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The selfie syndrome: Why teens use social media for validation and how parents can counteract it

Oct. 15, 2013 at 8:21 AM ET

Young celebrities do it. So why are we surprised when a typical teen Instagram post goes something like this:

Teen (girl or boy) posts a cool/pretty/pouty selfie. What follows is a watch to see how many ‘likes’ the photo gets and how many complimentary comments pile up: "You’re so gorgeous." Or, “You are such a stud." Or, "Why are you so perfect?"

As the scenario plays out daily, it makes us parents wonder: Why are our children turning to social media for validation?

Of course looking to social media for affirmation isn’t just for the young. I’ve caught my 44-year-old self checking my own Facebook posts for comments and “likes”. It’s nice to know people enjoy what I’ve written. But social media feedback is a double-edged sword. The “likes” are great but often scattered throughout are vitriolic comments that can rattle even the most confident person. If a prickly opinion can sting an adult the negative impact on a teen looking for approval could be deeply detrimental.

It’s a matter of adolescents and teens constantly trying to define themselves, says teen development specialist, Dr. Robyn Silverman. “They crave positive feedback to help them see how their identity fits into their world. Social media offers an opportunity to garner immediate information. The problem is they are looking in a dangerous place.” 

The danger exists in the possibility of a very public rejection. Negative feedback is there for all to see. Often it’s purposefully hurtful spiraling into cyber-bullying. The problem is the child asked for the feedback not having yet learned that not everyone will supportively respond. Even worse, they don’t recognize that peripheral opinions simply shouldn’t count.

So how can parents teach children to seek feedback from genuine fountains? Silverman encourages parents to start early by helping their children identify trustworthy sources, such as close friends, teachers and family members.

“Social media is a virtual talking mirror that contains irrelevant voices,” Silverman says. “Parents should help teens pinpoint meaningful sources for validation. More importantly parents need to reinforce the idea that the most influential voice should come from within.”  

If teens know how to put social media feedback in perspective the power of the “like” is lessened. If the power of the “like” is lessened they won’t be as likely to inappropriately share.

As the mother of two teen-age sons and three young girls, I’ve asked my kids to ask themselves three questions before they share via social media.

1.  Am I posting something I’d be embarrassed for my family to see? If yes, stop. Remember, you are creating a permanent cyber footprint. Once you put it out there, it’s out there forever.

2.  Am I posting because I’m hoping someone will make me feel better about my choices? If yes, stop. Remember whose opinion truly matters to you than ask one of them what they think.

3.  Am I posting to hurt someone else? If yes, stop. Cyber-bullying is never OK and there are often serious consequences for hurting someone via social media.

I’m grateful I didn’t have to navigate the pitfalls of social media as a teen. Adolescence was difficult enough without it. I realize, however, that these days it's not a matter of whether our kids will use social media, it's a matter of when, and how. It's our job as parents to show them how to do so appropriately -- and for the right reasons. 

Carolyn Savage lives in Sylvania, Ohio, with her husband and five children. When not cyber stalking her children’s social media accounts she can be found writing about her adventures in motherhood at Mamaonthefly.com.



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