Dr Kate Middleton, psychologist and project lead for Headstrong – an online teen mental health and wellbeing site – responds to reports that Instagram may increase teen anxiety, depression and body image concerns.
As someone with a teenage daughter, I’ve long been aware of studies linking the use of social media sites to mental health issues for young people, particularly teenage girls, so recent reports that Instagram could have a negative impact on teenage users came as no surprise. But how should we react as parents to such reports?
1. Be prepared
The minimum age for signing up to sites like Instagram is 13 for a reason, as it’s around then that adolescents start to explore their identity. Their minds are primed to compare themselves to other people and this makes them vulnerable to messages about who they should be. They are particularly susceptible to ‘perfect’ images, even when they know those images are probably edited or filtered to look good. This effect is magnified by comments or likes which give a very powerful source of apparent feedback and judgement on their posts.
Access to such sites starts much earlier than you might think. Many are exposed to sites long before they’re old enough to have their own profile, while some cheat age limits to get access earlier. A teen’s developing identity and independence naturally makes them want to be in control of their profile(s), so many use more than one profile to post and manage who can see what very carefully. Don’t assume you know everything that’s going on!
2. Build bridges
Direct conflict over site use and setting too many restrictions can be counter-productive, making them even more determined to gain access and leading to secrecy where they stop sharing with you. I try to make my teens feel that I trust their judgement, but I’ll also create opportunities to chat about what is posted and how it makes them feel. They know I’m there if they need to talk.
Openness is a two-way street. We shouldn’t be afraid to share our own social media experiences – how other people’s perfect posts make us feel or the let-down when one of ours falls flat.
Asking teens for advice is a good move too – not only will your selfies look much better, but an unflattering image can be a golden opportunity to talk about how it can make us feel bad and what we can do about it. And what about our own social media? Are we guilty of posting false filtered versions of ourselves, showing only life’s golden moments?
3. Fight the lies
If our teens struggle with anxiety, depression, body image, self-esteem or related issues like eating disorders, it’s really important to watch out for low mood linked to social media use. Encourage them to challenge and question what they see, to recognise the way it twists reality. Remind them they can switch off if they need to and take breaks from using apps.
Access good support if they need further help, but, most of all, spend time with them and show how much you value the people they are becoming. This will model for them how to do that for themselves – not just in the Instagrammable moments, but all the time.