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How the Social Media “Popularity Contest” Affects Our Kids

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teens and screens Nov 22

I don’t know about you, but middle school was hard. I’m talking “you couldn’t pay me enough money to do it again” hard. These are the years when young people start to really find their group. They begin to discover where they fit in if you will. And in my day (old person story here), when we weren’t walking uphill in the snow both ways to school, we were navigating some of the same issues kids do today.

But on a much smaller scale. And, of course, who was “popular,” or if you were a part of the “popular group,” was something of discussion and worry. For the most part, a lot of that popularity came from the shoes and clothes you wore, if you had the latest hairstyle, where you lived, and if you got to shave your legs before anyone else. But it was the 80s for me, so things were much different than they are now.

What has remained the same is the desire to be a part of the group. To be noticed. To feel like you fit in. And while we did not have social media to reach for when we wanted to feel included, today’s generation has access to a platform that provides a gross sense of inclusion. But it comes with a price. To feel included or important in the social media space, it feels like you have to provide new content constantly. New pictures. New videos. And it must be better than your last video and better than everyone else’s videos. Insert an algorithm that changes daily, and if you have a child with self-worth attached to views and followers, it is a recipe for disaster.

I want to take this one step further and recognize that our youth are not the only ones falling victim to this. Adults are too. If you are an influencer or run your business marketing through social media, especially Instagram or Tik Tok, you face the same issues. The algorithm changes daily. It decides who will see your content and how much they will see, which trans­lates to views and fol­lowers. You can work incredibly hard on content only to have the algorithm decide who gets to view it, which leads to feelings of inadequacy and wondering, “what did I do wrong?” It is a vicious cycle.

Why is this important to note? Be­cause if social media is affecting how we feel as adults, think about how it affects our children. If adults with mature coping skills struggle in this space, it is no wonder our children struggle. It is why they do what they do every day. It is why they post “bigger” videos and do inherently ill-ad­vised things. Without a catalyst of wanting social media popularity, they probably would not even DO these things.

So what do we do as parents to help our children or provide support for our­selves if we struggle in this space? First, we must do the work around understand­ing that our self-worth is NOT attached to views, follows, or likes. Understand that social media is driven by an algorithm fed and controlled by money-hungry social media giants. How your video or reel performs has absolutely NOTHING to do with who you or your child are as people. It has nothing to do with self-worth. If we can help our children understand how algorithms work, it may help them grasp the concept of a “digital” response versus how it feels to have a response from a real friend. Next, work on other factors to encourage positive confidence growth from sources that are not digital. Please help your child focus on authentic, close, meaningful relationships. Let them know that these are most important… and that these relationships will never be driven by some random number online.

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Kristi Bush serves as a national education consultant and social media safety advocate. She is a licensed social worker with greater than 15 years of clinical practice and health care experience. She attended Troy and Auburn University where she studied social work and counseling. Kristi travels nationally and has spoken with thousands of children, parents, professionals and organizations about the benefits and threats associated with social media. You may reach Kristi through her website at www.knbcommunications.com.

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