Teenage girls and adult women are often emotionally bruised when social media becomes their North Star for finding meaning and purpose in life. There are limits to what social media can positively provide and female users who do not understand these limits may struggle in a variety of ways. Here are four myths about social media.
1. Social media is an emotional support network. Girls learn language earlier than boys and speak about their emotions with greater facility beginning as early as toddlerhood. This emotional awareness and verbal aptitude means that by elementary school they are acutely in tune with relationships. They want to be liked and too often as they mature, are relentlessly socialized to believe that if they are not perfectly pleasing they risk losing closeness and connection with others. Without counter balancing guidance, the need to find ways to please launches them into a never ending self-improvement makeover. Social media has the power to magnify this tendency to an unhealthy degree. The colossal amount of content on social media sites and opportunities of empty interaction has the power to put the vulnerable on a merry-go-round to nowhere. Research shows that adolescents who have a vague, less clear identity are more likely to engage in Internet overuse. Girls turn to these sites to figure out who they are, what they should look like, who they should try to be and how they can make themselves over. It is a labyrinth of questionable advice and sly commercial invitations for girls to make negative self-comparisons. For them, and there are many, social media does not provide emotional support it undermines reality based personality growth.
2. Posting and sharing will bring validation. The success of the ice bucket challenge is not just about being a good person who cares about the needs of disabled others. There is a reason why the challenge has earned close to $100 million dollars. People want public recognition for their seemingly selfless philanthropic ways and social media is a way to gain recognition. Consider Olivia Wilde dumping breast milk on her head, Gwyneth Paltrow taking her challenge in a bikini, not to mention all the many posts of kids soaking their moms with icy cold water -- positive recognition feels good. And girls in particular, are socialized toward awareness for how others perceive them and then strive to be "liked" by all. Receiving attention by way of "likes" and "comments" on Facebook or Instagram, can light up the brain's reward centers triggering a hit of dopamine that, for some, is euphoric and addictive. The other side of this coin is that validation coming from social media is temporary and fickle. What happens when no "likes" are provided or negative feedback is given (which occurs quite regularly for teenage girls who post selfies) or when cyberbullying intrudes? For girls and women with a shaky sense of identity, self-esteem plummets. Posting and sharing is not a substitute for real life interactions.
3. Social media is a place to show the world how great you are. That point of view sows seeds of trouble for those who peruse Facebook or Instagram to compare their lives to others. They rarely have to look far to find someone who appears to have it better. Whether it's a better body, higher achieving children, a hotter boyfriend, more impressive academic accomplishments, sexier vacations, there is plenty of material there to support a negative self-appraisal. Do women really need any more fodder for feeling poorly about themselves? After all, in the United States 20 million women are believed to suffer from a full blown eating disorder. And girls as young as six express concerns about their body image. By elementary school 40%-60% of girls say they worry about becoming too fat, a concern that once established stays with them for the rest of their lives. Girls and women are more than two times as likely to experience depression as are boys and men. Women begin to have higher rates of depression than men in early adolescence, around age 13, and the trend continues throughout their development, making it even more imperative to protect teen girls from negative social comparison. And research shows a relationship between social comparison, depressive symptoms, and Facebook usage. Girls and women who over use social media and are negatively comparing themselves, their lives, their bodies, to others, are engaging in repetitive negative thoughts about themselves. This tendency increases their propensity for depression. Negatively comparing herself to others on social media sites increases a girl or woman's sense that she will never be good enough in her real life.
4. Striking the perfect pose will bring true love. Recently, a 16-year old girl described to me the crush she has on a boy and how he ditched her at a party. She dealt with the hurt by later posting a selfie on Instagram, half-dressed and appearing sexy. The boy responded, expressed that she looked good and she felt instantly better. Girls, more and more, turn to social media to garner male attention. They get an immediate buzz of elation, but that wears off quickly, leaving them feeling empty and in need of another lift. By the time these girls become young adults this has become a pattern. For example the social media dating application Tinder promotes the myth that viewing photos in one's geographical area is a way to find an immediate and meaningful romantic connection. Girls and women who use social media to find love are buying into the notion that being an object of his physical desire is the path to romantic commitment and happiness. All of this sets them up for one-sided relationships where their emotional needs go unattended. Girls and women who are able to effectively claim for themselves what they desire fair far better in love and romance. Finding love that is sexually and emotionally fulfilling means relating to men with real life conversation.
For more follow me on twitter @DrJillWeber, like me on Facebook or visit drjillweber.com. Jill Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Washington, DC and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy--Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships