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October 9, 2023

Social Media Comparisons: Our Youth’s Greatest Frenemy

Julia Osborne, MSW, LMSW

Social media has connected us all in ways unimaginable to past generations.  As adults, many of us are all-too-aware how social media has proven to be both a wonderful but also a challenging and, at times, discouraging experience; our youth, however, often lack this critical awareness.  A study conducted by Sun et al., 2022, at Stanford Medicine found that about 25% of children received their first phone by 10.5 years old and over 60% of those children had smartphones.  The study indicated that most children received their first phone between the ages of 11-13 years old, which is a critical time for any child’s physical, emotional, and social development.

Children in this age range typically begin puberty, which can cause a cascade of shifts in self-esteem due in part to hormonal changes, growth spurts, and peer influence.  At this time, youth develop what Elkind (1967) calls Adolescent Egocentrism, or the belief that others are preoccupied with the child’s appearance or behaviors and the inability to differentiate their personal beliefs from the perceived beliefs of others.  Because of this, the weight of their peers’ opinions increases dramatically.  They begin to believe that adults cannot relate to them or understand their problems like a friend can, so they begin to ask other youth for life advice before a parent or other adult.  This leads many young people to attempt to solve their problems using poor coping skills, such as food restriction and over-dieting, substance use, and self-harm.  

These conditions lead to the perfect storm for the harmful influences of smartphones and social media.  Children today are so easily connected with texting, video-chatting, and social media, that the expectation to stay in touch with peers has become astronomically high. It is inducing social anxiety in our youth at a greater rate than adults, according to the National Institute of Health.  Youth express fears and describe experiences of losing friends if they do not “keep up the streaks” on Snapchat or respond within a few minutes of receiving a message or text from a friend.

Moreover, many tweens and teens are terrified of missing out on social experiences with their peers.  Social experiences, with the help of smartphones, now encompass interactions that other generations may not perceive as impactful, like being included in a group chat, but these situations can have major ripple effects.  All too often, middle schoolers’ group chats include a great deal of gossiping about others.  Not being in a group chat can mean that the child is the focus of the gossip, which can evolve into isolation from the friend group in real world situations, like school and social events. With this high pressure, it’s no wonder why our youth are becoming so obsessed with their smartphones and social media.

In addition to sharing videos, pictures, and texts, Snapchat projects users’ locations and a rating system for how frequently each user responds to others.  This allows users to know where their friends are, if they are there with other mutual friends, and if that person is responding at a desired consistency.  In sum, it makes it very easy to know if someone is being excluded and, in the case of direct messages sent to the excluded person about the social event, when that exclusion is purposeful. 

Tik Tok and Instagram feature an onslaught of content that ranges from thoughtful advocacy to hateful propaganda.  These apps primarily send customers media based on previously identified preferences – the apps attempt to send users more and more content that mimics what the user already follows, which can create an unhealthy echo-chamber experience.  Users can find themselves bombarded with content from an unhealthy community, like “thinspo,” (eating disordered thinness inspiration), or an overload of misinformation based on public opinions.  

Just as would be expected, public opinions are often body-shaming, diet-glamorizing, and hateful toward anyone who disagrees with the group.  This, for many, leads to poor body image and entering the diet culture at younger and younger ages. In a study by Neumark-Sztainer and Hannan (2000), dieting was reported by 31.1% of the 5th-grade girls increasing to 62.1% among 12th-grade girls.  Disordered eating was reported by 13.4% of the girls and 7.1% of the boys.  Understanding that thinness does not equate to health and that most images and videos are edited is hard enough for someone with a fully-developed, adult brain, but when children’s limbic systems are developing faster than their prefrontal cortexes, and tweens are being persuaded by their emotions and only beginning to develop abstract thinking and deductive reasoning, it would be preposterous to believe that our youth are not developing negative self-concepts using social comparison to others online.

In addition to negative thoughts about their bodies and images, youth are experiencing existential crises about their futures, long before launching age.  Seeing “influencers” gain fame and fortune on social media formats by means of self-exploitation at younger and younger ages has led adolescents to feel like they are falling behind the curve when it comes to making a life for themselves.  They voice concerns about their comparative lack of popularity and persuasion of others [or number of followers] and how well they have planned their future careers and lifestyles.  Not to have a plan for the future by high school, for many, means to be unprepared for life and to be at risk of never accomplishing anything.  This hyperbolic outlook contributes to adolescent dependence on social media, because they have started using it as an outlet to discover potential passions to pursue through their lifespan, which can be as defeating as it is inspiring.

To believe that young people, especially in early adolescence through young adulthood, are not engaging in self-comparison on social media is to have too high of expectations for them.  No child is immune to online social comparison, unless someone in their life intervenes by stepping in and talking about how they view themselves and others.  In doing so, low self-esteem or maladaptive cognitions can be identified and interrupted through discussions about the false realities of social media, developing realistic views of the self, and, critically, reduced time spent on social media. 

Newly freed-up time can be channeled into real-life activities that not only engage the young person socially in a healthy way, but can also help them discover their personal passions and build their self-esteem – think team sports, art classes, playing in a band, or joining scouts.  In addition, getting a young person engaged in activities that involve self-exploration, like journaling, can inspire helpful insights that will allow a child to see their personal value without external validation.  Counseling intervention with a therapist the youth trusts can help further, when needed.

Notably, when users search for unhealthy topics, some social media apps provide responsive statements with links to healthy supports.  This is a glimmer of hope for social media as a way to get youth connected with the resources they need to support their mental health, but there is nothing else in place to prevent children from exploring a world that could severely harm them as they develop. Caring adults need to be talking to their adolescents about social media to ensure that they are using it safely and understand that most of what they see online is not a real representation of others.  Social media is never a reliable, accurate, healthy source for self-comparison.

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Julia Osborne

Julia Osborne, MSW, LMSW