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The Dangers of Selfie Culture and How You Can Help Your Kids

“I only got 10 likes in the last 5 minutes. Do you think I should take it down? Let me take another selfie.”

– Lyrics from “Let Me Take a Selfie” by Chainsmokers

Let me take a selfie.

Oxford Dictionaries declared “selfie” the “Word of the Year” in 2013 because the frequency of the word’s use had increased 17,000 percent over the previous 12 months. Now, just three years later, mental health professionals, educators, researchers, and parents share increasing concerns of the impact of the selfie culture on children and teens.

With more than 1.5 billion human beings owning smart phones, almost all of which are equipped with a rear-facing camera, it’s not surprising that the selfie is part of our language and culture. And kids learn from those around them, especially their parents and siblings, according to Rachel Annunziato, PhD, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Fordham University in New York.

“It seems like taking selfies is ubiquitous and therefore kids most certainly are learning that this is what trusted loved ones do,” Annunziato says.

Taking the occasional selfie isn’t necessarily a bad thing and Annunziato suggests that the practice can be just a game young children play. “It’s mainly to have fun taking pictures and making funny faces,” she says.

“But I think the pitfalls occur when kids become unduly focused on how they look and how others perceive them. Then I’d start to be concerned about the threat to self-esteem or body image. And certainly there are additional concerns if they are posting selfies on media where they can be picked apart or bullied.”

Body image issues and eating disorders.

Dr. Allison Chase, executive director of the Eating Recovery Center in Austin, Texas, says that the introduction of the selfie culture has resulted in kids comparing and evaluating themselves against their peers constantly.

“This is particularly challenging for kids and teens as they are trying to figure out who they are and what their identity is,” she says. “Therefore, having to try to stage themselves constantly to look a certain way or keep up with other peers can be challenging.”

The other problem lies in the fact that we live in a society that promotes beauty, the thin ideal, success and popularity according to Chase.

Chase says that while eating disorders are caused by a number of factors – both biological and environment – it does appear that the obsession with social media and the selfie culture is contributing to more focus on appearance, and increased criticism and pressure on kids to appear as they would like to be perceived. She adds that research has shown constant viewing of social media to increase negative feelings about oneself.

“The pressure for an ideal body image can lead to unhealthy eating patterns,” Chase says. “Younger children, not just adolescents, are engaging in eating disordered behaviors.”

Travis Stewart, LPC, MATS, director of regional outreach for Castlewood Treatment Centers, also says that while the selfie culture is not responsible for causing eating disorders, it does create a rather pervasive venue for comparison.

“It used to be that our comparison for body image was the other people around us or the media images,” Stewart  says. “Now, girls will take picture after picture of themselves until they get the perfect selfie, constantly comparing themselves to their best self.”

Self-esteem and bullying.

Damaging blows to self-esteem – whether the hits are direct or indirect – are another pitfall of the selfie culture, according to Katie Schumacher, author/lecturer, former teacher, and mother of three. Schumacher launched the “Don’t Press Send Campaign” and app in response to the bullying she was seeing in the cyber world and she did 40 school presentations last year alone on the topic.

“One of the reasons kids take selfies is to post those pictures online. And the purpose of posting online often is to get ‘likes’,”  she says. “The “like” is similar to Pavlov’s dog. If you post something and get a lot of “likes,” it reinforces the feeling of importance and the sense of approval from others. The “like” is the reward. But if you don’t get enough “likes,” you will keep trying to get a better picture from a different angle or with someone more popular.”

Additionally, Schumacher says kids often take selfies and post them with someone in mind who they want to like their post. “They think, ‘ah, the cool kids like me.’ Popularity has now become an actual number game based on likes. That’s real power.”

Unfortunately, it works the opposite way, as well. When a child or teen posts a picture and doesn’t get likes or worse, gets ridiculed, their sense of self worth declines. 

Chase agrees, saying that our cultural norm has resulted in less boundaries for people and others. “All of which are setting up the desire to share more readily and create the illusion of feeling more connected and more “liked,” in a way that is controllable and often times, staged. The end result is a competitive environment with increased self-focus, less true connection and, more often than not, increased self-criticism,” she says.

Schumacher worries that even if kids aren’t critical of themselves, someone else almost certainly is going to be critical for them if we don’t help them navigate the online world more effectively.

“Part of my mission is to teach kids to be kind online and that what they say and write online matters,” Schumacher says. “I’m a grown woman and I couldn’t handle it if someone told me online to drink bleach and die. Young kids psyche’s definitely aren’t strong enough for that.”

Loss of connection.

The world of social media, smart phones, and pictures are contributing to “virtual distance” —  something that Professor Karen Sobel-Lojeski, Ph.D. of Stony Brook University’s Department of Technology and Society discovered in her research.

“Virtual distance is a measure of what is lost when human beings gets translated through the machine,” she says. “My data shows that the more time we spend with mediated technology, the more emotionally disconnected we can get with ourselves and each other.”

