Have you seen the movie The Edge of Seventeen? It’s about a 17-year-old girl, Nadine, struggling to identify who she is and her place in the world. She suffered through the tragic loss of her father and her one and only friend starts dating her older brother, who she can’t stand. This makes Nadine feel even more alone. There are parts of this movie definitely scripted for the big screen, but there are also parts of the movie that communicate the teenager’s search for a sense of self-worth. I found myself contemplating the end scene quite a bit. Nadine says to her brother, “Ever since we were little, I would get this feeling like I’m floating outside of my body, looking down on myself and I hate what I see. How I’m acting, the way I sound. And I don’t know how to change it, and I’m so scared that, that feeling is never gonna go away.”
The teen years are a vulnerable time when we begin to ask questions about our identity. Questions that are hard to answer right away. In some ways, the story of Nadine illustrates the inner turmoil a teenager can go through while trying to discover themselves. It’s a very challenging, vulnerable, and personal process that takes time and intentionality. To add even more weight to it, introduce social media.
When it comes to identity the main questions we want answered are, where do I belong and what is my purpose? There are so many voices that can impact those answers: parents, friends, teachers, school, culture, and our own self-guided conscience. Before technology, social media wasn’t included on the list, but now that it’s here, we are discovering what kind of voice it actually is.
“Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.” – Sherry Turkle
Teens are being told who they should be every second they’re online. In a New York Times article “The Documented Life” Sherry Turkle says, “Technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.”
A 2015 national survey by Common Sense Media reports –
The average daily media use for a teen is 9 hours a day and for a preteen, it’s closer to 6 hours a day. That includes texting (60%), TV (51%), listening to music (76%), and social media (50%). Even though teens and tweens are multi-tasking and saying media use isn’t affecting their work, it is affecting their sense of self-worth.
“The voice we listen to is the voice we belong to.”
If kids are spending that much time using media, then it’s definitely speaking to their belonging and identity in some way or another. Jonathan Helser says, “The voice we listen to is the voice we belong to.” In essence, what we most give our time and attention to, highlights who or what we’re looking at to define us. It’s easy to find evidence that supports this and the correlation between teen’s low self-esteem and social media.
“A survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health asked 14-24 year olds in the UK how social media platforms impacted their health and wellbeing. The survey results found that Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all led to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness.” – Child Mind Institute. Rachel Ehmke, Managing editor.
The amount of information teens are absorbing is a huge factor as well. Take these statistics from the book Screens and Teens. Connecting with Our Kids in a Wireless World:
YouTube users upload 48 hours of new video.
Email users send 204,166,667 messages.
Facebook users share 684,478 pieces of content
Apple receives about 47,000 app downloads.
Instagram users share 3,600 new photos.”
Pause for 60 seconds and imagine all the data being shared in one short minute…
With the amount of content out there, it’s no wonder why teens feel stressed and anxious. “Feeling stressed and overwhelmed is a logical byproduct of so much data and so many messages headed our way.” – Screens and Teens author Kathy Koch, PhD
The constant influx of data can overload young minds and affect their own self-discovery process. Teens barely have enough time to process what they see, take it all in, and form an opinion.
Instead of letting things ruminate, there is nonstop pressure to want what’s next, to be better, post better, gain more followers, or strive for further approval. Teens have enough trouble navigating their emotions, who their friends are, or what they’re good at, and social media doesn’t make it any easier.
“I believe the biggest challenge I’ve faced when discovering my identity is being ok with who I am regardless of what others think.
I think this new technology aided by social media makes finding one’s identity much more difficult. We can force [our] opinions to change based on others. We can love something because someone else loves it or hate something because someone else hates it. Social media has made it much easier to judge someone and can make it harder to keep your identity.” Alec, 17.
Peer Pressure/Screen Pressure
We all know peer pressure exists, but the digital age adds a whole new element which you can almost call screen pressure. Teens feel pressured to look a certain way on screen so their digital-life ends up looking completely different than their real-life. Ryan, age 16, explains it best:
“One challenge teens face is that you want to be accepted by everybody you meet and you end up losing who you really are. You become just a mask.
