Many parents come to me with questions regarding how they can help their kids navigate the vast and ever changing social media landscape that is ingrained in our lives and culture. It comes up regularly as I train sex therapists too - like today for example, a clinician wondered how they can support a parent whose eight-year-old daughter had come home from school recently announcing if she didn’t get a phone soon she would not have any friends!
Whether we like it or not, social media influences us deeply. Thanks to the internet, we have constant access to a great big, and often scary world at our fingertips.
Researchers reported recently that American teenagers spend 9 or more hours a day with digital technology— whether that be streaming video, listening to music, scrolling through social media, browsing the internet for fun, or playing games. Think about it this way— the sheer volume of media and technology that our kids spend time with each day often exceeds the time they spend in school, with family and friends, even sleeping or anything else!
While media and technology are so present in our lives, there is often a generational gap between parents and their children in understanding how they experience and use technology to consume media. Many parents were introduced to social media long after their adolescent years, whereas today, it seems babies are introduced to screens for the first time not long after they’re born. It’s hard to keep up as the internet and technology have developed exponentially faster within the last decade. Every day there seems to be a new app, new filter, new hashtag or trend (don’t get me started on fake news). More and more kids say they want to be “influencers” when they grow up, something their parents would never have imagined a possibility at their age.
This disconnect often spurs silence, fear, and ignorance, resulting in shame that surrounds conversations around media and sexuality.
The fact is we live in a country where there are 26 states where comprehensive sex-education is not required. Media literacy is a huge part of K-12 students development. If kids don’t have an open dialogue at school or home, they will be left in the dark to their own devices (literally) “learning” about sexuality from porn,
media, and from their peers.
While media images have long played a role in mental, sexual and body image, kids are growing up increasingly overexposed and underprepared to sift through the messaging. We can’t afford to be silent around these subjects anymore or rely simply on parental blocks and controls to prevent our children’s exposure to sexually explicit content or cyberbullying.
Social media influences our very concept of beauty and self-worth, impacts how we look at ourselves, what products we buy, and has the potential to shape our values and desires. A systematic review of 20 papers published in 2016 found that photo-based activities, like scrolling through Instagram or posting pictures of yourself, were a particular problem when it came to negative thoughts about your body.
It’s easy to feel that social media is all bad when we focus on these negative consequences, but in fact the reality is more nuanced! I love what Dr. Emily Nagoski wrote in her book Come As You Are and feel it applies especially to navigating the world online.
“Treat cultural messages about sex and your body like a salad bar. Take only the things that appeal to you and ignore the rest. We’ll all end up with a different collection of the stuff on our plates, but that’s how it’s supposed to work.” -Emily Nagoski
Along with all the junk that is available through our vast media landscape, thankfully there’s a great emergence of those who are fighting against the idealized and fake depictions of beauty and life and instead are promoting body positivity and mental health resources for the general public!
Like a healthy diet, we can remove/unfollow the accounts that don’t serve us and replace them with a healthy serving of accounts that celebrate a variety of authentic bodies, experiences and mindsets. We ultimately have control of what we eat, what we watch and read, who we follow and what we choose to share with the world.
Social media has also allowed for an increase in representation of cultures, bodies, and experiences that are so desperately needed as kids are growing up. There are a whole slew of resources and a movement of body positive influencers, clinicians, mental health professionals and educators (myself included) who are carving out havens for followers online!
Since February is Body Awareness month, I wanted to share my own list of Instagram accounts that can be helpful for parents, individuals, professionals, and kids who are looking for support! I would love to hear of similar accounts you follow, or resources you’ve found helpful. As consumers, our voice is the most powerful tool we have to influence change in our culture beyond voting, so it’s important we follow those who are bringing positivity, truth, and diversity into the media landscape more so than ever before.
I encourage parents to walk alongside their kids in developing a list of accounts that can spark important conversations, are representative of the values they want to instill, promote body-positivity, mental health and education as well. Follow them together and ask your child questions about the content and how it makes them feel!
I often share from these accounts on my own Instagram, so make sure you’re tuned in by following @drtinashamelesssex and checking in on my website resources page often!
Instagram handles for the body & sex-positive accounts pictured above