Our complicated relationship with social media has long been researched to appropriately comprehend the impact and triggers of the online world on our wellbeing. While we understand social media is a trigger for negative psychological outcomes, it may be the case that what we do online matters more than how much time we spend scrolling. Over the years, when it comes to the standards set for teenage girls, levels of perfectionism have profoundly increased due to social media use.
Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat are a pervasive part of young people's lives with feeds full of finely filtered and staged images of unattainable lives, bodies and ideals. The draw to this level of perfectionism is addictive and takes a significant emotional toll with rising anxieties and insecurities; especially when we attempt to emulate what we see, consciously or unconsciously. Comparing ourselves to others heightens body-image concerns, most prominently for young girls.
With girls more likely to have more than one social media account in comparison with boys and to use their accounts more frequently, studies have found that girls are at a higher risk of body image struggles and depression. However, it may also be the case that our individual personality traits can influence the risk when it comes to our usage of social media.
Perfectionism as a personality trait is rising over time
Findings from recent research, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, suggests the characteristic of self-critical perfectionism “may be an important vulnerability factor for female adolescents following appearance-focused social comparison when using social media”.
Studies have also found that perfectionism as a personality trait is also rising over time. With negative implications, such as depression, eating disorders and suicidal ideation, perfectionism adds to the whirlpool of damaging psychological intricacies compounded by the online world.
The authors of the research focused the study on whether perfectionism and social media play a prominent role in the wellbeing of adolescent girls. The findings highlight that those with higher levels of self-critical perfectionism are considered to be more vulnerable to negative social comparisons as their self-worth is linked to the idea of being perceived as perfect and flawless.
"There is huge societal pressure to look perfect," says Michaela Thomas, clinical psychologist and author of The Lasting Connection, "which has a negative impact on the body image and self-esteem in girls and women. A lot of the media influencers young girls see today have been edited, like in retouched magazines, or made to look perfect through filters, like on social media. There are even apps aimed at transforming your appearance to look more like the warped beauty standard portrayed in media.
“This pressure to look perfect can make young girls think that they need to be thinner, prettier and always have their make-up perfectly ‘on point’. When they fall short of this unrealistic standard, self-critical perfectionism dictates that they are not good enough. Failing in these areas means that you are a failure. Perfectionism is a major component in eating disorders and body image disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder, where the person becomes preoccupied about a feature of their body that they think is flawed.
Recognising a self-perfectionist personality trait in our children can vary depending on their age and the type of perfectionist they may be. Thomas suggests, “If your child expresses harsh words about themselves when they make a mistake, or fail at something, that can be a clue to an active inner critical voice. ‘I’m useless’, ‘I suck’, ‘I can’t do it’, ‘I give up’ can be ways your child might beat themselves up for something which you think is fine.
Talk to them about how they feel after they have spent time scrolling on social media. Does it make them feel good or bad about themselves?
“The punishment usually doesn’t fit the crime, in that they are way harder on themselves than you would be on them for what has happened. If they express hatred towards their body, are focused on their weight and become preoccupied about their food intake or even start restricting their food, that can be a warning sign of an eating disorder.
“If they express strong dissatisfaction with a body part you believe is fine, and this takes over their attention completely, their view of this body part has become distorted.”
Our children are growing up with social media. It is an inevitable part of life as their social circles and peers all reinforce the use of the online world. Along with navigating this perplexing personality trait of self-perfectionism, it is worthwhile looking at how our young people routinely use social media.
“Your child is so much more than just their physical body,” says Thomas. “Talk to them about how they feel after they have spent time scrolling on social media. Does it make them feel good or bad about themselves? Does it make them want to change things about their body? Does it make them preoccupied with their body and forget what other aspects there are to them, like personality, interests and values?”
Helping our children understand that their self-worth is not linked to external comparisons, or how someone views them is critical. We can encourage them to recognise their value is not centred on being perfect or ideal, and support them in self-acceptance, self-compassion and self-worth by avoiding comparison and recognising their skill set to neutralise the toxic effects of social media.
“It might be helpful to discuss how they can set limits and boundaries around their social media use, rather than banning it,” advises Thomas. “Anything you make a taboo, a teenager is going to want to explore more. Help them reflect around which accounts to unfollow on social media, to help ‘curate their feed’ to be one which fits with their interests and values, rather than making them be mean to themselves, for example, body positivity or body neutrality accounts rather than influencers testing out make-up or giving dieting tips.”
In truth, it is a lesson for us all to disconnect when we recognise the negative effects of social media creeping in. Be mindful of your social media habits. How often are you using it? What is your pattern of use? For example, do you have to check accounts first thing in the morning or do you find yourself aimlessly scrolling for 30 minutes at a time? How does social media make you feel overall? How do particular feeds you follow make you feel? Why do you use it, for example, for communication, information or to see what others are doing?
Once you know how and why you use social media, you can put in place behaviours to reduce the widespread psychological negative effects of the online world.
Tips for social media use
- Choose who you follow wisely
- Limit your time online
- Be present in the real world
- And value yourself