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In the age of smartphones and constant connectivity, social media has become an integral part of the lives of today's youth. While social media platforms provide various benefits, they also wield a profound influence on youth self-image. Clinical therapists Samantha Gonzalez AMFT, APCC, and Alyssa Acosta, APCC, lead the Adolescent Partial Hospital Program at Loma Linda University Behavioral Health. Together, they break down the impact of social media on the self-perception and mental well-being of young individuals, shedding light on the challenges they face in maintaining a healthy self-image in a digital age.

The Illusion of Perfection

One of the primary ways social media affects youth self-image is through the propagation of an idealized and often unattainable standard of beauty.

"Social media platforms are flooded with meticulously curated profiles, showcasing seemingly perfect lives, flawless appearances, and ideal bodies,” Acosta says. “This constant exposure to images of seemingly perfect individuals can lead young people to develop unrealistic expectations about their own appearance and life achievements.”

She says comparing oneself to these distorted representations can lead to feelings of inadequacy, lowered self-esteem, and even body dysmorphia.

Seeking Validation and Social Approval

The proliferation of social media has also fueled the need for validation and social approval among young people. The number of likes, comments, and followers has become a measure of self-worth, amplifying the pressure to present an idealized version of oneself online. Acosta says the desire for external validation can lead to the adoption of unhealthy behaviors such as excessive self-promotion, seeking attention through provocative images or posts, and even resorting to online bullying or negative comparisons to others.

Cyberbullying and Negative Feedback Loops

Reports show 16% of high school students experienced cyberbullying. Social media platforms can provide grounds for cyberbullying and negative feedback loops, which can have devastating consequences for youth self-image, according to Gonzalez Unlike face-to-face interactions, online platforms enable anonymity and distance, emboldening individuals to engage in hurtful behavior. Gonzalez says negative comments, cyberbullying, and online harassment can have a profound impact on a young person's self-esteem, leading to feelings of worthlessness, depression, and anxiety. The constant exposure to such negativity can create a toxic cycle, further exacerbating their mental well-being.

Comparison and Fear of Missing Out

Youth today are bombarded with constant updates on the lives of their peers through social media. The fear of missing out can intensify when scrolling through posts about parties, travel, achievements, or milestones.

“This incessant comparison can foster a sense of dissatisfaction with one's own life and accomplishments, leading to a negative self-perception,” Acosta says. “The curated nature of social media feeds often fails to represent the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, reinforcing an unrealistic sense of what a ‘successful’ or ‘fulfilled’ life should look like.”

Nurturing a Healthy Self-Image

While social media can have detrimental effects on youth self-image, it is important to remember that it is not inherently negative. Gonzalez and Acosta say there are ways to mitigate the negative impacts and promote a healthier self-perception among young individuals:

  1. Media literacy: Educating youth about the influence of social media and promoting critical thinking skills can help them discern between reality and the illusion of perfection.
  2. Setting boundaries: Encouraging young people to set limits on their social media usage and prioritize offline activities can foster a healthier balance.
  3. Positive reinforcement: Recognizing and celebrating achievements, talents, and qualities beyond social media metrics can reinforce a sense of self-worth based on internal validation.
  4. Promoting open communication: Creating a safe space where young people feel comfortable discussing their concerns about self-image and social media can provide valuable support.
  5. Diverse representation: Encouraging the promotion and celebration of diverse body types, ethnicities, abilities, and accomplishments on social media can challenge narrow beauty standards and inspire a more inclusive self-image.

May is Mental Health Month. Loma Linda University Behavioral Health leads the region in mental health treatment offering the full spectrum of behavioral health programs and services to fit your needs in Redlands, Murrieta, and Rancho Cucamonga. Click here to request more information about the mental health programs offered.