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How to Empower Young People in the Age of Social Media: Supporting Body Acceptance & Self-Compassion

Let’s create environments where everyone can accept and care for their body. As young people navigate social media and conflicting messages about their bodies, what can adults do to support and empower them?

How Are Young People Experiencing the Effects of Social Media?

“Eventually, I couldn’t stand the unhappiness of it all and I deleted the app… Social media makes you feel like you are less than you are.”Laura (Philadelphia, PA)

“I do still struggle with my [gender] dysphoria, and I still sometimes struggle with making comparisons. But social media has also given me a place of comfort, knowing that others struggle and relate like I do and that I’m not alone in this experience.”  – Ashton (Glendale, CA)

It is very helpful to show regular bodies and people who are happy in the body they are in [on social media]. It makes me feel better and happier that people can see what everyday people look like.”  – Lila (Philadelphia, PA)

Create Safe and Affirming Environments to Encourage Body Acceptance and Self-Compassion

If you’re worried about the impact of social media on the young people in your life and its effects on their body image, you’re not alone. Even when we know that our appearance doesn’t determine our worth, the perpetuation of harmful beauty standards, presence of bullying and online harassment, the lack of representation of people with diverse bodies, and the oppression and institutional mistreatment of BIPOC, disabled, and trans, nonbinary, and intersex folks all impact how we perceive our worth and care for ourselves. While social media is a place where many people create and perpetuate harm (intentionally and not), it is also a place where inclusion and acceptance are possible.

It’s more important now than ever to support young people to determine for themselves how they want to engage with social media. Difficult experiences around our bodies can coincide with feelings of joy, appreciation, comfort and acceptance, especially when our environments support our resilience and healing. Rather than trying to eliminate young peoples’ experiences of shame or pain on social media, our goal is to create the conditions and experiences that help youth acknowledge and address difficult experiences while also treating themselves with self-compassion and care.  

Parents, caregivers, and professionals can help create environments where youth can focus on their experiences, needs, and connection with others. This doesn’t require controlling or limiting young people’s access to social media. There are many ways that we can empower and encourage youth as they navigate their relationships with social media. 

Questions You Can Ask

Keep in Mind: The impact and effects of social media are personal and different for everyone based on their lived experience and identity. Avoid making assumptions about the young person’s experience with social media.

  • What do you enjoy and dislike about social media?

  • What things help you feel at home in your body, and what things make you feel uneasy?

  • When was the last time you felt proud, ashamed, or something else about your appearance while on social media? What created those feelings?

  • Are there times when you don’t think about your appearance?

  • How does your body help you do the things you love to do?

Things You Can Do to Create Healing Environments

Keep in Mind: Though experiences of shame can be painful, the goal is not to eliminate these experiences for the young person. We all feel shame for different reasons; and this is not a fault. In fact, being able to regulate your emotions can even increase self-esteem, confidence and lead to a more fulfilling life (Wilson & Elmer 2022). Instead, focus on creating conditions where young people can accept and care for themselves under the pressures of social media. Such conditions will help to encourage body acceptance and self-compassion.

  • Model self-compassion and compassion for others.

    • Acknowledge your own complexity and ways that you may struggle with self-acceptance. Identify things that have contributed to your healing, and things that trigger negative self-talk or feelings of shame. 
    • When you haven’t modeled self-compassion around a young person (e.g., put yourself down), it might be a good idea to talk about it after the fact and acknowledge how it may have affected them. 
    • When talking about other people, try to say less about their appearance and focus more on other qualities. 
    • Remind the young person of something you love or appreciate about them. 
  • Suggest accounts for them to follow that have positive messaging around body image (see below).

  • Encourage them to unfollow accounts that don’t spark genuine joy and manage followership.

    • Things that are positive on the surface might ultimately cause us psychological/emotional distress, self-judgment, or disempowerment – e.g., some fitness or weight loss inspiration content might create a sense that people cannot/should not trust their intuition about when they need to eat or move their body.
    • Encourage young people to seek help if they need it e.g., they are worried about the consequences of unfollowing a friend, someone who makes them feel judged or self-conscious is following them, they want to know more about privacy, etc. 
  • Increase comfort and ease. 

    • Create an environment where they can think less about their appearance. This might look like replacing a mirror in the hallway with some art, putting pictures of the young person in a photo album/scrapbook instead of putting them out on display, providing a variety of snacks and avoid categorizing them as “healthy” or “unhealthy. 
  • Have age-appropriate conversations about classism, racism, and gender expression.

    • Systems of oppression are deeply intertwined both with social media and with the way we think about our bodies, appearance, clothing, and self-expression. 
  • Provide resources and support to help them express themself and feel at home in their body (see below). 

    • Something as simple as nail polish or helping them learn how to take care of their hair. It might also look like connecting them to a dietitian or helping them set boundaries with their friends around discussing appearance. 
    • Explore identity and appearance – do they need gender-affirming clothing or care? Do their family members differ or share similarities in hair texture, facial structure, body shape, skin color? Affirm the young person’s identity and appearance by encouraging them to express themselves freely, providing resources, offering emotional support, and connecting them to community as needed.