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Instagram reports 1 billion monthly active users and more than 500 million daily users.[1] Most teens use social media for more than 6 hours per day.[2] Many 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? Self-Presentation Theory and Impression Management

Many Instagram users lurk profiles, consumed by other people’s lives and perfecting their virtual selves. According to self-presentation theory, people are motivated to present themselves to show off an ideal self and please their audience.[3]

Our front is our best-stylized image. Our backstage is our true selves. Maintaining too many fronts can be overwhelming. Being great at impression management can be the difference between social media success or failure.

Shout Out for Shout Out

A SFS (Shout out For Shout out) is a branding strategy for optimal self-presentation on Instagram. It refers to teens posting 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. And in 2019, the VSCO look was in. VSCO is the name of the popular app used to create fun colorful edits.

A “VSCO girl” has beach-wavy hair, carries around a hydro flask, has a scrunchie around their wrist, 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

With popular 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. We work best collaboratively. Social rewards like compliments, words of appreciation, affection, or being with a friend, are major behavioral motivators for young people.[3]

Seeking social reward and trying to achieve optimal distinctiveness (being unique but still super stylish) can be traced back to our ancestors. 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 while still fitting in with peers. In this impossible quest, teens may be juggling several virtual and nonvirtual selves. Being too unique or too the same invites criticism and cyberbullying.

Getting social media likes rewards the brain with dopamine, the neurotransmitter released in the pleasure center.[2] Instagram programmers know it and bake it in so they can make more money.

Social media influencers are experts at achieving optimal distinctiveness. Viewers spend a lot of time and money trying to do the same. Views and likes result in millions of dollars in profit. 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 anxiety. 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 can 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.[2] 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 a deep fear of being judged by others

Low Self-Esteem

Forty-six percent of teen girls admit that social media makes them feel bad about themselves due to unrealistic standards.[2] 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.[4]

Seeking Positive Feedback

We all like to know that people find us attractive. Social media, however, can impact us in ways we aren’t even aware of. For example, a 2018 study found that when young women received likes for sexy selfies, they were more likely to post similar photos again.[3]

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 focusing on the instant gratification of someone liking or commenting on their post. This can cause a habit of oversharing online. Eighty percent of people who commit crimes have taken information from social media sites.[5]

Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Emotional Reliance & Achieve Better Online Safety

To avoid triggering insta-anxiety, make sure your kids are neurologically, socially, and emotionally mature enough to manage risk. Although she says it depends on the child, Dr. Bennett recommends avoiding social media until the second semester of middle school.

Experts agree that Social Media Readiness Training is critical to help kids recognize risk, know how to ask for help, and self-manage use.

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 motivation and goals allows teens to better separate self-esteem from social feedback.[4] 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

Works Cited

[1] “Our Story.” Instagram, 26 Mar. 2019, instagram-press.com/our-story/.

[2] Granet, R. (2016, September 19). Living In Live Time: Social Media’s Impact   On Girls. Retrieved from  https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/09/19/social-media-use-teens/

[3] Bell, Beth T., Cassarly, Jennifer A., & Dunbar, Lucy. “Selfie-objectification: Self objectification and positive feedback (‘likes’) are associated with frequency of posting sexually objectifying self-images on social media.” Body Image, 26, 83–89. September 2018.  https://doiorg.summit.csuci.edu/10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.06.005

[4] Burrow, A. L., & Rainone, N. (2016). How many likes did I get?: Purpose moderates links between positive social media feedback and self-esteem Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69, 232-236  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2016.09.005

[5] Law Enforcement, Social Media and Your Privacy: How Your Data is Used to   Solve Crimes. (2018, May 16). Retrieved from   https://www.nextadvisor.com/law-enforcement-social-media-and-your-     privacy-how-your-data-is-used-to-solve-crimes/

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Isabel Campos