By Icy Frantz
“OMG! I want to die. My hips are too big. My life is so boring. I have no friends. Everyone has it way better than I do. “
Cried the daughter of a friend of mine. She was perched in her typical fashion – limbs and body draped on the couch, head down, and staring at an iPhone.
Now, just to be clear, my friend’s daughter is beautiful and smart. She is popular, does well in school, and is gainfully employed this summer. She sings in a band, volunteers at a Boys and Girls Club, and sports a cropped top with incredible confidence. And she is kind. Wow.
She was lost in the images on her screen, images curated and choreographed to show a filtered perfection: a happy group of gorgeous teenagers on a boat, at the beach, in a pool – laughing easily, arm in arm, and hand in hand.
When I was growing up, I, too, would get overwhelmed by images. There was no social media, no iPhones, no computers for that matter, but there were fashion magazines, lots of them, and I would bury myself in the pages. I wished my abs resembled the ones in the pictures, dreamt of hair that was as full and long as the hair of the models, and coveted the clothing – or lack thereof – that dressed the subjects in those shiny sheets.
I didn’t read the words; I studied the pictures and compared myself to the women in print. Their lives looked glamorous and exciting.
Mine – not so much.
I would look in the mirror and find all of my shortcomings staring back at me. Then, eventually, I would put the magazines aside, and go about my more average day.
Today, we don’t put aside our devices as easily as a magazine, and most young people (and older folks too) are shackled to them. They are a lifeline to the world, a point of connection, a mood barometer. And the images displayed are not of professional models and celebrities, but of friends and classmates, and the comparisons our children make hit closer to home and are more distressing.
I have a running debate in my head about the joys and perils of social media. On the one hand, I love to see my friends from faraway places, their children and their dogs and even their culinary endeavors. I know social media can be used professionally to promote campaigns, sell products, and report the news.
On the other hand, those perfect pictures of gorgeous people doing amazing things tell only a part of a story. And seeing only the highlights, only the most flattering pictures, can leave us all feeling less-than and unworthy.
And as a mother of a teenage daughter, I worry about the impact of social media on our daughter’s mental health and her well-being, and for good reason.
Recent studies have shown that:
– 45% of teens say they are “online” constantly.
– 94% of teens say they feel “troubled” when they do not have their phone.
– Studies have observed links between high levels of social media use and depression or anxiety symptoms.
– Adolescents who use social media passively – such as just viewing others’ photos – reported declines in life satisfaction.
– There is a correlation between time spent scrolling through social media apps and negative body image.
– The more time spent on social media, the more likely a person will experience mental health symptoms like anxiety, isolation, and hopelessness.
– High levels of social media use over the span of four years was associated with increased depression among middle and high school youths.
But I don’t need the research and statistics to convince me that there is danger lurking.
I have heard the outcry from teens as they stare at their iPhones, feeling left out, less attractive and uncool. It is just so easy to be seduced by the images and forget that there is always more to the story than what meets the eye.
After a recent spate of college suicides, researchers at Stanford University coined the phrase “Duck Syndrome.” The term refers to the way a duck appears to glide effortlessly across a pond, while below the surface its feet work frantically, invisibly struggling to stay afloat.
For me, this describes perfectly the life of many teenagers – and some adults too. On the outside we project an image that says, “I’ve got this. I have it together,” while beneath the surface, we are thrashing our feet, working hard to stay afloat. And social media is the ideal platform to present only what appears above that water line.
It’s important to talk with our children about what lies below the water, about the parts of our stories that we don’t want to show the world or highlight on our social media posts. About the insecurities we all feel, our limitations, our struggles and vulnerabilities, and our big hips.
When I was obsessed with the fashion magazines of old, I had yet to learn that there is beauty in our imperfections and that no matter how flawless a picture may appear, sometimes a picture is just that, a picture. A picture that can be cropped, edited or Photoshopped. A picture that captures a moment, not a lifetime, a picture that is being used to depict a feeling – however temporary – or to sell a product. A picture that is nice but doesn’t show the parts of us that are actually more precious.
Is a picture worth a thousand words? I don’t know. But I do know that we cannot underestimate the power of the pictures found on our screens. They impact and influence. They affect a mood and our mental health. They can feel hurtful.
As a writer I depend more heavily on words than pictures, and at times, much to our daughter’s dismay, I offer long winded monologues imparting my hard-earned wisdom from the top of a soap box. But it’s lonely up there and not very effective.
So, I take a step down and listen and remember what it feels like to be a teenager. I stand by her side as she navigates both the physical world and her online one. I put aside my device and make room for dialogue. When she shows me a post – I ask questions. Is this realistic? How does that make you feel? And I give her a big hug, when she lets me, and I point to her heart because ultimately that is what truly matters.