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Am I Popular? Understanding Social Media Stress and Teens

Your daughter comes home from school declaring that she wants to be part of the “100 Club.” You are thrilled as you think she is talking about her academic aspirations, but after further discussion you discover that she is instead anxious about her popularity on Instagram, and desperate to ALWAYS get at least 100 “likes” on her posts. You…

  1. Admire her goal of achieving popularity on social networks.
  2. Decide that you, too, would like to be part of the “100 club” and ask if there are adult members
  3. Sit her down and talk to her about the fleeting nature of popularity in general, and on Instagram in particular.
  4. Get rid of her Instagram accounts

Yet another dilemma faced by our digital teens: social media stress.

As kids enter their tweens and teens, friends become the end-all, be-all of their social lives. And, when you add smartphones—and the social networking channels—into the mix, you enable a powerful, sometimes insidious, amount of social connection.

Yes, social networks are great when they facilitate new connections, a sense of community and empowerment.

But the angst that can ensue when it comes to a post with a mortifying lack of “likes” and that awful feeling of being left out, can turn a teen inside out.

In TIME Magazine, a story that appeared in 2015 is still extremely relevant, In “The Secret Language of Girls on Instagram,” Rachel Simmons talks about how parents give the okay to Instagram because they believe it’s just pictures. But according to Simmons:

Instagram’s simplicity is also deceiving: look more closely, and you find the Rosetta Stone of girl angst: a way for tweens and teens to find out what their peers really think of them (Was that comment about my dress a joke or did she mean it?), who likes you (Why wasn’t I included in that picture?), even how many people like them (if you post and get too few likes, you might feel “Instashame,” as one young woman calls it). Instagram has become a real-time popularity barometer and girls have learned to expertly manipulate the levers of success.

My own 15-year-old digital daughter, Amanda, was able to shed some light on social media stress. “The ‘gram is by far the most popular app with my peer group. It’s fun and easy, but more ‘likes’ do equal more popularity points and you can suffer from serious FOMO [fear of missing out]. Ultimately, I prefer to communicate with friends in person because it’s more genuine.”

Eleanor, an insightful 13-year-old from Washington D.C., had this to say, “Ever since I got my Instagram two summers ago, it’s almost like a small competition has developed between friends for who gets more likes or who has more followers. If certain girls get more likes than others, then they will feel superior. It’s kind of messed up really. That’s just social media and it doesn’t say anything about you—it doesn’t say anything about your dignity, about your intelligence, about who you are as a person. It’s just a number. But I think to some girls who are obsessed with Instagram, it feels as though they always have to have the most likes or the most followers.”

Truth-be-told, even this (seemingly) well-adjusted 40-something mom can relate. I enjoy being part of the Instagram and Facebook communities. I like the updates my friends and family deliver in their posts, as well as the targeted (for me) news and cultural updates. (Did you know that a squirrel and cat can play together?) But when it comes to posting, the potential lack of likes can bring me back to my anxiety-ridden middle school days. Yes, complete with glasses, pimples, and the labels of theater nerd and “bando”.

Posting on social channels like Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat is a fun and convenient way to use pictures to tell our stories. However, I think this idiom comes in handy: “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” (be they TOMS, flip flops, or Manolo Blahniks). Ask your teens to think twice before they post, including asking themselves: “If I saw that post from a friend or acquaintance, would I cringe and think, “That’s just mean,” or “Get a life!”?

Here is an acronym I came up with that might help: P.L.E.A.S.Z.

Private…certain photos should be kept private (#sexts)

Limit…the cutesy stuff (#mypet and #babypic)

Easy…on the “Selfies”

Alienating…friends is always bad. No potshots!

Showy…don’t be braggy (#shoppingspree!)

Zero tolerance…drugs and alcohol is a big NO

We may not want to admit it, but kids and adults alike, we all worry about our popularity (or lack thereof). But our kids, and especially our ultra-connected, impressionable, and delicate digital teens, bear the biggest burden.

As parents, we need to constantly offer perspective and model good behavior. But, to get it—to understand the social phenomena that our kids are experiencing—we should join the party. Get yourself a Facebook and Instagram account—a Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. You’ll open up conversations about real and hypothetical social scenarios and be able to interject your own tried-and-true wisdom.

As for the answer to the multiple-choice question above, although you may be tempted with D, to be part of this critical conversation, I would choose C.

Audrey Mann Cronin is a digital culture entrepreneur, a communications consultant, founder of community Our Digital Daughters. She is the creator of mobile app LikeSo: Your Personal Speech Coach.  LikeSo offers a fun and effective way to practice speaking confidently, articulately, and without all of those “likes,” and “sos.”  Click here to download it from the App Store. Visit her on Facebook @LikeSoApp and @OurDigitalDaughters and follow her on Twitter @LikeSoApp and @DigiDaughters.

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