Self-portraits: Teens obsessed with the perfect profile pic

Oct 11, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. ET

You can’t escape them — teenagers taking pictures of themselves to use for their profile picture on Facebook or Twitter.

Are they going overboard in search of looking “perfect” to the outside world? Teens have always been self-conscious and focused on their appearance, but has it gone further than that now?

Every day teens are bombarded with images in the media of the perfect-looking person. Looking your best can be a great self-esteem boost, but what if your best doesn’t feel good enough? The reality of these perfect images is that they are anything but real — airbrushed, altered and enhanced. What message is this sending to our teens and how can we help them form their own healthy self-image?

Internet and self-esteem

New research points to social media as being a major contributor to negative body image and low self-esteem in adolescent girls who spend long periods of time online each day. Dr. Amy Slater from the School of Psychology at Flinders University in Australia presented her findings from the NetGirls Project at the Appearance Matters international conference this summer. Over 1,000 girls between the ages of 12 and 16 were included in the study.

“We set out to investigate the role of media in adolescent girls' self-image,” says Dr. Slater. “We were interested to find out how adolescent girls were spending their free time and how different activities related to how they felt about themselves and their bodies. Our findings demonstrate a worrying correlation between excessive media use — particularly social media and the internet — and lower self-esteem, body-esteem and sense of identity and higher depression.” They found that 40.1 percent of these girls were dissatisfied with their bodies and a staggering one in two was afraid she would gain weight.

More about young girls and healthy body image >>

Socially connected — and disconnected

The more time teens spend connecting on social media, the more disconnected they tend to be from family and real-time connections. “It's a basic human need to attach to others,” says Holly Willard, LCSW and psychotherapist in Salt Lake City, Utah who specializes in female adolescent issues. “Relationships on social media are on a surface level because people choose what they are going to represent — or rather misrepresent. This decreases vulnerability and the potential of really connecting with someone.”

Teens spend an unusual amount of time obsessing over the pictures that they post on social media sites, then take a self-esteem hit when someone makes an unkind comment. When too much energy is focused on appearances, teens have little interest in living in the moment and enjoying an activity without viewing it as something that would make a great status update or profile picture.

Does your mother influence your body image? >>

Break the cycle

Remember that your inner critic is heard loud and clear by your teen. The message you send about your own appearance — whether in person or in photos — has a lot to do with how your children form their own message. Don’t shy away from the camera and make sure you are included in family photos. Encourage silly pictures and fun photo enhancements like mustaches or special color effects. Try to take away the feeling that pictures have to portray our “perfect” self. Share stories about enhanced and altered celebrity photographs to show your teens that even the perfect people aren’t really that way.

Finding the perfect profile picture may be more about self-esteem and body image than your teen realizes. Help her see the bigger picture.

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