Teenagers and children use social media to have fun, share interests, maintain friendships, and explore their identities. However, while digital media literacy is good, using social media also poses risks. A new study, for instance, found that liking and posting lots of comments on other people’s posts can lower girls’ self-esteem overtime.
The study, which appeared in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, details the impact of social media use on self-esteem from childhood to adolescence. Authors Silje Steinsbekk from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Department of Psychology and the team shared that social media users are extensively exposed to photos that display idealized self-presentation. This poses a potential threat to their self-esteem in the long run although the negative impact may depend upon kind of social media engagement.
Social media engagement and self-esteem
To come up with such findings, the team interviewed 725 participants ages 10, 12, and 14. Their appearance self-esteem (physical self-image) was captured by the questionnaires and self-perception profile. The team said that the participants’ assessment of their appearance matters more for their overall self-image.
The team also uses the data from the Trondheim Early Secure Study, which is a research project that studies the social and psychological development of adolescents and children. Steinsbekk and colleagues then gathered information from the participants’ parents, their teachers since they were four years old, and the kindergarten staff. Since the participants are now 16 years old, they have a seventh data collection that is still ongoing.
Results show that over 40% of the participants used Snapchat and Instagram when they were 10 years old. Two years later, the number of social media users doubled. So, when the participants reached 14, about 95% of them are already on Facebook, and 70 to 80% are using Snapchat and Instagram.
“Other-oriented” versus “self-oriented” social media use
Although there were already previous studies about the link between self-image and social media use, Steinsbekk and the team’s study reported conflicting findings. They believe that it could be because the kind of social media use that has been investigated before has not been specified. So, for their research, they differentiate “other-oriented” versus “self-oriented” social media use.
One participant named Lise, for instance, constantly shares pictures of herself on IG. This is what the authors referred to as self-oriented use. Lise gets a lot of comments and likes from her post and this could potentially boost her self-image. On the other hand, another participant named Frida is more inclined to comment and like on other people’s photos. This is the other-oriented social media use. Considering that selfies of other people are usually the “perfect” representations or are the retouched version of the actual photo, Frida is constantly exposed to the idealized self-portraits of other people.
The authors said that the differences can be great as to how Frida views the norm and how she will judge herself and it could lead to Frida damaging her self-esteem or self-image. Along with their findings with the other participants, the authors found that girls who like and comment on other’s pictures and posts develop poorer self-esteem over time but not for those self-oriented social media users like Lise.
The danger of self-oriented social media use
However, the authors said that even self-oriented use of social media does not also protect girls from the negative effect of other-oriented use. Why? This is because the positive feedback that Lise received when she posts her photos is only short-lived. The team knew of this as they investigated how social media use has affected the participants’ self-image two years later. For people like Lise, no comments or likes or negative comments can also negatively affect their physical self-image.
Nevertheless, the team hypothesized that people with good physical self-esteem are more likely to post on their social media profiles to those who are not so happy with their appearance although they could not show support for such a hypothesis.
The findings apply only to girls and not boys, the team added. The link between poorer self-image and other-oriented social media use was not observed in boys. The team thinks that it is maybe because women are more likely than men to use social media or to compare themselves to others. In the same manner, the social comparison has a stronger negative impact on girls’ body image compared to boys’ body image. Thus, their findings apply only to girls.
Their study also reads that nearly all teens (94%) in developed countries already use social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Many of these users post their selfies. Both adolescents’ and children’s social media time is spent more on visual communication, including commenting and posting on videos and photographs of others or of themselves.
Social media and technology and teens
According to Pew Research Center, YouTube (85%), Instagram (72%), Snapchat (69%), Facebook (51%), Twitter (32%), Tumblr (9%), and Reddit (7%) are the common online platforms that teens use. Roughly 35% of them said they use Snapchat most of the time while 32% said they use YouTube most of the time.
The survey also highlighted that teens have mixed views on social media’s effect on people their age. A plurality (45%) of them believe that social media has neither positive nor negative effects among teens. Among those who said mostly positive, 40% said their main reason for using social media is to connect with friends and family. Others use the platform to find news or information (16%), meet others with the same interests (15%), keep them upbeat or entertained (9%), as a form of self-expression (7%), getting support from others (5%), and learning new things (4%).
On the other hand, among those who said mostly negative, their main reasons are the following: social media has a negative impact because it leads to bullying or overall spread of rumors (27%), it harms relationship because of lack of in-person contact (17%), there is an unrealistic view of others’ lives (15%), it causes distractions or addiction (14%), there is peer pressure (12%), it causes mental health issues (4%), and it could lead to psychological issues or drama, in general (3%).
Connections with peers and healthy self-esteem are crucial in children's and teens’ stages of development. Since banning social media may not work on them, setting up guidelines may help them get the benefits of the platform while using it safely, respectfully, and responsibly to their advantage.