11 January 2016
When I was a teen I suffered from crippling low confidence – I was bullied, hated my appearance, but after school I could shut the door on the horrid world outside and hide in the safe confines of my family.
Now nowhere is safe. The challenges of the playground have entered children’s bedrooms via social networks and devices have permeated every aspect of their life.
I have mentored young women through Dove and GirlGuiding in recent years, and sat on discussion panels debating the pros and cons of social media for young people, and it’s clear that social media and the highly visual, digital world we now inhabit have created new stresses and strains for today’s teens. So Childline’s findings last week that the anxieties of children in 2016 are vastly different to those in 1986 is no surprise.
Confidence comes from accepting who you are and liking it. At the age of 10/11 when puberty hits there is a natural tendency to dislike parts of you, and feel shy and withdraw even. Seeing yourself in a mirror can be painful and photos are often avoided. But social media has made this impossible.
Rather than having the space and privacy to develop and evolve naturally children as young as 6 and 7 are being thrown into a world of fake boobs, plumped lips and hyper-sexualised role models – from popstars to reality stars who have achieved fame for their looks.
It is no wonder three quarters of ten year olds are worried about their weight and 6 out of ten of them have stopped swimming or playing sport due to low body confidence. Social networks have also redefined friendship. Interactions are virtual and cursory, making real life communication more difficult. Indeed youngsters will fearlessly delete friends, write nasty comments or post videos of ‘who is pretty and who is ugly’ from behind their device or pc, yet they would not dare do the same in person.
There are also new quantifiable measures of popularity that have become daily obsessions. Having less than 10 likes of a comment or photo means you are a ‘loser’, above 100 and you’re cool. To gain likes teens will pose for hours to create the perfect selfie and there is also a growing trend for girls to pose in ‘glamour’ poses to up their likes, following their idols such as the Kardashians. Little do they know that most celebs airbrush their photos before uploading. Trends such as hot dog legs (are your thighs skinny enough to look like chipolatas) and the bridge (are your hips bony enough to create a bridge in your bikini) fly around like wild fire, again immersing young girls in a world of appearance and narcissism.
All of this is creating a false sense of reality – one that is eating away at their time and confidence. For it is well proven that exterior perfection doesn’t create lasting resilience. Even Hollywood stars known for their beauty such as Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie lack self-belief.
Positive psychologist Prof Seligman claims that real confidence comes from identifying one’s natural gifts – creativity, charity, organisation, communications and surely the web must have a role to play with this. But so far such positivity-enforcing messages have been overshadowed by those of image obsession.
As parents, we can miss the corrosive effect of this (often hourly) exposure, especially as we aren’t present in these forums. Having an older babysitter or young godparent on the friends list of your child can be a non-intrusive way of keeping an eye on things.
It is for this reason I have written the books The Ugly Little Girl. As a miserable teen I also craved an imaginary world where I could escape to, filled with ‘Oddbods’ like me. We need this sanctuary even more today.
Of course, the causes of low self-esteem go far beyond social media. Much of our conversation is ‘fat talk’ – who is slim and who isn’t, and today we are spending more and more time on our make up and hair. It is as if we have created new shackles for ourselves, despite having greater equality in other spheres of life.
It is definitely time social media companies woke up to the responsibility they carry in prompting these new trends, that are now becoming entrenched habits. And as parents, siblings, godparents, friends, we need to ask for more. We would not let our children roam around in an unsupervised, 18-rated and potentially harmful area in real life, but we have no problem allowing it virtually. We have surely had enough tragic cases of teen suicides from cyberbullying and grooming abductions. 2016 has to be the year we take back control of our children’s well-being and self-esteem.
Elizabeth Kesses – January 2016