But to me, [knowing your true] identity means to be able to be yourself around other people, but also on social media. ”
Well said, Ryan! It’s not only their self-image that’s impacted. Their own belief system can even be skewed based on the hashtags that pop-up or whichever current social movements happen to be trending on Snapchat. Because social media can be mistaken as the only newsworthy outlet, teens are pressured to be in the know at all times and to put their beliefs into action. That said, we have an opportunity as parents to teach our kids that there is no separation between their digital life and their real life; they can be the same person on-screen as they are off-screen. Lastly, let’s help our children to navigate the digital world with wisdom, to slow down when it comes to social media “news”, and to process or research what they see.
So how do we do that? With the voice of social media speaking so loudly, how do we help our teens with their confidence and identity? How do we help them with the “who am I” questions when voices like “screen pressure” are competing for their attention?
Identify The Root Issue
First and foremost, it’s important to name the root issue, and the root issue isn’t coming from social media. It’s when our source for truth is misdirected and we find our value in temporary things, other people, or situations we can’t control. It’s saying “I know I’m valued if this thing happens or doesn’t happen.” That is giving more power to media, friends, and circumstances than they should have. It gives them permission to dictate where our value comes from and because they are temporary and limited sources, they eventually fail us and leave us unfulfilled. That leads me to my next tip.
Speak to them about Purpose and Belonging
Once you identify this root issue, you can remind your kids where their true value comes from. Here’s the central truth: Their value is not in how many followers they have, if they get good grades or bad grades, win a game, receive a scholarship, if they make a mistake, or how perfect they are. Their value is in being unconditionally loved and born ON purpose, WITH a purpose. Any voice that says they’re anything less or makes them doubt their significance, is lying about who they are.
Talking about purpose is no small task, but we have to remember that our voice as parents is stronger than all the other voices trying to have their say. Saying a simple “I’m proud of you,” or “You are so special and loved,” or “You belong,” to our kids, has more weight than you know. You may not see the impact it makes today, but trust me when I say your words have power. You know your kids best so you have the language to speak straight to their heart.
Their value is in being loved and born ON purpose, WITH a purpose.
The third tip is to listen. Here’s what Marie, a mom of two teen boys had to say:
“My boys are in that stage of trying to figure out who they are and who their friends are. When they get upset because they see on social media that they weren’t invited to a party, the most important thing is to listen. In moments like those they just want to be heard. We have to remember they are a person and they are worth listening to. In the midst of all this noise, it’s important as parents to come alongside our teens.”
It’s amazing how active-listening can show us the questions to ask or the problem areas we need to address. When we turn down the volume on worry, distractions, or trying to fix the problem, we have more space to hear where our teens are coming from and what they are struggling with. It’s a daily choice we make, to listen before we go into fix-it mode.
The last tip is to get involved in their interests. Know which apps your teens are using, learn how to use them, and discuss digital boundaries. When we get involved, learn their world and teach them how to navigate it well, we are setting them up for success. We are teaching them which voices speak truth and which voices lie about their identity.
For more practical help, Let’s Talk Teens has various resources to help you start those conversations with your teens as well as practical tools to monitor their screen time well. You can read through our journal posts on setting digital boundaries, monitoring tips, and learning about dangerous hashtags. Also, search our resource page for support to meet your specific needs.
Bonus Tip: Less Screen Time, More Face-To-Face Time
Washington Post reports: “In 2012, about half of all teens still said their favorite way to communicate with friends was in person; today, less than a third say so. More than half say that social media takes them away from personal relationships and distracts them from paying attention to the people they’re with.” It’s the in-person connections that keep us grounded in reality. I know it’s unrealistic to ask for tech-free lives, but not unheard of to ask for tech-free moments or even days. So for this tip, you can start small. Try having screen-free reading times or phone-free game nights.
It’s the in-person connections that keep us grounded in reality.
These tips are here to help or to re-enforce things you may already be doing. It’s not a magic formula and once complete, everything will be prefect. You and I both know that’s now how life works. We know it’s the day-in, day-out choices we make as parents and teens to fight for truth about ourselves. To believe we are more than our Snapchat profiles or Instagram handles. To take the time to cultivate an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and approval in our homes. To mine for value in our daily lives. As we learn to align our self-worth with purpose and truth and help others do the same, we’ll see a turn in the tide. We’ll see a culture of teens and adults knowing it is best to be yourself, and we’ll see people reject any voice that says we’re anything less.