Your kids really care about whether what they post on their favorite social media sites gets any attention.
Researchers at the University of Texas confirmed how important it is for teens to be "liked" on social media in a new study that was published in the journal Child Development.
Social media "is tapping into something that is fundamentally human: the need for approval," says David Yeager, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology at UT. "The core idea is that we seek approval, and sometimes it’s never enough."
Yeager and the team, which includes former student Hae Yeon Lee and Chris Beevers, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at UT who leads the Institute for Mental Health Research, as well as researchers at the University of Rochester, have been collecting data since 2014 and seen this need for approval increase exponentially, he says.
Some key findings: Kids who have previously been victimized by things like bullying are more strongly harmed by getting fewer likes even though the way the study was set up was designed to not cause harm or have long-lasting effects.
What the researchers would do is have ninth grade students "test" out a new social media platform. Everyone would set up their profile, and then they could like each other’s profiles. Then the researchers would set it so that everybody would get likes, but randomly some people would get fewer likes. The participants could see how they ranked in likes. In the app, it randomly ranked them as either 11th out of 12 participants or second out of 12 participants.
In those kids who got fewer likes, some were resilient and some felt badly rejected.
The kids also were asked about their previous experiences with being bullied, feeling excluded and more.
At the end of that day, the kids were told that there was a problem in the script as to why different people got different numbers of likes.
Even so, researchers could see that kids felt mild stress around the number of likes they received. That stress, though, changed based on past experience.
"The kids who are bullied offline have reason to wonder if they are not getting enough likes because these people don’t like them," Yeager says. "It’s the ’why’ question that really nags at young people."
They define themselves as not being a good person or worthy of likes. "Bullied kids say it’s because ‘I’m just not a fundamentally likable person.’"
The kids who have not been bullied tend to believe there is something they can do, something within the app to do to get more likes. It doesn’t go to the heart of them as a person being not worthy of likes.
A second study asked the students to keep a 10-day diary of stresses and stress responses and then did a follow up eight months later on depressive symptoms. Those kids who felt more intensely rejected by receiving fewer likes in the study also had more negative response to stressors and continued to show depressive symptoms eight months later.
A third study compared the reaction to the frequency of prior peer victimization to see if there was a correlation. It replicated the findings of the first study as far as self-esteem being tied to likes, and it also showed the amplification of feelings of rejection in kids with more prior peer victimization than those who hadn’t had that experience.
Yeager says that in his years of research since 2008, the platforms have changed from Myspace to Facebook to Instagram, but the idea continues that teens are seeking approval through these platforms and that feels bad.
Yeager also has noticed that it’s not even about the comments. It’s about that we can now quantify in numbers of likes someone’s perceived worth.
"Social media is a lens and an accelerator of these problems," Yeager says. "The creator is human nature."
What Yeager believes parents can do is to help kids have real-world validation. That can come through giving them meaningful roles such as volunteering in the community.
"We know, again and again, kids who are out in the community contributing in positive ways have resilience, are happier and less depressed," Yeager says. "It’s finding ways to contribute, to do something bigger than yourself."
Social media, Yeager says, is addictive and "is designed to be the thing that can never satisfy you."
In this time of being physically distanced, kids need our encouragement and perspective, as well as healthy interactions with peers.
"Face-to-face interaction is never going to go out of style," he says.