For many people, social media has become a significant part of daily life. For adolescents, it has become even more than that. It is the venue for friendship, connection, self-expression and community. It can also be a source of misinformation, negative comparison and triggers for an adolescent struggling with an eating disorder. Anyone who uses social media would do well to consider the impact of social media on how we feel about ourselves, and especially individuals in recovery. As a parent, it is important to have conversations about how the digital world of social media makes a person feel. Whether you want to take a closer look at your own relationship with social media or are a parent who wants to address the potential pitfalls of social media with an adolescent, here are some questions you can ask to get a conversation going:
“What do like to do with social media?”
As a self-reflection question, this gets us to think about the role social media plays in our lives. As a question from a parent to an adolescent, it helps give parents important information about where to take the conversation. For example, if an adolescent says that they mostly use social media to keep track of pictures of their friends, a useful conversation can ensue about how the images on social media are not always representative of a person’s ordinary appearance. People usually don’t take “selfies” when they first get out of bed in the morning or when they are feeling down. This reminds adolescents that some of the images they see on social media are not realistic, even if they come from a peer. Pictures of others on social media can be triggers for someone with an eating disorder because they may anchor in their mind an unrealistic standard to which someone might negatively compare themselves.
“Have you ever experienced a time in which looking at social media made you feel bad about yourself?”
This is a useful question for a person to reflect on, and if the answer is ‘yes’ it invites you to consider why you would continue to do something that makes you feel bad. In a conversation with an adolescent, this question can help normalize negative feelings that can occur with comparisons from social media, and let them know you are aware this happens and you are there to support them, without judgment. This could also help them identify the specific triggers that make them feel bad, shaping them into becoming more savvy and cautious social media users in general.
“Do you post or comment on social media, and if so, what?”
Even as adults, it’s easy to forget that posts or comments we make on social media are part of our permanent record. Sometimes our desire to respond or react to something with the false sense of anonymity the phone screen provides can override our better judgment in the moment. Imagine how hard it is for an adolescent to keep this in mind. A conversation about social media triggers should involve exploring how they would feel if someone commented negatively on their posts, or could help them feel confident in the face of social commentary. Also, inquiring about why and what they post or comment on, can help them reflect upon their motivations for doing so, and in some instances encourage them to re-evaluate whether they get the kinds of outcomes they want from their social media use.
“I want you to know that social media can be triggering. If something upsets you on social media, you can tell me about it.”
This would be a reassuring closing statement to a conversation with an adolescent about social media triggers, but also think of it as something encouraging you could apply to yourself. For an adolescent it is helpful to know that as they navigate the tenuous waters of a powerful tool such as social media, they will have a steadfast ally such as their parent to help them steer the ship.
For someone in recovery from an eating disorder, social media should be approached with caution. Especially in the early stages of recovery, a person’s mindset may not be resolved enough to tolerate the onslaught of triggering images, misguided nutritional advice or commentary from others. Once a person is further along in their recovery, their mental filter gets stronger and they are able to weed out the unhelpful aspects of social media without it jeopardizing their progress. If you are a parent of a teen who is grappling with body image issues, disordered eating, or self-esteem, having a conversation about social media triggers would be a great way to be of help.
Matt Keck, MFT is Co-founder and CEO of Cielo House Comprehensive Eating Disorder Treatment Programs. He works with individuals and families to have important conversations that support those struggling with Eating Disorders.