Selfie-Esteem: The Impact of the Like Culture on a Teen’s Self-Worth

media and mental health mental health Jul 01, 2019

A few decades ago, the “like” culture consisted of a handwritten note read, “If you like me, check yes or no”. Today, it is much different. Chloe, 15, shared that she knows she is “good” based on the number of likes she will receive from a selfie. “If I get 50 likes then I know that I am a good person and that I have friends. If I get less than that, I feel awful. I usually end up deleting the post, and then I won’t talk to anyone for a while.”

From Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook to Twitter (and every app in-between), social media has become a powerful and primary form of communication. It has also created a culture, a like culture.

So what exactly is the “Like” Culture? 

Culture is a set of adopted and shared values that a group can hold. Those values can affect how someone thinks, feels, and behaves. It sets the criteria by which you judge situations, others, and oneself. 

The like culture is the behaviors, beliefs, and values that are created and influenced from the likes on selfies and social media posts. Further, the “like” culture has also become a symbolic form of communication dictating the self-worth of pre-teens, teens, and young adults. Staying connected with friends through Snapchat provides a sense of belonging and connection. Many teens report that the platform is less about being perfect and more about capturing and sharing how they feel in a particular moment. Taking selfies is also a way for teens to express and explore their identity - even trying on a new identity and image.  “On Instagram, it’s more about showing people how cool you are rather than just being silly,” said Talia, age 16. Sixteen-year-old Sam countered Talia by saying, “If you’re seeing new clothes or new hair color, it’s not always about being cool. Sometimes we just want to figure a new look and who we are.” 

For adolescents, the likes on selfies or even the streaks on a platform can send a message of “you belong” which can both boost self-confidence or stir up feelings of depression and anxiety. 

When Self-Esteem turns into Selfie-Esteem

Self-esteem, according to Merriam-Webster is, “confidence and satisfaction in one's own worth or abilities”. So, what’s selfie-esteem? Selfie-esteem is the condense and satisfaction in one’s own worth or abilities based on the number of likes on a selfie posted online.

Teens - especially teen girls - are drawn to social media as it can help them identify themselves separate from their family and can always provide social connections. However, adolescents are also especially vulnerable because they are undergoing a lot of physical, social, and psychological changes that are a normal part of growing up. They are more focused on the opinions of their peers than ever before. 

When looking through the typical Instagram feed of a high-schooler, typically a female high-schooler, you may see a pretty flower, a cute group of kids laughing, a pretty girl, a cute boy, pretty lattes, cute kittens… everything is pretty and cute. For teens, who are at the peak of need validation and belonging, all the cute and pretty images can leave them feeling that everyone is having a good day, or as one teen shared with me, “a far better life than me”. The result of seeing only the highlight reels of life? 

Mercedes, an eighth-grader, shared, “You look at all these posts and think everyone is so cool, so skinny, so pretty. I just end up feeling pretty gross. I keep wondering what’s wrong with me. Why can’t my eyeliner look like that? Why can’t my coffee have a cute cat made out of foam? Why can’t I have a nicer room? How come no one asks me to do fun things? Is everyone else doing stuff without me? Why are there no pictures of frizzy hair, pants that are too tight, and breakouts - maybe that would make me feel a little less bad about myself? Yet, those pictures never show up. Now I’m in therapy because I got so down on myself and started cutting.”

Mercedes's story is not unique. Increased anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation paired with decreased feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. So, how can you help? 

How You Can Reduce the Impact of Social Media on a Teen’s Self-Esteem

Here are some tips to support your teen’s self-esteem in a positive, healthy way: 

  • Don’t dismiss the importance of social media in a teen’s life. Your first instinct may be to take away your teen’s phone and to restrict access to all social media sites. This can actually cause more harm. Adolescents are digital natives, and they have never known a time where technology didn’t exist. Having no access to social media, which is a primary form of communication, can leave teens feeling even more isolated or depressed than relying on likes to feel better. Rather, acknowledge the role social media plays in their lives and listen to their experiences without judgment. 
  • Have regular discussions with your teen about the role of social media in their life. Encourage critical thinking with your teen and their social media use. Introduce questions for them to consider such as: 
    • Do you think this image has a filter or has been altered? 
    • What do you think the impact would be if celebrities' photos weren’t edited or photoshopped? 
    • What do you think is realistic/unrealistic when you view selfies? 
    • Do you think people are who they appear to be online?
    •  When you hear “everyone has a story”, what story do you think people really have?  
    • How much impact does a “like” have on your mood? 
    • When does social media make you feel happy or sad? 
  • Continue to discuss the selfies and photos your teen is posting. Ask your teen their reasons for posting photos (i.e. connection, feedback). If they are looking for feedback or approval, ask if they are even upset at the comments they receive or if they have deleted photos because there were too few likes. 
  • Encourage your teen to practice impulse control. The ping of a new social media notification can be a powerful draw. However, it can also be an immediate trigger for a mood swing. Encourage your teen to pause ideally for an hour but even for 10 minutes before responding or checking their social media streams. This helps in learning self-reliance rather than selfie-reliance. 
  • Take a social media sabbatical. Everyone so often, declare a family power down so you can enjoy some time offline. And, yes, it can be every bit as hard for adults to unplug as kids so make sure you stay accountable and commit to staying off social media during the break.
  • Accentuate and encourage the curiosities and strengths of your teen. Self-esteem is built by demonstrating real ability and achievement in areas of our lives that matter to us. If your teen loves to test out recipes, throw a tasting party. If they enjoy running, encourage them to sign up for a few community races (bonus if you can train with them!).  Find ways to encourage the activities and interests that light them up. Additionally, help them develop a healthier self-image by not criticizing the size or looks of others - including yourself!

While the “like” culture can offer instant gratification (or immediate dissatisfaction), there really is no shortcut to self-esteem. A teen’s self-esteem will continue to strengthen little by little by developing strong relationships with you, their peers, and with their selves. Truly, the most impactful thing you can do is to model, both online and off, a strong sense of self-worth in your own life. Show your teens that you can celebrate both successes and challenges. When those challenges do arise, talk about them with one another in a way that highlights self-respect, self-love, and self-forgiveness. If you or your teen is struggling with self-esteem, anxiety, or depression, please get help from a qualified professional. 

I’d like to hear from you. What impact have selfies and the “like” culture had on you or your teen?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. And, if you know someone who would benefit from this post, I’d appreciate it if you shared it.