Sobel-Lojeski says the biggest downside to kids taking too many pictures of themselves is that they are missing out on so much of their lives.

“Kids need to be having these experiences to draw on later in life, and they are trading off valuable time having direct experiences in exchange for indirect experiences.”

Additionally, the virtual world is designed to be custom made for us, to send us the stuff that we prefer to see. “The web is already a hall of mirrors, showing us the products and advertisements it knows we want to see. So when we are constantly taking pictures of ourselves and reflecting those back to us, our real self gets lost in the translation.”

She actually created a course that she teaches college freshmen called, ironically, “How Technology Saved My Soul.” It’s a one-hour seminar class that helps her students understand themselves in a different relationship to technology, the world, and themselves.

The 11-week class teaches the students about virtual distance through a series of assignments that compare how they feel with, and without, their devices.

“Kids give a presentation at the end and many of them will break down crying. One guy, through tears, told the class how he realized he couldn’t have a conversation with another human being without holding his phone. Many others have said they never realized they could live their lives in a different way because the devices have always been there.”

What can we do?

The good news from Sobel-Lojeski’s research, and the results of her class? Her students experience a significant shift in behavior and perceptions in just 11 weeks.

She is not critical of social media, per se, nor does she think we need to refer to kids as “addicted” to their phones or selfies.

“No one did anything wrong – this is an unintended consequence we never saw coming,” she said of the smart phone/selfie/social media culture.  “It’s not rocket science, it’s just tilting things in another direction.”

How you can help your kids.

1 | Watch impact and frequency.

Annunziato says that just like we correct, but don’t become alarmed by, a child who swears every so often, the same should hold true for selfies.

An occasional selfie isn’t a problem. But if your child is taking lots of selfies and viewing his/her selfies consistently in a negative light, then this may be amplifying or triggering poor self-esteem, she says. In this case, she would recommend intervening.

2 | Start early.

Schumacher says that whenever she gives a presentation to a school district, she encourages school officials to invite parents of kindergartners as well as high schoolers.

“Pick your hard,” I tell parents. “You can have the battles when they are younger or you can have them when they are older. I think it’s easier if you set the hard rules up when they are younger. Once they get to high school, sometimes we’re in damage control mode.”

3 | Be positive and help kids anchor.

Sobel-Lojeski says it does not necessarily help to take away kids phones or to be critical.

“Encourage them to leave the devices at home and go for a walk. Help them anchor to a new set of value systems, anchor to the fact that what is important are those real life experiences,” she says. “But to anchor, they need to know why and how those things are important to you. To do that, we expose them to direct experiences with the world and marry that experience by sharing stories about our own lives. We relate the experience and they will start to see that life lives beyond the screen.”

She adds that, in some ways, we’ve unwittingly deprived our children of what they need – connection to real world experiences and anchors from our own life – and that when we give them those things back, the devices become less powerful and less important.

4 | Have conversations.

Schumaker says that parents need to acknowledge that the “selfie” practice is normal and something kids do.

“But remind them that your job is to make them feel good about who they are. If they like a picture of themselves and want to post it, that’s good. But if they are posting it for reinforcement and they won’t be okay if they don’t get that reinforcement, then maybe they shouldn’t post it. It might be weakening their self-confidence muscle.”

5 | Help them take the power back, give them permission to step away.

Schumacher says she tells kids that when they like a post or a photo, it’s like they wrote it or posted it. “The same goes for not liking it,” she says. “If you don’t like a mean or critical post, and if you speak out against those types of things, that gives you real power.”

Another empowering behavior is to unplug and step away from the device. “Tell your kids that if they are partaking in social media and it’s not making them feel good, they have an escape hatch. They can unfriend, unplug, or step away. Doing those things doesn’t mean you’re unpopular. It means you’re saying that you matter, and you’re exercising your self-confidence muscle.”

6 | Watch for changes in behaviors related to food, eating, or exercise.

Chase says to pay attention to changes in behavior like limiting certain foods and choosing to not eat any meals with the family “In addition, increased exercise can become unhealthy, especially if there is a reduction in food intake,” she says.

“Be aware if they are increasingly more negative about themselves or their appearance.”  Changes in mood and spending less time doing activities they enjoy can also be indicators of a problem.

Of course, if parents suspect serious threats to the physical and mental health of their children, they should contact a professional.

7 | Set boundaries and limits.

In the end, it’s important for parents to set boundaries for their children. “Parents need to remember that having a phone is a privilege and while it may be important for safety or communication, setting limits around other uses is absolutely acceptable,” Chase says.

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Ah, back to school time. The excitement of a new year for our kids and the impossibly busy schedule for their mamas. Anyone else get to the end of the day and think, "What did I even DOOO today, and why am I so exhausted?" 🙋

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New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

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The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

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"It's miserable," Bell recently told POPSUGAR. "It's awful no matter who's doing what. And I'll tell you right now, the 3- and 5-year-old aren't doing jack."

