Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

 Mirroring social media’s perfection is dangerous for our children

Social media is a huge part of all ours and our children’s lives. If you think about it, most of us live ‘virtual lives’ on several different platforms, posting photographs of our daily adventures, nights out with friends, selfies and even pictures of our dinner to our ‘friends’ and ‘followers’.

People use social media to emphasise their finer points. No one posts a photo of themselves on their worst day, or a snap of their untidy house or when their hair is an unruly mess. It’s always the best side that is promoted.

A favourite pose of our celebrities such as the social media queens, the Kardashians, and mirrored across society is the ‘good morning’ pictures.  People take a shot or a video of themselves waking up looking absolutely amazing. You’re guaranteed that they have spent the last hour in the bathroom, have an inch of ‘natural make-up’ on their faces and have done their hair before getting back into bed for the shot.

Most of us adults know that much of what we see online is posed, fake and has probably taken 10 takes to get ‘just right’.

Pressure to conform

But often for our younger generation, the generation for whom social media is fast becoming the main mode of communication, that sense and maturity is not yet in place and they place extreme pressure on themselves to live up to impossibly unrealistic standards often set by strangers on Instagram.

A friend of mine is an exceptional mental health therapist and spends her life helping young women in particular overcome depression and anxiety.

She commented this week that she has been dealing with scores of young people suffering from depression and feelings of worthlessness, who cite the number of likes they get from their pictures of social media as one of their impacting issues. She said she saw one teen who actually tried to take their own life because of it. Thankfully she was able to help the teen and they are now doing well but she emphasised that strategies need to be put in place to tackle this worrying problem.

This is not a new development. A few years ago a British teenager spoke out in the press after attempting to take his own life for not being able to take the perfect selfie. After spending hours a day taking selfies, losing weight and dropping out of school, he was the first person who was diagnosed with a selfie addiction and was treated in hospital for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

This is a serious issue. And this problem is only going to get worse.

Sinister side to social media

Social media has opened up a whole new world to our teens, which is amazing. But the downside to that is dangerous and sinister.

Where once, when our generation where growing up, we had to look at fashion magazines and television programmes to see images of the ‘perfect body’ or ‘perfect life’, our teens are being bombarded with these images 24/7 on the likes of Instagram and Snapchat as celebrities peddle their wares. Their favourite celebrities are more accessible these days and with them posting photos several times a day, they are feeding our children’s desire for their fix of the celebrity life they often aspire to.

But children’s brains are not wired the way adult ones are and sometimes they cannot see past the lip gloss and sparkling diamonds to realise that the quick Insta shot that their idol is posting took two hours to set up, a crack team of make-up and hair people, designer clothes, studio lighting and about 30 takes to get just right. Because projecting the perfect image is the job of the celebrity, and they can’t send out anything less because it damages their brand.

Social media platforms are brimming with people in competition for followers, likes, shares and retweets. Most of these platforms have filters to make our hair shinier, our teeth whiter and our skin smoother. There are some apps which can slim down our bodies. The image projected online is sometimes so far removed from reality it is almost a caricature. This promotion of ourselves and others as someone we are truly not, this constant craving for validity, is not healthy for any of us, and particularly damaging for our teenagers.

Social media can be a great tool for connecting people, if it is used in the manner it was designed. But in the wrong hands, in our hands, it has morphed into something much more sinister.

Posting selfies online can become a mission to seek approval and can destroy those young people who not capable of withstanding rejection.

Our children need to know that online worlds are not real. They need to know that the real world is real and social media platforms are just for fun, not to mirror or be obsessed about. They are something that can be dipped into and out of from time to time for entertainment, not as a means for them to shape their lives.