How to help young women cope

On our August trip to Puerto Rico, my 19 year old daughter asked me to take a picture of her from several different angles on the beach.

She struck up the pose, raising her arms exuberantly at first, then gazing thoughtfully at the ocean.

The intentional posture was all for the “Gram.” It’s Instagram, the photo and video social media platform owned by Facebook.

The app allows users to upload media which can be edited with filters and then shared publicly or with selected subscribers. The Gram is where everyday people and influencers share bits of their organized life.

But a recent Wall Street Journal investigative report shed light on what parents have long known and feared: that Instagram can be toxic, especially for young women. The Journal also revealed that the platform’s parent company, Facebook, was aware of the damage it was causing.

Instagram on a smartphone and tablet screen.

Internal Facebook documents examined by the newspaper show that the company’s own research found that Instagram is making body image problems worse for one in three teenage girls on the site. In a more disturbing result, among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 6% of US users and 13% in Britain attributed these thoughts to the app.

We know all too well the dangers in North Jersey.

Four years ago, Mallory Grossman, 12, of Rockaway Township, took her own life after what her family described as a relentless campaign of bullying by her classmates at school and online. Her tormentors are said to have encouraged her to kill herself, with mean texts and posts on Instagram and Snapchat. Her parents, Dianne and Seth Grossman, sued the school district and local authorities for failing to protect their daughter. (The district issued a statement at the time denying that it ignored the bullying.)

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While Facebook has taken some steps to potentially reduce negative impacts for teens, such as removing likes, the company has publicly downplayed Instagram’s impacts.

In a statement responding to the latest reports, Karina Newton, Instagram’s public policy manager, said the Journal article “focuses on a limited set of findings and presents them in a negative light.”

Yet earlier this week, the site announced that it was postponing plans to release a children’s version of its app, following refusal from parent groups and Congress.

Digitally augmented reality

If you are a parent of a youngster who is on Instagram, I beg you Take a deep dive into your child’s social media.

As part of a deal with my daughter when I allowed her to start using Instagram in seventh grade, I had full access to her account. What I found was shocking. An anonymous account evaluated the attractiveness of the girls in his college. One student encouraged others to stop class and hang out outside of school. These are 12-year-old children whose brains are not yet fully developed.

Michael Tozzoli, CEO of West Bergen Mental Healthcare, a nonprofit specializing in children and teens, said the images users post on Instagram are often faked. There are apps that help girls get rid of acne or look slimmer, for example. Young people suffer when they judge themselves on the basis of these artificial standards, he said.

Sites like Instagram can help kids feel connected, a big plus during last year’s coronavirus shutdowns. But Tozzoli has seen depression and anxiety in teens who feel pressured to follow these sanitized versions of their peers.

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Social media is the way teens communicate. I had to accept her as a mom. When my daughter was wading in the water for the first time, I kept a close eye on her accounts. Now that she is an adult, I hope she will be judicious in what she posts and shares with her friends.

Accepting Instagram as a mom doesn’t mean that I agree with my daughter. She grew up in a socio-economically diverse community in upstate New York, and I balked at her posts about our vacation to Bermuda and Mexico. There are families who can’t afford vacations, and other young people stressed out by self-imposed pressure to follow the Joneses.

Another alarming trend is the popularity of influencers on the social media platform. Women and men of unrealistic beauty thanks to the use of filters. How would you feel if you were a 16 year old girl, with all the usual teenage insecurities, confronted with electronically enhanced images of images of “perfect” women?

People tend to present the best and most attractive version of themselves online. But the images on Instagram are very selective, and mostly reflect a stereotypical ideal of beauty – slim and tanned. Often doctored images have been associated with greater body dissatisfaction and greater self-objectification in female viewers, according to a study from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

In the study, 276 Australian and American women, aged 18 to 25, completed online questionnaires assessing their Instagram use, including their frequency of viewing images on Instagram and their tendency to compare their appearance to that of other women.

Researchers found that spending more time on Instagram was associated with greater concern and worry about their own appearance, especially for those who had internalized the “beauty ideal” found on the site.

Ask friends not to post

Tara, Emma and Sylvia McTague from Madison, New Jersey.  Sylvia McTague said her daughters quit Instagram in high school and asked their friends not to post their gatherings on the site, to avoid hurting feelings.

Madison’s mom Sylvia McTague remembers when her daughters Emma and Tara headed off to college to a class of their own with Snapchat and Instagram.

“They both found Instagram too painful as friends post pictures, and you wonder why you’re not invited to a party or a group of two,” said Sylvia McTague. “So the two of them kept Snapchat but left Instagram during high school. And they asked their friends not to post their gatherings on Instagram for fear of hurting feelings.”

Emma is 20 now and Tara 19, both in college. They both have Instagram accounts.

But they also have the maturity not to worry about the “reality” they see in it, McTague said.

I am grateful that I grew up in an era without the social pressures of social media. But I’m also aware of the era we live in and understand as a tech-savvy parent that social media is the way of the world now.

What can you do as a parent? Talk to your kids before they jump into this space and check them back often. Share special moments together as a family, without interruption of technology. Some of the best times I share with my daughter are just snuggling up in bed, in our total unfiltered mess.

Marie Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for To get unlimited access to the latest news from North Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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