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Helping your child’s self-esteem in the social media age

By Tracey Dowdy

Even before I had children I knew I wanted them to grow up strong and confident. Whether I had boys or girls, it was important to me they see their value based on who they are, not what they appear to be. But as any parenting expert - your teenager for example - will tell you, a parent’s influence only extends so far and then peers and pop culture crowd in.

Lately it seems that social media is at the center of the self-esteem debate. Everyone is weighing in, from Dove to the Girl Scouts and the news isn’t all good.

A University of Haifa study found that the amount of time girls spent on Facebook was closely tied to an increase in eating disorders “like bulimia, anorexia, physical dissatisfaction, negative physical self-image, negative approach to eating and more of an urge to be on a weight-loss diet. Extensive online exposure to fashion and music content showed similar tendencies.”

Lest you breathe a sigh of relief because you have sons not daughters, you should be aware of a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that found “40 percent of boys in middle school and high school said they regularly exercised with the goal of increasing muscle mass. Thirty-eight percent said they used protein supplements, and nearly 6 percent said they had experimented with steroids.”

So what’s a parent to do?

  1. Have a conversation. Take the time to talk about body image, self-esteem, and what your teen sees online. Ask questions about how it makes them feel and whether they think social media is making them feel good about themselves. If the answer is yes, well done. Tackle world peace. If the answer is no, work together to find a solution, whether that means weeding out some Facebook friends or Instagram followers or simply taking a break from social media for a while.
  2. Be honest. Your kids know the difference between “You’re my mom so you have to say that” and genuine praise.

  3. Build praise on tangible things. Commend them for their accomplishments and efforts. In other words, applaud what they have done, not what they’ve been given. Recognize when they volunteer, excel academically or on the field, or show compassion to others. Even if they don’t win or come out at the top, applaud their courage for trying. Encourage them to make their accomplishments the basis of their online presence, not duck-faced selfies in the bathroom mirror.

  4. Set a good example. You can’t tell your daughter looks aren’t everything if you belittle yourself for battling the bulge or having frizzy hair. If you’re constantly obsessing over your own flaws, your child will learn to focus on what they dislike about themselves too.

  5. Remember that your opinion still counts. Even though they’d rather die than admit it, you still have some influence over your teen. Be careful not to criticize your teen about weight. Has anyone ever needed to point it out when you’ve put on a few extra pounds? Not likely. So instead, model a healthy lifestyle for your kids. Eat a healthy diet, encourage good sleep habits and stay active. If it’s of real concern, talk to your pediatrician about ways to help.

  6. Teach them the truth about media. Emphasize the difference between what’s real, and what people want you to think is real. Make sure they understand even a cutie pie like Taylor Swift and her “natural look” owe a great deal to Cover Girl, a team of stylists and a hefty dose of Photoshop editing.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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