T-portal: “The traps of virtual world: Constant comparisons with others can deepen the feelings of insecurity and dissatisfaction”

T-portal reporter Elma Katana spoke with psychologist Tea Brezinšćak on all the ways social networks, such as Facebook and Instagram, can affect the psyche of adolescents and how they can cope with the challenges of virtual reality:

“Psychologist Tea Brezinšćak from the Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb spoke about important aspects of this problem when it comes to adolescents

“We rarely show ourselves to others the way we really are, with all our mistakes, weaknesses and insecurities. We choose the best out of a series of photos, erase the tiny imperfections, tag the interesting places we have visited or photos that prove we are having fun with our friends…Consciously or not, we are choosing the content that depicts us in a way we want others to see us, that is, we try to manage the impression we leave on others.’, explained psychologist Tea Brezinšćak for t-portal and added that the constant exposure to this kind of embellished images of other people’s lives can lead us to start comparing ourselves to others.

Adolescents, because of the developmental phase they are in, highly value the opinion of their peers, have a strong desire to feel accepted and often feel like others are watching and judging them. They are especially vulnerable. Their worries might look exaggerated to adults, but adolescents are just learning to cope with their insecurities. Everybody else’s lives can seem happier and more fulfilling. We may start feeling unhappy with ourselves, not attractive or successful or accepted enough, which is also supported by research. These kinds of feelings can be stronger if our self-image is more fragile, if we are dealing with the emotional burdens of depression or anxiety, if we are lonely or going through a difficult emotional period”, she said.

Research shows that people who suffer from various emotional difficulties or low self-esteem spend more time on social networks.

For most adolescents, social networks are still a positive experience

Still, that doesn’t mean spending time on social networks  causes these issues.

„ It is equally possible that people suffering from these issues are more likely to spend time on social networks in search of acceptance, validation, comfort or escape from their own emotions and loneliness, which is something we often see when working with adolescents. On the other hand, these adolescents are also more vulnerable to the negative influences of social networks so the constant comparing with others can actually deepen their insecurity, dissatisfaction and the feeling of isolation. For most adolescents, social networks are still a positive experience”, explained T. Brezinšćak.

Research confirms that if we use social networks primarily for staying connected with others, they can have a positive effect on our psychological well-being.

„For example, adolescents who hang out with their friends both online and in the real world describe their friendships as closer and stronger, and the constant availability of their friends gives them a stronger feeling of support. It is easier to share our feelings while we are hidden behind the screen, and it is exactly that distance that makes it easier to make friends this way for shy or socially anxious adolescents. In these days when many people are moving away to distant cities or even abroad for economical reasons it is the social networks that unite families and friends.”, said the psychologist, but added that smaller children take the information they get online for granted and don’t question their accuracy nor the intentions behind them.

“The ability to think critically advances with age, but in the moments when we are emotionally overwhelmed it can be hard to see the real picture. So, it’s important to also remind adolescents that life is rarely as perfect as it is sometimes depicted on social networks. Every one of us has our own insecurities, defeats, moments of loneliness and sadness, we are all vulnerable. Changing that expectation that we have to be perfect and happy at all times helps us accept ourselves and cope with life’s challenges easier, which is something most of us spend our whole lives learning how to do”, explained the psychologist.

Technology changed the way we communicate and express ourselves

When something that fills us with joy or touches our emotions in some other way happens, more and more people, especially youth, will immediately take out their smartphone to capture the moment.

„We often see these generational differences on concerts where adolescents are often focused on recording their favorite songs instead of listening and experiencing the music in that moment. One author described it like this – the act of experiencing art and history has been replaced by a digital representation. In other words, instead of experiencing, what’s become important is recording the experience so we might return to it in the future or share it with others, and that is exactly what keeps us from experiencing the moment here and now. We forget to be present in the moment and connected to people we are with”, said the psychologist.

Interestingly, research shows that even adolescents start missing that feeling of real connection in the moment and want to have it back.

“Many adolescents say that their deep involvement with the virtual world makes them put other activities and relationships in second place. The advancement of technology changed the way we communicate and express ourselves, in many ways for the better. That trend will certainly continue, and every new generation will have to deal with a challenge of not allowing technology to rule them but to rule it”, said the psychologist and added that people have always had the need to share significant experiences with other people.

