Singer Tate McRae feels the pressure to be perfect. It even inspired the 18-year-old to write “All I Wanna Be,” which is all over the radio and playlists right now.
“I initially wrote it because I was in a horrible mood, you know, comparing myself to all these beautiful women online,” she told USA Today.
McRae isn’t alone. You don’t have to be a celebrity—or a teen—to feel the pain of social comparison, whether around looks, likes, career, or friend count.
We all want to be our best and look our best but none of us is perfect, including the seemingly “perfect” people we see on social media. That amazing look, that perfect vacation, that great-looking car or house, or that awesome social life probably isn’t as perfect as it looks.
When it comes to physical appearance, not everyone can be a supermodel, and even supermodels don’t look as perfect in their day-to-day lives as they do in professionally produced photos and videos after spending a lot of hours and a lot of money on make-up, wardrobe and, in some cases, plastic surgery. Besides, we live at a time when the world is increasingly embracing diversity when it comes to standards of beauty and self-worth. This is especially true for younger generations.
“Compare and despair”
Dr. Tracy Bennett, a clinical psychologist and founder of getkidsinternetsafe.com, calls the pressure to be perfect “compare and despair.”
“Children now are inundated by images, many that are changed through style, through makeup, through changing the photo image, and through plastic surgery, making it impossible to really live up to those standards. If you’re comparing yourself to an image that’s not even possible in real life, or maybe a supermodel, that’s one in 3 million; you’re never going to measure up. So, you can’t put all your eggs in that basket,” she said. Instead of mainly focusing on appearance, it’s important to appreciate and develop “those parts of yourself other than looks that make us valuable to society.”
Pause and reflect
Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Digital Wellness Lab, said the problem is “not social media per se but how (teens) use it and what they use it for.” Some teens, he said, “are using social media to market themselves to the world. They’re using it the same way that companies are,” and this is all happening at a time when kids are intensely aware of their bodies, which are changing in confusing ways, and they’re feeling new feelings that they’ve never felt before, and “they’re intensely self-aware.”
He advises his patients to “take a pause to lower the hyperstimulation” and “to reflect on what is going on for them. Are they communicating with people? Are they showing off for people? Are they competing with people?” and to remind teens that “it’s the real connections that matter.” He said he often urges youth “to use their online communications in a mindful and purposeful and intentional way and remain authentic to themselves.”
How parents can help
Drs. Rich and Bennett, and almost every other expert we’ve consulted, recommend that parents engage in regular non-threatening conversations with their teens about how social media use impacts them. Ask them how they feel when they go online and be a listener, not a lecturer. Work with them to help them better understand and cope with their feelings. If you think your teen needs additional help, consult an expert, be it a psychologist, pediatrician, or school counselor. Don’t overreact by taking away their phone or their online access but help them develop the skills and life balance they need to cope in today’s world. If you or someone close to you is in crisis, consider contacting the Crisis Text Line at crisistextline.org or texting Home to 741741.
Advice from a recent teenager
When it comes to the pressure to be perfect, 21-year-old Trisha Prabhu, who is ConnectSafely’s youth advisor and creator of the ReThink app, blogged, “I get it, and trust me, you’re not alone.” She said she frequently gets requests from friends “asking me to go like and comment on that selfie ASAP, or their life will be over ahhhhh!”
Trisha advises anxious friends to “take a deep breath. Remember: the people you see on social media are not perfect. Instead, they’ve curated their lives to make it seem like they are. Not only is this perfection not real, thinking about it can be unhealthy. ”
Still, it’s tempting to want to look great even if you are faking but, added Trisha, “it’s worth taking a second to reflect: why? Is it possible that you’re attributing your self-worth to the number of likes on a photo or the number of followers on an account? As cheesy as this may sound, you are invaluable. It’s easy to fall into thinking cute pics = lots of likes = happier me, but the real reality is cute pics = lots of likes. And that’s pretty much it.”
All of our experts agree that being authentic is more gratifying than trying to fake being perfect. “Think about it,” said Trisha, “it’s not perfectly curated videos that go viral, it’s accidental TikToks and hilarious Finstas that we appreciate. In that spirit, be authentic. Don’t just use social media to celebrate the wins; share those tough days, too (we all have them!). Go filterless with #nofilter. Feeling nervous about that? Have a friend join in if it makes you more comfortable. And if you’re looking for a little inspiration, ask yourself: what are you currently doing on social media that makes you happy, and what are you doing to make other people happy? Embrace the former, and ditch the latter.”