I read an article recently that struck a nerve. The headline didn’t immediately resonate, but it kept showing up in my Facebook feed so I finally opened it:

For Teenage Girls, Swimsuit Season Never Ends

The article calls up a 1998 study that involved giving math tests to unsuspecting subjects, while they stood in a dressing room wearing either a sweater or a bathing suit.

[The researchers] put female and male undergraduates in dressing rooms with a mirror and either swimsuits or sweaters in a range of sizes. The students were instructed to try on the assigned clothing and wear it for a while before filling out a sham evaluation of the apparel. While they waited, the participants were asked by the researchers to use the time efficiently by completing a math test, supposedly for colleagues “in the department of education.” The students were alone in the dressing rooms, yet the women in bathing suits scored far lower on the math test than the women in sweaters. The men performed the same regardless of what they wore.

The upshot of the experiment (which was followed by a second study that further confirmed their results) is that when you call attention to a young woman’s physical appearance—by, say, asking her to put on a swimsuit—her intellectual skills suffer.

Since we’re not likely to send our teenage daughters to class wearing tankinis, what’s the relevance here?

Well, let me tell you.

Have you ever picked up your daughter’s phone and opened her Instagram feed? (It’s okay, you don’t have to admit it publically…)

Instagram + Teenage Girls = Bikini Pics

Trust me. It’s a thing. Even the girls who aren’t themselves posting bikini pics are having to scroll through feeds that are full of them.

If you don’t trust me on this, trust Dr. Jill Walsh, a researcher studying adolescent development and the effects of social media. According to Dr. Walsh:

Girls are not comparing themselves to media ideals as much as one would expect, but they are making micro-comparisons to their peers. It’s not me versus Gisele Bündchen in a bikini, it’s me versus my good friend Amy in our bikinis.

This is going on year-round, all the time. So if your daughter sits down to do her math homework, with her #2 pencil in one hand and her iPhone in the other, and starts flipping between geometry and Instagram… well, maybe that dressing room study is relevant after all. And I'd argue that this applies to a lot more than just bikini pics. All those seemingly perfect selfies and should-I-buy-this-outfit pics likely have the same consequences—young girls' attention being subconsciously directed to their body image, which then leads to a dip in math skills.

The question is: now that we know this sort of thing has an effect, what can we do about it?

This image came from the Instagram account of Mikoh, a swimwear company. Wasn't it nice of them to produce a photo that EXACTLY MAKES MY POINT?!

Advice for winning the swimwear competition

Dr. Walsh and other experts recommend bringing this “swimsuit effect" to your daughter’s conscious attention. Just the way you probably already do with the unrealistic bodies on the covers of magazines. (Haven’t introduced your teenager to the wonders of Photoshop? Take a minute and do that now. I’ll wait. ☺ )

Have a conversation with your kids that encourages them to see the posed and filtered images their friends are posting in the same way they see the airbrushed covers of popular magazines.

By the way, another recent study showed that it’s not only girls whose body-image is impacted by their frequent use of social media—boys may be equally affected. So it’s worth striking up a conversation with all the kids in your house about how media exposure can have subconscious effects.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve also done this with my kids when it comes to television advertising. Teaching kids to recognize when they’re being sold something is a valuable exercise in critical-thinking. Maybe it’s cynical, but teaching our children to recognize that other people (and businesses) have an agenda—one that may be different from their own personal interests—is a good lesson to learn early on.

Attention is like internet bandwidth

Dr. Walsh also has a great recommendation for addressing the swimsuit/math problem (and it does double-duty as a warning for multi-tasking in general). She suggests sitting your kids down for a conversation that goes something like this:

Our attention is like internet bandwidth – we only have so much. When your brother is streaming a movie, it slows down YouTube. If you’re thinking about a picture you just saw on Snapchat, you can’t focus as well on the test you’re studying for. You’ll work better and faster when you have fewer distractions.

Dr. Jill Walsh

From now on I’m going to put every lesson I want to teach my kids into an analogy that involves YouTube. It’s a winner.

Teens are drawn to social media. It’s part of the currency of being a teenager and it’s increasingly the primary way kids interact with the world. It isn't inherently bad—but it is problematic.

To ban or not to ban

I’ve heard from parents who feel the answer is simple: “Ban social media from your house!” I get it, really I do. But refusing to teach your kid how to ride a bike so you can guarantee they’ll never have a bike accident misses the point of parenting by a country mile.

It’s not as straightforward a solution (and it’s far, far harder)—but the greatest benefit to kids seems to come from letting them explore and interact with their peers online. Letting them experiment with Snapchat and perfect their selfies on Instagram. But (and here's the catch...) you have to also keep an eye out—and let kids know you're doing it—so you're right there and aware if/when they go off the rails.

Last fall I watched a documentary that dove into how much time teens spend on their phones and the positive and negative effects of all that online interaction. The biggest takeaway I got from it was this:

"Parent monitoring effectively erased the negative effects of [teens’] online conflicts."

Sociologist, Robert Faris

It seems that rather than keep our teens off social media entirely, it’s better to focus on being present and paying attention to what they’re doing there. Then use the real-life lessons that come along to teach them how to manage their personal lives, as well as their public personas, in a way that will make them safer as they get older.

Me? It's summer, so I'm thinking of making this a hands-on lesson. I'll ask my four kids to put on their swimsuits. Then I'll sit them down at the kitchen table for a short math test. I figure the surprise of it all will be an effective way to get the lesson to stick. But, you see, it isn't math they'll be learning. It will be a lesson in body image, our unconscious comparisons to others, and how to stay focused on the things that really matter.