Is Facebook Really to Blame for Our Children’s Low Self-Esteem?

Reader’s Digest published my favorite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” It’s an inspiring saying, and more than 70 years later it’s still printed on posters hanging in dorm rooms across the country.

The first lady probably never uttered these exact words. She said something similar at a press conference, and Reader’s Digest printed a shorter, catchier version. Reader’s Digest was the social media of its day, and its editors knew what kind of content kept readers coming back for more.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve read about recent accusations about Facebook. A whistleblower charges — among many, many other things — that the company knowingly deluges users with addictive content to keep them on Facebook and its picture-sharing platform Instagram.

The most sought-after users are teenagers. And the content was harmful, especially to girls. In an internal study conducted by Facebook that was leaked to the media, 32% of teen girls who already felt bad about their bodies felt worse after looking at Instagram. About 17% reported that their eating disorders worsened, and 13.5% said their suicidal thoughts became more frequent.

You can imagine that this has stirred up a lot of debate, including with me and the people around me. I wanted to share a very interesting conversation I had with an associate on the topic.

Me: So it turns out that Facebook isn’t a force for good in the world. Are we surprised?

Associate: Maybe not, but it is eye-opening that it was doing bad things and decided to sweep it under the rug.

Me: Come on, they’re a for-profit company. If pictures of women with so-called perfect bodies make money, they are going to publish them, even if they end up making teenage girls feel bad about their own bodies. Fashion magazines have done it for decades.

Associate: Exactly. And after people spoke out, they started printing more pictures of models of all sizes.

Me: But this time people aren’t talking about a grassroots effort. They want the government to regulate Facebook. Is that the answer?

Associate: Maybe, if it means that they aren’t targeting teenage girls with images that make them feel bad about themselves. I don’t want my daughters bombarded with stuff like this.

Me: I’m not disagreeing that Facebook and Instagram are affecting young girls' self-image. But do we really believe that if social media suddenly didn’t exist that the problem would be solved?  

Associate: No, that’s why parents need to take the time to talk with their kids about what they’re going to encounter in the world.

Me: I couldn’t agree more!

As a society we went through a similar issue about 20 years ago when parents were concerned that violent video games were making their children — mostly their boys — more aggressive. Legislators across the country wanted to ban Grand Theft Auto and other games even though there was scant evidence that they had any long-term effects on players.

The answer back then, as it is now, lies with parents. We buy the video games, we pay for the internet connections that kids use to log onto social media platforms. The responsibility doesn’t stop when we swipe our credit cards.

Have we gotten a little lazy in terms of our parenting? Have we ceded control to massive corporations? Have we stopped having the hard conversations about things that are going to hurt or confuse or worry them?

What I don’t want is Facebook or any other company limiting what kids will see. After all of this, do we really trust them to make good decisions? And the government shouldn’t be in the business of censoring content. You can bet that if that was the case, out-of-the-box thinkers like Greta Thunberg and Amanda Gorman would also be banned in some parts of the country.

Let’s discuss the internet with our kids. Facebook hasn’t yet set up a “Do’s and Don’ts of Social Media” program, but we as parents can create one of our own. Prepare our children for what they’re going to encounter. Use the internet as an opportunity to enlighten, not control.

Sure, it’s tough. We’re going to make mistakes. We don’t live in a society where people have to take parenting classes — although sometimes I think that might be the BEST idea.

I still love that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, whether or not she phrased it that way or not. It’s the exact message that I’d like young people — including my own daughters — to understand. They’re constantly told that they are less than other people. We, as parents, need to counter that message.

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