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Helping teens develop the digital literacy skills they need to manage the glossy images they see on social media
A photo of a teen holding up a phone with a picture of herself

Does passively browsing through a friend’s fabulous Instagram feed automatically make teens feel worse about their own lives? Not uniformly, a new study concludes, finding also that teens who bring a level of critical analysis to the experience seem to be more resilient in the face of social media’s pressures than teens who believe the happy images are indicative of a happier life. As researchers continue to assess the impact of social media on the social-emotional lives of teens, this new work adds fuel to the argument that parents and educators have an essential role to play in helping teens develop the literacy skills they need to navigate their digital worlds. 

The Research

In the study, researcher Emily Weinstein assessed the emotions of more than 500 adolescents before and after they browsed an Instagram simulation that included two feeds, for a male and a female teen. Weinstein also assessed whether and to what extent teens were comparing their lives to the lives portrayed in the Instagram galleries.

“It’s understandable to crave simple answers. Is social media good or bad? Are smartphones facilitating unprecedented opportunities or destroying a generation? But actually, research continues to reveal a more complex and nuanced story."

Weinstein created three different versions of the same simulation. In one, kids saw a typical “highlight reel,” full of the kind of glossy images that suggest nothing but happiness. In another, teens saw the same highlight reel, but first they saw a notification reminding them to “keep in mind that everyone is trying hard on social media, and that these are normal kids who have bad days, too.” In the third version, teens saw no notification, but the positive images were interspersed with several posts about everyday challenges or negative experiences — ostensibly a more ordinary, less-perfect life.

How Young People Understand Instagram

Contrary to what she expected, Weinstein found that the different browsing experiences alone weren’t predictive of kids’ reactions. Instead, it was teens’ own interpretations that mattered most — and, more specifically, the extent to which teens compared themselves to the feeds they saw.

Teens who browsed the same simulated Instagram feeds differed in how much they believed that the people whose profiles they saw were actually happier or having better lives. Some teens understood the feeds as curated and effortful — not a good barometer for the overall happiness of the feed's owner. “For these teens, browsing social media is kind of like watching reality television. There’s a sense that while the content is grounded in reality, it’s also deliberately edited to give a certain impression,” Weinstein says.

But other teens seemed to take the feeds more literally. And in general, those who reported making more negative comparisons between themselves and the Instagram feeds also reported feeling worse immediately after browsing, Weinstein says, regardless of their emotions before they browsed.

Smart Browsing: What Parents Can Do

  • Help teens learn that social media portrayals are highly orchestrated. For teens prone to seeing Instagram as evidence of a "perfect" life, encourage them to look at their own feeds and recall moments from offline life they've omitted.
  • Some of us follow accounts that trigger social comparison and bad feelings. Empower teens to think critically about the accounts they follow. 
  • The same Instagram post that upsets one teen may inspire another; the same Snapchat practice that burdens one teen may be playful for another. Talk about their individual experiences and remind them of their power to choose, unfollow, or unsubscribe.

Helping to Guide Perceptions

In sum — teens don’t react in the same ways to the same social media information, Weinstein says; they differ in how they use, experience, and respond to what they see. And this research is one of a number of studies offering evidence that social comparison is a cause for concern when it’s an active part of a teen’s social media use. How can adults — parents, educators, software designers, social media entrepreneurs — fortify the more discerning approach and safeguard teens against making the kinds of negative social comparisons that compromise their wellbeing? 

Citing Lisa Guernsey’s notion of “the 3 C’s” — the context, the content, and the individual child — Weinstein suggests that adults can consider:

  • How to shift the context of social media browsing, by developing teens’ awareness that social media portrayals are highly orchestrated. "It can be tricky to keep in mind that what we're not seeing is an important part of the story," Weinstein says. If teens tend to view others' social media feeds as evidence of "perfect" lives, encourage them to look back at their own feeds and think about the moments from offline life that they've omitted from their online presentations. Help them build an active recognition that social media presentations offer characteristically thin and unrepresentative slices of peoples’ lives.
  • How different content might enhance or diminish the likelihood of comparison. Some of us follow accounts that routinely trigger social comparison and lead us to feel that our own lives don’t measure up. Empower teens to think critically about the accounts they choose to follow, and to be curators of the content on their feeds. Remind them that they have the power to unfollow or unsubscribe from accounts.
  • How to support the needs of individual children and the different ways they engage with social media. "Researchers continue to find evidence that teens have varied experiences with social media. When we don’t pay sufficient attention to these differences, we often miss opportunities to identify how and why individual teens are actually thriving or struggling," says Weinstein. The same Instagram post that distresses one teen may inspire another; the same Snapchat practice that is burdensome for one teen may be playful for another. Try to replace assumptions with questions. Ask teens: How do you interpret that post? Why do you follow this account? What do you see as the best and trickiest parts of growing up with social media?

Weinstein also says that the study argues for a more nuanced assessment of the role of social media in the lives of adolescents. “It’s understandable to crave simple answers,” she says. “Is social media good or bad? Are smartphones facilitating unprecedented opportunities or destroying a generation? But actually, research continues to reveal a more complex and nuanced story. I see benefits in attending to more specific and, perhaps, actionable questions, like when, and why, and for whom certain kinds of social media use pose opportunities or risks. By asking these more specific questions, we will find answers that can help us productively envision the path forward.”

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