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The Internet, Girls, and Self-Esteem

From the age of twelve to at least eighteen, a girl is under constant scrutiny about her body, looks, and sex appeal. We have advanced technologically, but girls still go through the same judgment and peer pressure that their mothers did. Recent evidence suggests that depression increases in teens that are frequently engaged with Facebook. It can create also anxiety with a constant discussion of, “Am I pretty enough? Am I prettier than her? Am I more popular?” It is not appropriate for kids under the age of thirteen to be on Facebook.

The NetGirls Project set out to discover just how damaging a prolonged exposure to the Internet can be on a young girl’s self-image. Dr. Amy Slater, from the School of Psychology at Flinders University in Australia, led the study, which surveyed a thousand girls between the ages of twelve and sixteen. Findings, released last week, found correlations between excessive media use (excessive was defined as more than 3.5 hours a day, but many girls are on over 5 hours a day) and lower self-esteem, body esteem, and depression. The study found that the biggest worry was gaining weight and being unattractive.

The findings are not surprising, but what is unexpected is that the effects do not go away. Many of these girls carry their defeated body image and self-esteem into their college years and beyond. If the teen’s family is not engaged, the Internet fills the empty place in the teen’s life. In fact, it may become the teen’s whole world. Pediatricians are now encouraging parents to talk with their kids about being online and how to recognize depression and anxiety. This is difficult for many parents; anyone who has a teenage girl understands that “moodiness” is common. However, parents should be aware of the signs of depression. If you notice any of the symptoms below for more than two weeks, it is time to take your teenager to the doctor.

  1. Loss of interest in hobbies or activities they used to enjoy

  2. Isolation or avoiding friends

  3. Sleeping all the time or experiencing insomnia

  4. A dramatic increase or decrease in appetite

  5. A notable weight loss or gain (often accompanied with the above)

  6. Lethargic or flat mood

  7. More irritable or easily frustrated

  8. A downward trend in grades

  9. Not wanting to go to school

  10. Weepy, labile moods

When teenagers feel more engaged with the Internet than their parents, a dangerous situation is waiting to happen. Instead of trying to cheer your teenager up, engage her in conversation. Listen, ask how you can help, and talk with her, not at her.

Most women would be intimated to post a photo of themselves online and ask strangers to rate their beauty. Could most adult women survive the honest, sometimes cruel and unforgiving comments? Most likely, the answer would be “NO.” However, our kids are doing it. Young girls have a fragile self-esteem; it is not yet well-established and is often built on what others say about them. I have yet to meet a patient who cannot tell me what someone said or did when they were five or six that hurt their body image and self-esteem. In fact, they may tear up when they recount the story in my office. How can any of us deny that what our girls are seeing on the Internet is affecting them?

If we want to empower women to be a loving partner, mother, and/or career woman, spending more time engaging her as a teenager can help. We must talk to kids about what they are viewing on the Internet, and continually pull them back to their real life and family. Get involved. Talk to your kids, visit the sites they are visiting, and let them know you are there when they need you. The teen years are relatively short, but the decisions can change both you and your child forever. It is easier to make healthy choices in life if you feel good about yourself.


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