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We Need to Talk About Social Media & Teen Perfectionism

By Linda Olszewski, PsyD 

It’s hard to remember that slicing a watermelon used to mean seeing the unique, speckled patterns of the black seeds. Sun World International’s introduction of the seedless watermelon in 1988 changed the way we experience the fruit. A “slice of vanished Americana,”  the black-dotted, refreshing fruit has been replaced by the sleek, crisp and less flavorful seedless variety. The original seed-studded fruit has not only quickly disappeared from the American market but seems to have also vanished from the American psyche. In the quest for perfection, this slice of Americana has lost color, flavor and nutrients. Going seedless has also changed the way we eat the fruit. We went from preferring it sliced in wedges to enjoying the fruit in little cubes (à la fruit salad).

This made me think about how the internet has changed us.

I (along with many other parents, educators and psychologists) asked myself: how has social media changed the way we think and socialize, without us even noticing? Like with eating seedless watermelon, it’s difficult to remember a time when we didn’t have access to the internet and social media. More than anything else, the idea that I keep coming back to is perfectionism.

In our culture, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on being (or at least appearing) perfect, or “seedless.”  Our flaws might be understood as our “seeds,” which give us our individuality, or “flavor.” It may sound cliché, but we are all beautifully different and have different strengths and areas with room for growth. Our flaws make us us, and they make the world we live in more wonderful and interesting. In addition, adolescence is all about taking risks, making mistakes and exploring identity. Teens need to feel comfortable being imperfect in order to grow into themselves!

The pressure to be perfect is of course nothing new.

Young people have long had to deal with the pressure to succeed in school and present a certain image of themselves to the public. But the proliferation of social media has dramatically changed the role that perfection plays in young people’s lives. Social media follows teens home in a way that is unprecedented. Teens may have always felt the pressure to be seen as popular and likeable, but now that pressure extends to how many friends and follows they have on social media and how many people like their posts. In addition to thinking about how to present themselves in person, they now must curate their online persona. This often involves projecting a carefully controlled, “perfect” version of themselves that is always happy and charming.

Of course, no one is happy all the time and no one is perfect. But teens scroll through friends’ and celebrities’ Instagram feeds and see the opposite message. Too often, this leads to young people feeling inadequate and anxious.

Parents also need to look at their own behavior—and I don’t just mean following their own rules about phone-free dinners.

Parents sometimes focus on academic, athletic, or social success rather than overall well-being. This can unwittingly promote the pursuit of perfection through sometimes unspoken expectations. This pressure has a very real effect on teens’ mental health. During the academic year, teens are reporting higher levels of stress than adults. A recent study has shown a link between higher rates of teen depression and time spent on the internet (which I talk more about here).

The good news is that parents can play a central role in providing relief from this stress. Parents can help their teens navigate this new landscape by encouraging family and social time, and having open conversations about mindfulness and emotional health.

In the end, demonizing social media is a fruitless effort (pun intended). Instead, it may be more effective to take a closer look at the pressure to be “seedless” and achieve “perfection” both academically and socially. Could we slow down and once again embrace the seeds of imperfection? I think the answer is yes—and this change has to start with families.

Linda Escobar Olszewski, PsyD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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