“Just let me take a selfie first.”
Nearly every parent of a teen has heard those words countless times. They’ve also witnessed what follows — the mad dash to snap several photos — and then the hour spent choosing the best pic to post online.
For plenty of teens, social media is simply a way to remain connected and to express themselves, and posting selfies are a big part of that. But what if that selfie obsession were to indicate something darker?
According to a new study published in The Journal of Early Adolescence, teens who post more selfies online tend to have an increased awareness of their own appearance — and that awareness is linked to an increased risk of negative body image.
According to Nancy S. Molitor, PhD, the clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, it makes sense.
“These kids are looking for validation in terms of their physical appearance. So, they may already be predisposed to negative self-image issues before they ever go online to share those photos,” she tells Healthline.
When it comes to social media, the current generation of teens is navigating a landscape unlike anything their predecessors ever had to deal with before. And it’s starting at an early age.
“It’s concerning, obviously,” Molitor says. And there is a lot of research being done. But I think what we’re ultimately going to find is that there aren’t too many effects for kids who are only mild users. But for the heavy utilizers of social media, at any age really, I think we’re going to find there are a lot of vulnerabilities there.”
Some researchers have already started digging into those vulnerabilities.
A 2015 Common Sense Media Report found that teen girls worry about how they’re perceived online, with 35 percent being anxious about being tagged in unattractive photos and 27 percent worrying about how they looked in photos they themselves had posted.
An additional 22 percent admitted to feeling worse about themselves when their photos were ignored. Also, their self-image really took a hit when they didn’t get the number of likes and comments they expected.
Parents should take note of the link between selfies and body image, as it can be an indicator of other issues.
While some teens with a negative body image may simply be more likely to post selfies in search of validation, previous research has linked negative body image to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among teens.
An influx of selfies posted to social media could be a signal that a teen is experiencing negative body image and may need encouragement.
The click factor
In addition to the current problems a selfie addiction may signal, Molitor says she also has other concerns.
“These kids have seen a lot of reality shows, and in a sense, many of them are choreographing and directing their own online lives to mirror what they’ve seen,” she says.
“They don’t even realize they’re not being authentic and they’re not experiencing the moment. And that’s the thing I worry about especially, is they’re going to be so focused on the outer world (How am I looking? What do people think of me?) that they’ll lose touch with themselves. They’ll lose the impact of developing natural, authentic relationships.”
She adds, “That may be something we see play out over the next 5, 10, 15 years. Is it possible these kids won’t be equipped to build and maintain healthy, authentic relationships?”
An individual experience
Ilyssa Salomon, a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, conducted the latest study researching teens and selfies.
Speaking to Healthline about her research results, she explained, “Parents and clinicians should understand that social media use is a very individualized experience, in that teens have a lot of freedom in what they post and look at, as well as how they will interpret what they see. Our findings were the strongest for girls, and for those who are focused on others for approval — the ones willing to adapt their behavior to fit in.”
More teens may fall into the category of being willing to adapt behavior to fit in than parents realize. And social media can often play a big part in that.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that exposure to pictures of teens partaking in risky behavior online significantly increased the risk of teens smoking and drinking themselves.
However, Salomon did offer a ray of hope. “Not every teen will use social media in the same way,” she says. “And even if they do, it will affect some differently than others. Our results should encourage parents and clinicians to dig a little deeper and talk with teens about why they post certain things on social media, how it makes them feel, and to explain what risks are associated with behaviors like posting selfies.”
This may be especially true for teens in more vulnerable groups.
Salomon points out that there are additional implications to consider when thinking about how these issues play out for teens of color and LGBTQ teens.
“How people are portrayed in popular media sets the ideal body standards that teens are going to strive for. Westernized culture tends to value thinness for women and muscularity for men, whiteness, and heterosexuality,” she says.
“Media representation of LGBTQ individuals and people of color — particularly women of color — is often highly stereotypical, sexualized, and even fetishized. For teens that belong to or identify with these groups, cultural body standards can be even more limited and unrealistic, potentially eliciting greater feelings of shame toward their own bodies.”
Salomon says there’s a strong need for more research that investigates these issues among teens of color and LGBTQ teens.
While some research in these areas has been done in recent years, many of the findings were concerning.
According to a report released by The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in 2013, LGBT youth experience nearly three times as much bullying and harassment online as non-LGBT youth.
As a result, LGBTQ teens are more likely to experience negative self-esteem and higher rates of depression.
But in a win for social media, LGBTQ teens were also found to have more access to peer support, health information, and opportunities to be civically engaged online.
Salomon points out that because teens undergo a lot of physical and psychological changes during puberty, some fluctuation in their body image is normal and should be expected.
She also stresses that social media itself isn’t the enemy and the goal of parents should be to help their teen navigate social media in positive ways.
“When teens interact with social media, they are learning what our culture values about their body, whether they mean to or not,” she says. “If parents want to play a more active role in shaping these values, then they need to have conversations with their teens about body image and how social media can affect it.”
Molitor also urges parents to be mindful of their own interactions on social media and the example they’re setting for their teens.
“If you are concerned about your daughter or son, the first thing you need to do is look at yourself,” she says. “How often are you taking photos? How often are you using your phone? What is that about for you, and what impact might your social media use have on your son or daughter?”
She encourages parents to practice selfie control, set an example, and take an active interest in their teen’s life offline.
“Show an interest in your child’s authenticity, their personality and strengths,” Molitor says. “If parents start making a genuine effort to connect more outside their screens, they can hopefully teach their kids to place less value on the interactions happening behind their screens as well.”