The Dark Side Of Social Media And What Parents Can Learn From Instagram

by Gretchen Kelly
Originally Published: 
supersizer / Getty Images (left photo)

When I was 13, I didn’t know what “body image” was. I had never heard of BMI. It was 1986, and we lived on processed foods and MTV and aerosol hair spray.

I didn’t know what body image was, but I knew what it meant to scrutinize every inch of my body, carefully documenting every flaw. The world was much smaller back then. There were long phone calls with friends and chain letters and Friday nights at the Dollar Theatre. Viral meant you were probably puking your guts out, and social had nothing to do with media.

I was awkward and insecure and indulged in self-hatred on boring summer nights while flipping through the pages of Seventeen magazine. I would pause to examine myself in the mirror over my dresser. Should I start plucking my eyebrows? Why doesn’t my leotard fit me like the girl on the cover? Comparison is the thief of joy, they say. Tell that to any 13-year-old girl, and she’ll give you a look that will age you 20 years.

Can any of us imagine what it’s like to come of age now, in the infancy of social media? When the world is wide open for our kids to witness and interact with, but safeguards are few. When even tech wizards and Silicone Valley’s finest aren’t sure how to tame the beast they’ve set upon the world. Our kids are navigating waters we never even had to swim in. We’re on shore, mostly unaware that the waters are dangerously choppy.

We know about cyberbullying. We wake up in cold sweats thinking about our kids finding their way to internet porn. We lecture them about keeping their accounts private and turning off location services. But we can’t control everything.

The social media that teens flock to is all image-based: Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat. The world we grew up in had billboards and advertisements. Their world has a constant stream of photos and memes and videos. It’s not all bad. There is great humor, limitless access to knowledge, inclusiveness, and connection with people of all nationalities and races and genders. In many ways, it’s a beautiful thing.

But as parents, we need to be aware of the darker sides of social media:


Thigh gaps. Bikini bridges. The belly button challenge.

And damaging phrases and mantras:

“I know it hurts, but starving works.”

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” #Ana #Mia #Thinspo #Bonespo #Cutting #SelfHarm #Suicide

Ana = Anorexia. Mia = Bulimia. These are friendly names given to something destructive and life-threatening. Social media is awash with ways for young girls to measure themselves and to take it to unhealthy levels. By the time you stumble upon a #Thinspo community, you are already knee-deep in the normalization of diet/body obsession and eating disorders. Anorexia is not a “lifestyle choice.” It’s a mental disorder. But does your 13-year-old know the difference? If you look at the #Ana tag on Instagram, there are 7,501,456 posts. Anorexia and bulimia are nothing new, but now there are places online that will teach you how. How to fast and how to hide it. How to embrace it and celebrate it. That is the difference between 1986 and 2020.

While you contemplate all of this, consider that more than half of girls and a third of boys ages 6–8 think they are too fat. By age 7, 1 in 4 kids has engaged in some kind of dieting behavior. The problem can start well before the teen years. By the time they reach their teens, they are grappling with body image. They are engaging in self-objectification, viewing themselves in the way they think others see them. And it’s also the age when many of them are joining social media.

Images are powerful. Our kids are embedding them every day. When those images include emaciated figures or thin model bodies that are unachievable for 98% of the population, what does that do to a malleable mind? How do we counter the influence?

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has been working on that. Along with other groups that work to prevent suicide and self-harm, they teamed up with Instagram to create a tool for users. If a user types in #Ana, #Mia, or any number of self-destructive tags, they will see this warning:

via Instagram

If they click “Get Support,” they will see this:

via Instagram

And if a friend sees someone post something indicating self-destructive behavior, they can report the post to Instagram who will review it. If they deem it as problematic, they will send the following message to the user: “Can we help?” followed by a longer message that says, “Someone saw one of your posts and thinks you might be going through a difficult time. If you need support, we’d like to help.”

This gentle approach is purposeful — nonaccusatory, concerned, available.

NEDA CEO Claire Mysko says, “We really see the value in meeting people where they are. And we know that in every demographic, but particularly the younger demographic, there are a lot of people who use social media all day and very day. …. So the ability to work with social media platforms to direct people to resources and help is hugely powerful.”

Eating disorders aren’t necessarily caused by exposure to images and ideas on social media. But experts warn that it can open doors for vulnerable children as well as exacerbate the disease in those who are already struggling. A 2011 study of 248 young women, ages 12 to 19, found that more exposure to social media contributed to higher rates of eating disorders and related concerns. The study also showed lack of parental social media involvement increased negative body image and disordered eating.

As parents, we can take a cue from Instagram and NEDA: Monitor our kids’ social media. If we see something concerning, we can approach them gently, try to get them to open up to us about what they are going through, provide comfort and resources, and be non-accusatory, concerned, and available.

Set limits or prohibit social media as you see fit. Every child is different, and no parenting solution is universal. If your teen is on social media, spend more time talking to them about it than condemning it. It’s not all bad, and if you come at it from that mindset, they may not tell you when it becomes troubling for them.

Teach your daughters and your sons at a young age about unrealistic body image expectations. Point it out when you see it perpetuated in media. Explain to them that the body type that is hardest to achieve in any given society is the body type that is imposed on women. In other words, it’s hard to achieve by design. Teach them that their value is in their hearts and their minds, not in how their body looks. Rinse and repeat, over and over.

The world is much more serious for kids growing up in the digital age. It’s not all silly memes and selfies. It’s a world at the fingertips, for good and for bad. In many ways, I envy the moms of the ’80s. They worried that Madonna was teaching us to be rebellious and promiscuous or that MTV would be the decline of civilization. But they knew what we were watching on TV. They could walk into our bedrooms and see which magazines we were reading. They could overhear us chatting on the phone with our friends. Without too much effort, they were able to keep up with what we were doing and what and who we were exposed to.

Parenting in 2020 is going to require us to wade into those choppy waters. Learning about and keeping up with ever-changing technology. Staying vigilant. Instagram is trying to help, but it’s not a replacement for involved parenting. It’s offering our kids a lifeline when they enter into dangerous territory online. As parents, we need all the help we can get, especially when it comes to our kids on social media. But the lifeline we offer will very likely be the most important.

Here are some resources for parents of teens struggling with self-destructive behaviors:

Tips for Parents and Caregivers About Eating Disorders

Information for Parents of Depressed Teens, Suicide Prevention

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