a smaller but culture of really that lean muscularity kind of body type, that has also really lead people to do the same kinds of filters, and taking pictures and work out videos at specific times, and developing that. Obviously, the difference is that you know females have a head start by decades, if not centuries, of that being paired with an incredibly strong societal message about, as you said, kind of female body shapes and what a female’s worth is supposed to be kind of air quote “attached to” in a way that I don’t think is similar at all for males. But, I appreciate the question and would love to hear if other people have thoughts about boys, but also what we can say about gender nonconformity, and how that’s related to different social media experiences, and protective factors, or maybe even risks.
Sophia Choukas-Bradley: I could spend 3 hours answering that question, and I’ll try to spend 30 seconds to give other people a chance to share their thoughts. Regarding boys, my research has focused more on adolescent girls, but whenever I’m including mixed gender samples, which is in actually the majority of my studies with social media, I do include boys. And I do find that the social media effects on body image I talked about are there for boys as well. And, one thing researchers are considering right now is whether social media may be kind of levelling the playing field such that girls and women have for decades, for maybe much longer than that, been bombarded with these idealized, unrealistic images, and this message about the importance of physical attractiveness. Boys are now exposed to similar messages, different norms, but a similar emphasis on physical appearance, and a similar bombardment of these images of peers that are idealized and can promote upward social comparison as girls are. So, I think this is an incredibly important area of work that many researchers, including myself, are starting to dive into, and I also had just started doing research to try to understand the experience of transgender adolescents online. And, I don’t yet have data to report, but I’m really interested in the extra pressures trans and gender nonconforming youth may experience to try to figure out what the beauty norms are for their gender identity and to try to conform to norms that may be even more impossible to attain depending on one’s biological characteristics. And I will say that clinically, I’ve worked with many transgender teens who talk about how social media provides them with an amazing opportunity to connect with community and to present oneself with one’s true gender identity in a way that might not be safe to do offline, in person with peers and family. And, social media exposes trans youth to all these different beauty images from cisgender and transgender individuals that can create a lot of body disatisifaction. And my preliminary data suggests that trans youth have especially high levels of body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating, although those results aren’t published yet. That was much longer than 30 seconds, but as you can see, I’m really passionate about broad questions about gender, social media, and body.
Allison Chase: I just would like to just piggyback, Sophia. And I know I don’t have the stats right in front of me, but I know I can tell you clinically, we are seeing an increase at our treatment facilities for transgender youth with tremendous body disatisfaction. Now, we have to remember, eating disorder symptoms and behaviors are a complex etiology, right? So it comes from a lot of the emotional and biological pieces as well as our environment as well. But, there is no doubt that we are seeing an increase, and the body dissatisfaction and the impact of hormones being a big one is playing a role that I think needs continued work for sure to better understand.
Mitch Prinstein: I know there are a number of educators who are listening, and we have a question about things that we could be doing to teach the skills to protect teens from what’s happening online. Specifically, somebody asks, “Why aren’t we required demonstrated media literacy proficiency to graduate high school and to be admitted to college? Also, shouldn’t we start media literacy early, like in elementary school, and then build the skills just like we do for other literacies?” Any quick thoughts about what might be included in such an approach?
Amanda Mozea: Well, as someone who works for a nonprofit that is dedicated to this, I think that’s a fantastic idea. Not only out of pure self interest, but from working with young people over the years. There is such a demonstrable need for this, and schools are often scrambling to even find space in the schedule for this kind of programming. And so, what we find is, one thing that can be done is, this is a health supplement. Many many schools and states require health to be taught. This is kind of an extension of the mental health unit because there is such a strong impact that social media and social connection can have on this. But, this is absolutely something that schools and states, everyone kind of wants to know how to include this in curricula, and it starts right now on the level of individual schools and individual administrations because there’s kind of a lack in broader kinda governmental structure for “this is something that needs to be taught.” But, looking forward, I am very optimistic because of the amount of research from some of you all, especially on why this is such a need and why this is so important. So, I’m optimistic that in the future, there will be change in kind of state requirements and state outlooks on this being a subject that needs to be taught.
Mitch Prinstein: That’s terrific, thank you so so much. I know that I speak for all of us when I turn it back to Pamela and say thank you all, thank you from all of us, and to Children and Screens for inviting us and for making sure that there is continued energy on this incredibly important topic. There’s clearly lots to say and lots to do. Thank you.
Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra: Thank you, Mitch, Sophia, Allison, and Amanda for sharing your expertise and experience with us. Thank you also for joining us today and for engaging in this important conversation. We hope that today’s discussion has been enlightening and has equipped you with a few new tools for healthy digital media use in your families. To continue learning about this topic, be sure to visit our website, where we will post additional insights in the coming days. We will also be posting a YouTube video of today’s workshop, which we encourage you to share with your fellow parents, teachers, clinicians, researchers, and friends. For more from Children and Screens, please follow us on social media at the accounts shown on your screen. Our conversation about digital media use and children’s well-being will continue throughout the rest of the year. On Wednesday, November 18th at noon, we will discuss what online advertisers are doing and how they are getting to your kids. Then on Wednesday, December 2nd at noon, creativity will be the topic of the day. Our experts will provide concrete information about the science behind creative thinking and ways you can enhance your children’s creativity. We’ll also feature live demonstrations of imaginative, original art that you can do at home with your kids. Stay at home for more information on both of these upcoming events. When you leave the workshop, you’ll see a link to a short survey. Please click on the link, and let us know what you thought of the webinar. Thanks again, and everyone be safe and well.