Guiding Your Kids Past The Compare & Despair Trap On Social Media

Written by Jessica Abo

Jessica Abo is an award-winning journalist and author currently living in Los Angeles. She has appeared on The Today Show and ABC News, and is the author of Unfiltered: How to Be as Happy as You Look on Social Media.

Expert review by Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., C.N.S.

A unique combination of clinical psychologist, nutritionist, and special education teacher, Dr. Nicole Beurkens, PhD, has almost 20 years of experience supporting children, young adults, and families. She holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, a Master’s in Nutrition and Integrative Health, and a Master’s in Special Education, and is trained in numerous specialty areas.

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As an adult, it can feel painful to be iced out by a group of friends, learn you weren't invited to a birthday party, or see your neighbor on another fancy vacation. Those hurt feelings are only amplified when you log on to social media and see everyone posting pictures from that party that no one told you about or those picture-perfect family moments from your neighbor's luxurious resort stay. 

When your kids tell you that someone's social media post made them feel less than, your first inclination may be to encourage them to shake it off. In doing research for my book, Unfiltered: How To Be As Happy As You Look on Social Media, I learned from the experts I interviewed that our prefrontal cortex—our brain's controller—doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25 or 26. So if you think you feel bad about being the only person on your team who wasn't invited to your colleague's wedding, it's even harder for your child to process being excluded or break down the content on someone else's curated highlight reel.

Identify the problem.

The first thing to do the next time your kid appears to be falling into the compare-and-despair trap is to try to get to the root of their rut. Was it a post about someone being asked to the prom that was the trigger? Was it a picture of someone making a sports team when your kid didn't make the cut? Did someone share their good news that they got into their No. 1 choice for college when your child just got deferred or rejected? Identifying your kid's pain point can help you help your kid with more clarity. 

Our kids are seeking validation now more than ever. They're growing up in a culture where their sense of self is equated with how many likes their pictures receive online and how many people follow their feed. Every moment of their lives is documented, and there aren't a lot of "no phone" zones in their lives for them to just be themselves without being reminded of what's missing.

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Remember: These feelings are normal!

These moments when they feel down are an invitation for us as parents, caregivers, and mentors to remind them that we've been there, too. When your kids are upset, let your children know they are not alone and their feelings are normal. Share when you went through a stressful, disappointing, or nerve-wracking time and how you got through it. Remind them of previous trials they have already overcome to help them remember they've been resilient before and they will triumph again. Tell your kids again and again that what they see online isn't always the full story. People tend to post what psychologists call "selectively positive" information and not their raw, unfiltered lives. 

To drive this point home, go through your own feed with your children and find a post where you might have shared an elevated sense of reality. For example, show them the picture of the beautiful sunset you took at the beach and make a point of explaining that you didn't include how they were fighting with each other in the background for two hours. 

Go tech-free for a while.

Last but not least, do an activity your child enjoys, and make it tech-free. Whether you go on a hike, on a run, volunteer, play with your pet, see a movie, or cook a meal together, make time for everyone to do something that will feed their soul without posting to, or checking, their social media feed. Spending quality time together with the people we love and doing things that remind us how strong we are, are wonderful ways for us to plug into what really matters.

The quick fix to our social media problems would be to delete all of our apps, but it's important to remember social media is by no means the enemy here. Social media enables us to stay connected to family and friends, learn new information, find support when we need it, and be there for those in our network, among many other things. 

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Evaluate your own behavior. 

You can remind your child how to have a healthy relationship with their apps by modeling what that behavior looks like yourself. To help you manage your own social media habits, consider moving your apps off of your home screen so they aren't the first thing you see when you pick up your phone. Turn off all alerts so you don't have to get sucked into picking up your device 24/7. Try putting your phone on airplane mode or do not disturb to give yourself an intentional social media break—this is an easy one for your kids to try when they are doing their homework. 

Your default emotion should be empathy.

Finally, the next time you see your kid reaching for the phone or getting upset about someone else's social media update, try to be empathetic before getting annoyed. Psychologists say the best way to explain the link between our psychology and technology is through the Social Comparison Theory, which says as social animals we compare our status with the status of other animals. Bottom line: We're wired to care about what other people are doing, but that sense of comparing comes with a price. Studies are showing how our social media apps are increasing our fear of missing out and our levels of stress and anxiety. As a result of this growing sense of FOMO, we tend to check our phones when there is an alert and when we believe there may be information coming in that we're missing. Adults are guilty of responding to a phantom buzz, mindlessly scrolling and always wanting to be in the know, too. So making family time a "Head Up, Phone Down" environment won't just help your kids navigate the tech-obsessed world we live in; chances are, it will help you, too.

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