Anyone who has ever tried to wrangle a preschooler out of their pajamas, to the breakfast table, then into their school clothes and backpack at seven o'clock in the morning knows exactly what Bell is talking about. She says some days are better than others, but it's hard to know what level of kid-induced chaos you're gonna wake up to on a weekday.

"It depends on their emotional stability, it depends on their attitude toward each other, toward life," Bell told POPSUGAR. "It depends on their developmental stage."

Luckily, Bell has got some backup. She's been open about how she and her husband, Dax Shepard, practice a tag team approach to parenting, and sometimes, Bell gets a chance to tap out of the morning routine. Unfortunately, Shepherd's later schedule means it doesn't happen as often as she would necessarily like.

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Instead of saying "hurry up" or "get in the car, right now,"try to mix up your vocabulary a bit.

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If cereal isn't your jam or your kids need something hotter, and more substantial in the morning, cooking up breakfast can be a major hurdle on hectic mornings.

Check out these Pinterest perfect make-ahead morning meals, like breakfast enchiladas or egg muffins, and make mornings a bit easier on yourself, mama.

3. Bring some Montessori into your mornings

Help your kids take control of their AM destiny by bringing some limited choices (like clothing) into the morning routine and allowing for natural consequences (like having to settle for an apple in the van because they missed breakfast) but also allowing for fun with mom.

"Try doing something simple, with clear boundaries, such as reading two books before it's time to start the morning routine. If they're ready early, you can spend more time together, which is also a great natural incentive," writes Montessori expert Christina Clemer.

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It was a year ago when I was pregnant, parenting a highly-spirited preschooler and also working a full-time job while trying to maintain a part-time side business when I got to the point of I have had enough.

I can't remember exactly what the trigger was, but like most times, it wasn't just one thing but a build-up over time that culminates in a massive meltdown.

You see, I was not getting much appreciation or validation for all of my contributions. This was a time when my partner, too, was working full-time and in graduate school two evenings a week. It was stressful for everyone, but, as the wife and mother, I carried the family through it by tending to the little details: the pick-up and drop-offs, the shopping, the cooking, all the minutiae of everyday life.

So, after perseverating on my laundry list of seen and unseen responsibilities, I decided to sit down with pen and paper and make a "day in the life" list from wake-up to bedtime that showed my partner exactly what my day entailed—a day that supported two other people in the house and one in the oven.

Even I was surprised to see all of the things listed out in 15-minute increments. On paper, it actually looked even worse than it felt. I thought to myself about how much physical, mental and emotional energy I expend in this hectic season of our lives. And I didn't regret it for a minute.

However, back to my original complaint…I still wanted to be validated for it. I needed to be seen for both the implicit and explicit tasks and expectations in my day-to-day.

So I handed my list over to my husband, expecting him to be awakened to the fact I was indeed working in overdrive and for him to be grateful for all the ways that I take so many burdens off of him so that he can be successful in school and his career.

Instead of that, his response almost put me into a state of shock. He read over the list and then said, "I know. You are Superwoman."

His words, like kryptonite, left me speechless. Part of me knew that his intent was for this to be a compliment, but it felt so invalidating. It completely missed the mark, and instead of leaving me feeling appreciated, I felt less understood.

Superheroes have innate superpowers that I imagine they use with ease. In fact, they are expected to use their powers and perhaps that is their sole purpose. No one ever looks to a superhero and asks, "Do you need a break?" And as a feminist, I sure as heck believe women are strong and powerful. But the idea of being labeled a "superwoman" did not feel empowering.

I already know I am efficient, capable, strong and fierce. But, I am also fatigued, sometimes overworked and underappreciated, and worst of all expected to be the one that keeps it together for everyone else.

What I learned about through my research of who Superwoman really is was this: her powers always wear off by the end of the story. Turns out these so-called "superpowers" really are temporary. That I can relate to.

I am only human and there are days and weeks where I feel on top of the world, days where I can manage it all with ease. I can be up all night nursing a baby, take both kids to school, and show up on time for a 9:00 am meeting with a French pastry I baked from scratch. I can push through the exhaustion and demands every day…until I can't.

And it's not just my spouse who uses this label. I have well-meaning girlfriends who have also tossed the term out there as if it was meant to be a feather in my cap.

When things get tough, I appreciate the texts of support my girlfriends send me. Even when they are far away, it's nice to know someone cares when everyone in your house has the stomach flu while your partner is out of the country. It's comforting to be able to share the ups and downs of trying to balance a career with a growing family.

But when the text comes in and says something like, "I don't know how you do all that. You are a supermom!" I feel like there should be an auto-reply that says, "Connection lost."

The thing is, I don't want to be elevated to superhero status for living my life. It is not heroic and it's probably not too far off from what every other devoted partner and mother provides their family. But, this is what I think we need, what we are starving for. We need someone to say, "How are you doing?" or, "What have you done lately to care for yourself?" or, "Thank you for all that you do and who you are."

Those are the kinds of words that let me know I am seen and make me feel validated when I am working the hardest. They let me know that the people I love the most see me, and not a cape.

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