Instagram reports 1 billion monthly active users and more than 500 million daily users. Most teens use social media for more than 6 hours per day. Social media users have shifted in intention, placing the highest importance on becoming insta-famous rather than sharing information with close friends. Insta-famous refers to a person who is well-known on Instagram, reflected by thousands of followers and likes. Teens can become consumed in this virtual competition for internet popularity, sometimes leading to a destructive pattern described in my book, Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parenting Guide to Get Kids and Teens Internet Safe, as compare and despair.
Insta-worthy? The Pressure to Post
Instagram users lurk their online friends’ profiles, consumed by other people’s lives, and perfecting their virtual selves. According to the psychological concept of self-presentation theory, people are motivated to present themselves to show off an ideal self and please their audience. Our front is the image tweaked to be our most impressive. Our backstage ia the less flattering elements that make us truly who we are. Maintaining too many fronts can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing. Your prowess in impression management is the difference between social media success and social media failure.
A common trend reflecting the quest for optimal self-presentation on Instagram is posting SFS (Shout out For Shout out). SFS is a branding strategy. It refers to when teens post someone else’s account to theirs and vice versa; the goal is to cooperatively promote their pages so both people gain more followers.
As self-presentation trends change in pop culture, so do trends online. In 2008, graphic t-shirts were the cool thing to wear to school. In 2015, hipsters ruled the school. Fast forward to 2019, and the VSCO look is in. VSCO is the name of the popular app used to create fun colorful edits usually used to later post on Instagram. VSCO does not offer the option of liking or leaving comments on photos.
A VSCO girl is someone who carries around a hydro flask has a scrunchie around their wrist at all times, has beach wavy hair, and shops at thrift stores and Urban Outfitters. My 13-year-old cousin shares, “Everyone wears skirts, doc martens, and scrunchies now. It’s so VSCO.”
Evolution and Optimal Distinctiveness
Due to the popularity of editing apps such as VSCO or FaceTune, many social media users have unrealistic expectations for how attractive they should look in posts. Humans are social beings and work best collaboratively. Social rewards, such as compliments, words of appreciation, affection, or being with a friend, are major motivators of behavior, especially among young people.
Seeking social reward and trying to achieve optimal distinctiveness (being unique but still super stylish) is a common trend that can be traced back to our ancestors. Evolution has promoted social acceptance. Belonging to a community meant being socially accepted and supported by a group of others. Many times, this meant life or death.
For teens today, that means walking a razor’s edge trying to look unique and creative, while still fitting in with peers. In this impossible quest, teens may be juggling several virtual and nonvirtual self-presentations. Being too unique or too the same invites criticism and cyberbullying.
Positive feedback in the form of likes or followers is a reward that stimulates the brain and rewards it with (highly addictive) dopamine. To offset the anxiety from honing on optimal distinctiveness, teens are often too desperate for likes for validation. Instagram programmers are aware of this human motivation for social acceptance and use it for financial advantage.
Social media influencers are expert at achieving optimal distinctiveness, often making millions of dollars from ads and sponsors. Silicon Valley execs recognized that viewers spend a lot of time and money caring about what influencers are doing or saying. One good review from an influencer can result in millions of dollars of purchases for their sponsors. This biological hack of social acceptance and connection makes the brand more profitable.
Risks of Social Media
The constant pressure to stay up to date with trends can cause compulsive online browsing and clinical anxiety among teens. Most teenagers do not have jobs to maintain the lifestyle that many YouTubers do. Social anxiety and the fear of being judged by peers can be overwhelming alongside daily social obstacles that teens face like bullying, hormonal changes, and self-judgment. Instead of fun, spontaneous sharing, teens get caught up in compulsively second-guessing their posts or avoid sharing altogether.
According to recent studies, social media use has contributed to an increasing number of cases of social anxiety disorders in adolescents. Untreated, anxiety can contribute to other mental health issues including depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and even thoughts of suicide.
Social Anxiety Disorder Symptoms include:
- Lack of desire to socialize
- Being withdrawn
- Feeling embarrassed or deep fear of being judged by others
46% of teen girls admit that social media makes them feel bad about themselves due to unrealistic standards. Self-esteem is elevated when individuals are deemed popular by others. For example, having Facebook friends who are more responsive can satisfy psychological needs above and beyond the number of Facebook friends one has.
Seeking External Validation
In a recent study, eighty-six young women were interviewed to test whether the frequency in posting could be predicted by the type of pictures posted and the number of likes received. Results stated that many young women who received more likes on self-objectifying or promiscuous selfies were more likely to post similar photos.
Lack of Privacy
Teens don’t have the prefrontal brain development to anticipate consequences and engage in high order thinking. Subsequently, teens may not think ahead, instead of focusing on the instant gratification of someone liking or commenting on their post. This can cause a habit of oversharing online. 80% of people who commit crimes have taken information from social media sites.
Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Emotional Reliance & Achieve Better Online Safety
To avoid triggering insta-anxiety, make sure your kids are neurologically and social-emotionally mature enough to manage social media dynamics. Although she says it depends on the child, Dr. Bennett recommends avoiding social media until the second semester of middle school.
Use our free Connected Family Screen Agreement to set parameters and create a screen-friendly, cooperative dialogue. Just enter your email and name on our website, and it will be delivered directly to your email.
Encourage teens to share positive, healthy activities like travel, philanthropy, and college- or career readiness. Strengthening one’s personal motivation and goals allow teens to better separate self-esteem from social feedback. Check out our GKIS article, The Social Media Teen Résumé. How to Expertly Stylize Your Cyber Footprint to Attract College and Employment Opportunities, for how-to help.
Create a customized filtering, tracking, and monitoring toolkit with the GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit. This course also offers smart parenting strategies, like making sure you have social media login information for back-end access.
Thank you to GKIS intern, Isabel Campos for alerting us about the risks of insta-anxiety. If you learned something, please share GKIS articles and tools with friends and family!
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
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