“When something that fills us with emotions happens, whether pleasant or unpleasant, the first thing we usually want to do is tell it to someone we’re close to. Social networks added some new aspects to that. The number of people we share the details from our lives is much bigger and doesn’t include only people we are very close to, so online communication often creates a feeling of fake privacy which is why people usually don’t realize just how much they are sharing. This is especially prominent in adolescents, whose brain parts in charge of thinking about the consequences of their behavior are still maturing, which is why can be reckless with the things they post and even get themselves in danger”, warns Brezinšćak.

Addiction to Likes

„Research shows that likes, or positive feedback we get on social networks, fills us with positive emotions, which can be measured and proven by brain scans. But the pleasure we get is short-termed so we get a need to experience it again. That need isn’t unique to adolescents, we all experience it. Reactions of others are especially important to youths who are insecure, lonely or dissatisfied with their life circumstances, so that search for likes can become a way for them to regain that lost feeling of their own value, acceptance and belonging”, explained the psychologist.

Social networks have become an unavoidable part of everyday life for many, especially for younger generations.

“Sometimes parents wonder if it would be best to exclude their children from the virtual world. When thinking about this, it’s important to keep in mind the range of possibilities social networks brought to their young users. They enable them to communicate quickly and efficiently, people they are close to are constantly available which can make friendships closer, it is a place where adolescents can explore their interests and learn about them…Complete ban on social networks can make young people feel loss and make making friends more difficult, as well as make them feel like their parents don’t understand them. At the same time, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks. Just as they can be exposed to potential dangers on school playgrounds or on their way to school, they can also be exposed to them on social networks. We don’t forbid children to walk on the street but teach them how to cross the road, not to speak to strangers, who to call if they get lost or need help…In the same way, today’s children should be thought how to be safe in the virtual world”.

Specific advice for parents

  1. Postpone opening your child’s first social network profile until they are of required age (for example 13 in the cases of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat)
  2. Be present when the child opens their first profile on a social network, explore its possibilities and safety settings together
  3. Talk with your child about the rules of using social networks
  4. Monitor the child’s online activities, and with adolescent rely on conversations and establishing trust
  5. Show genuine interest and curiosity – talk with your adolescent about how they like to spend their times on social network, their interests and favorite youtubers
  6. Talk about your adolescent’s online and offline role models, for example ask them which youtubers are they following, which ones they don’t like and why
  7. Develop your child’s critical thinking skills from the early age – encourage your child to question the information they are exposed to in the virtual world.
  8.  Build a happy self-image – teach your children to be proud of their effort and successes and gentle to themselves when they fail
  9. Support your child in making friends and encourage screen-free playtimes and hangouts from early age
  10. Be a good example – foster close relationships with friends and family, spent time together outside, don’t use smartphone when talking or during meal times
  11. If you notice worrying changes in your adolescent’s mood or behavior, get advice from a psychologist who will help you estimate if there is a need for some form of support or is it something expected for that developmental phase

Useful advice for adolescents

  1. Always check three times before clicking “post”, especially if you are emotional at that moment
  2. If you wouldn’t want some photo or post seen by your parents, teachers or a wider circle of people, don’t post it or send it in a private message
  3. Only accept friendship requests from the people you personally know – be aware that some people can give fake names to get closer to you
  4. Let your profile password remain a secret – don’t share it with others, not even close friends, so it wouldn’t get into wrong hands
  5. Protect your privacy – don’t share personal information on your profile (for example, phone number or the name of your school), the places you go to or other information someone might use
  6. If you notice a post where someone is being insulted, humiliate, threatened or isolated don’t forward it
  7. If you are the subject of such post or message, don’t reply, look for support from a grown-up, screenshot it and report it to the social network
  8. Stand up for others – if you notice an inappropriate post, notify the person and take steps you would take if it was about you
  9. Monitor your habits – think about whether you stopped doing something because of the time you are spending on social networks (for example, would you like to hang out more, spend more time on some hobby or correct some grades) and take care of that
  10. Share this advice on how to safely spend time on social networks with younger members of your family

You can read this interview on T-portal here (in Croatian):



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