Welcome to , an ongoing series that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2018 and we have the entire internet to contend with.
During a recent date night with my husband, my beloved babysitter let my 4-year-old daughter take a few (unpublished) pictures with a Snapchat filter that added blush and eyelashes while smoothing out her already blemish-free skin. My daughter was transfixed, and started referring to those pictures as “the pretty ones.” My jaw instantly dropped, as did my heart.
“By age 4, children begin to compare themselves to others,” says Dr. Pam Roggeman, academic dean for the University of Phoenix College of Education. “There is now a new task added to the job of being a parent: teaching our kids to be critical viewers to help them develop an identity that is beyond their appearance.”
I’ve been ready for this task long before I became a parent, but I naively thought it wouldn’t become an issue so soon. When I wrote my first book, Body Drama, my goal was to educate teenagers about the plethora of airbrushed and digitally enhanced photos in magazines and on social media, and to warn them about how buying into the fakeness could be damaging to their self-esteem. This was revolutionary 10 years ago, back when only professional outlets had access to extremely expensive editing programs, and Photoshop was a well-kept secret weapon utilized by brands and businesses to sell aspirational products.
Today, the teen years are way too late to begin building awareness. Due to the availability of countless cheap and free editing services, selfie filters, and enhancing apps, harmful beauty standards are being baked into the social DNA of small children. In our extreme perfection-obsessed world, where everyone is expected to have thousands of friends and fans online while always looking like a movie star (at least online), teaching kids about media manipulation needs to begin around the time toilet-training ends.
Dr. Roggeman agrees that parents must help kids learn how to identify images that have been altered, and they must also have age-appropriate discussions about the messages being conveyed therein. Basically, preschoolers need to become experts at sniffing out Fake News, which abounds in imagery everywhere from Instagram to the school yearbook.
Basically, preschoolers need to become experts at sniffing out Fake News.
After all, we’re living in a time when enhancements, . The expectation is that parents would prefer the “more attractive” version of their child, despite it being incorrect.
It’s not just young girls whose brains are being rewired this way, and the dangers of self-esteem issues brought on by social media and apps are not limited to beauty. When editor let her 8-year-old use a coloring app called Recolor, he figured out how to post his pictures on a public board to get “likes.” Soon, “he was refreshing the page and cheering when his like counter clicked up, and comparing other pictures to his — ‘why did this get more likes than mine?'” Dube’s initial impulse was to ban the Recolor app, which fits into an approach that many teenagers are voluntarily taking, of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat.
It’s easy for parents of tweens and younger children to lambast social media as a scourge to avoid entirely. But while the idea of a childhood entirely free of social media is enticing, a zero-sum approach to social media is not realistic, even for the tween-and-under set. Like my daughter, children are bound to stumble into sticky situations where their self-worth is questioned, and they need to be given the tools to manage their own expectations as well as those of others. Instead of banning the Recolor app, Dube and her son “ended up having several great conversations about the ‘like’ phenomenon.” Dube’s son “has a ‘you’re not the boss of me’ attitude,” so she tries “to apply that attitude to our digital world — social media is not the boss of you!”
Carol Sutton Lewis of is adamant that children need be taught to “understand the negatives, such as insecurity about one’s self-image,” that come with these types of apps and the social media outlets they are frequently attached to. Of course, like everything for the under-12 set, “parents should be clear on the boundaries,” Sutton Lewis continues, “and encourage their young children to come talk with them about anything happening on social media that they don’t understand or that concerns them.”
It’s perfectly fine to treat selfie apps like you would a scary movie.
If all of this seems daunting, or if your child doesn’t seem capable of handling these big issues, it’s perfectly fine to treat selfie apps and other forms of social media like you would a scary movie or a roller coaster — let your kids wait, however impatiently, until you truly feel they are ready. Dr. Roggeman suggests that parents work with their children to create milestones for different types of social media or apps, establishing “benchmarks at which kids can earn the privilege for each platform.” For example, after the introduction of one social media platform is successful, “trust is earned, and they might be allowed to create an Instagram account.” Walsh maintains that it is crucial to make children prove themselves before being allowed to join additional social media platforms. “This delayed gratification communicates that using an app or participating on social media is a privilege which they have earned, and this privilege must be protected.”
Tonda Bunge Sellers of agrees with this approach, saying that it is important to initially eschew the more interactive social media players like Instagram and Snapchat. Instead she encourages parents to “start small” and “take quality time to explore social media together while letting the kid lead.” Some age-appropriate social media sites Sellers recommends are Lego.com, Kudos.com, and , a new style of connected play within a social network for kids under 12.
In my household, we’re rolling back to social media 1.0. I let the babysitter know that we’re not ready for Snapchat and other apps that might affect our children’s sense of self, and are instead focusing on forms of social media and apps, like Roblox, where they can learn skills and build self-esteem and eventually communities in ways that aren’t related to their physical appearance.