I spent hours watching perfect girls online, wishing I was them. Then when I was ‘one of them’ I still wasn’t happy, content or at peace with myself.

Essena O’Neill, a young social media star with over 800,000 followers, recently quit all of her social media accounts with a very strong statement about how, even after becoming popular and even famous on social media, she still didn't feel good about herself or happy. She's speaking out in the hopes that others won't fall into the same trap (though some express skepticism about the purity of her motives).

What's particularly powerful about her farewell video is when she talks about her twelve-year old self:

At twelve, I told myself I would be of value the more views I got on YouTube. Or I looked at girls that had heaps of views and I thought "damn, I want that." I told myself that when I had heaps of views people would view me. I will feel valued. I will feel happiness. I let myself be defined by numbers.

Essena O'Neill in her farewell to social media video on YouTube—direct link to quote

In our previous post about Andrew Watts we touched on how easy it is to be sucked in by the likes and comments on popular social media platforms. While seemingly designed for communication, in reality likes, comments, and follower counts can become a distraction or even an obsession. A way of determining our popularity and place in the world.

This theme of the pressure of social media came up again and again as we talked to kids and parents. It's not always as dramatic as what Essena describes—after all, most of us don't have her fame. But within our own smaller social worlds the impact can be just as dramatic.

Presenting a persona instead of a person

At the heart of these concerns is that social media gives us a chance to carefully craft a persona. While in real life we can't plan and edit everything we say or how we look, social media allows this. We can create a persona that represents what we want to be and present that to the world.

In a lot of ways this is just a natural desire to present our best. Of course it's those moments when we're happy, proud, or doing something exciting that we want to share on social media. And of course we don't want to show our sadness, insecurity, or personal failures.

But the pressure of social media can make those natural tendencies grow into something less healthy. It can cause us to exaggerate or heavily edit who we really are. We can start to present what we think will get more likes, comments, or followers. Not all at once and not always in dramatic ways, but enough to start an unhealthy process. For kids still finding their sense of self and place in the world this pressure is even greater.

The potential harm of personas

Social media personas can cause problems in two ways.

First, we can never live up to these personas if they're too different from our real selves. Instead of feeling good, we focus on the gap between the person we are and the person we present on social media. Essena describes that feeling quite well and explains how her success at perfecting her persona in some ways made her feel worse about herself.

The second problem comes when our social media feeds are filled not with real people but with their personas. When you only see pictures of people who seem happy and confident, who seem to be leading exciting lives it's easy to feel your own life is boring and depressing in comparison. Even if you tell yourself that you're only seeing these people as they present themselves at their best it's hard to not come away feeling worse.

This exposure to other people’s social activities can lead to users’ comparing their own social lives with that of their peers, and subsequently, may have harmful effects. For example, a college student might scroll through her Instagram feed and see pictures her friends have posted of the delicious foods they ate, fun trips they went on, and new shoes they bought – without her. These pictures may lead her to socially compare herself to others and ask questions such as: “Is my life as exciting as my friends’ lives? Am I happy with the way my life is? Why didn’t they invite me?”

For many, these harms are small—social media making us a little less happy each time we use it. But for others, especially those that are already struggling, there can be great harm. It can cause depression, self-loathing, and a feeling of alienation.

Helping our kids to live happily on social media

So where does this leave us as parents trying to help our kids? This isn't a problem that is easily solved. And while social media can greatly exaggerate these problems, it's not exclusively about social media. It's about kids loving themselves and being confident enough to present their real selves to both those they're close to and the world at large.

I certainly don't have all the answers, but I have a few suggestions—largely based on what we've learned from talking to parents, kids, and experts.

Be aware of social media dynamics. The dynamics of social media can powerfully shape how our kids interact, so it's important to be aware of how each network works and its influence on behavior. A few examples:

  • Facebook by default shows posts to all of your friends. This is what makes it an easy way to share good things—carefully selected pictures or birthday wishes. But in some ways it's like standing up in front of the class: it feels like suddenly everyone's looking at you. In some cases that can encourage an overly crafted persona.

  • Instagram and Twitter allow you to be followed without following back. This is what makes them good for exploring your interests by following musicians, actors, organizations, or whoever posts about your hobbies and passions. But it can also encourage a sort of 'hoarding' of popularity through follower counts, where kids try to be followed without following back. This can lead to snubbing and excluding others.

  • Tumblr allows you to hide or selectively reveal your identity. This can encourage real sharing by removing some social pressure. But it can also encourage exaggerated personas or saying unkind things. All of the platforms that include any sort of anonymity—such as Kik, Yik Yak, and Tumblr—consistently top parents' lists of Apps that have the potential to cause problems.

Talk with your kids about what they're posting. There's real value in being able to talk with your kids about how they use social media. It can be awkward or contentious to ask them about their posts, but it helps them to see what they're putting out there from a different perspective—one that's outside of their peer group. In the user testing we've done for RAKKOON the kids consistently talk about how knowing their parents might see their posts makes them think about those posts differently. Talking to them reinforces this and helps pull them out of the powerful and immediate feedback provided by likes, comments, and follower counts, helping them focus on more important values and life lessons.

Offer your perspective on who your kids friend and follow. The posts from other people that your kids see influence how they see the world and invite them to compare themselves to others. Again, talking to them can give them a different perspective from that of their peers. Just like with your kids choosing friends, it's often good to give them freedom to follow and friend who they want (though, of course, there are always situations where intervention is needed). But we've consistently seen giving them freedom combined with meaningful conversations provides powerful opportunities for you to teach and guide them. These sometimes hard conversations give your kids an authentic view of the lessons you've learned, wisdom that you as a parent have, and even your struggles. And because the conversations are in the context of your kids' real lives they can have a deep impact.