Cyber Body Image & Self-Esteem

According to, Facebook users spend an average of 441 minutes – or seven-and-a-half hours – per month browsing their News Feed and Friends’ pages. And that is just on their mobile devices! They spend another 391 minutes – or around seven hours – on the site at a desktop computer.

I would venture to guess that for teenagers and adolescents, these numbers are much higher. The Facebook app has 80% market saturation when it comes to smartphones, and according to its website, has 552 million active daily users.

We have no doubt reached the digital age. We are more connected than ever. Our social networks, via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other, are important and necessary for many aspects of life. The boundaries between cyberspace and the “real world” are becoming more fluid, and while convenience and efficiency of communication are the result – what are the dangers?

The openness and anonymity afforded by the Internet has always made parents wary, and rightly so. Predators, pedophiles, and explicit material have been the biggest dangers to teenagers roaming the Web. Now social media poses a more subtle danger. Although we are more connected than ever before, connectedness through technology, across a screen and a keyboard is not the same as human, interpersonal connection.

The rise of the personal profile, online dating, home-sharing sites, Twitter and LinkedIn, allow a person to create a totally perfect package of themselves to present to the world: a cyber-image of themselves, and projection of a digital reality that most likely does not accurately reflect the person on the other side of the screen.

This can, of course, be very dangerous if you are trying to “meet someone” online. Far more corrosive to the soul, however, is this Web version of a glossy, edited, photo-shopped world – one formerly only inhabited by models and fashion designers – where users present a “pretty face” to the world and hide many of their flaws and problems. The girl struggling with insecurity posts photos of herself smiling, partying with friends in less-than-modest clothing, hoping someone will comment on her photo how “hot” she looks.

If you look through her albums, she seems to always be out on the town, seems to be popular, pretty and happy. In truth, she is depressed and empty, and the depth of her relationships are far from what she needs for sustenance and companionship. The photos she takes are not to capture the special moments in life – they are for analyzing and critiquing later, finding the photo of her at the best angle so that her “cyber-image” is sexy, confident, and envied.

It isn’t only women who use social media to cover up their flaws or enhance their sense of self. Men do it too – creating a Web version of themselves that can portray a reality far different from their everyday lives. Many people look to the compliments, admiration, even jealousy of others to build their own sense of self-worth – that issue is not gender-specific.

Social networks provide the perfect venue for those struggling with self-esteem and poor body image to search for what they most desire – the validation of others. However, as with most addictions, what they are so desperately seeking for never satisfies, and only leaves them wanting more.

The number of hours teens spend connecting via text, Facebook, and Twitter further enforces this dual reality – one where a version of themselves exists in cyberspace, another in real life. I once met a teenage “couple” who had never actually talked in person – they had been “dating” for three months, communicating only through text. They did not know how to carry on a conversation in person with the opposite sex. This trend is disturbing. People, especially teenagers, can go too far romantically or emotionally with another, daring to type what they would never share face-to-face. On the other end of the spectrum, teenage bullying through Facebook has become epidemic – several young people having recently taken their lives due to harassment via social media. These networks can offer a very easy way for teens and adults alike to spew venom anonymously online, and still claim to be a “good person” in their real life.

I am not saying all social media is bad. I am not decrying the internet – I have to use it frequently for work. I believe that the technology, like most other innovations, can be used for good and for bad. We must be aware, as parents, educators, friends and family of the dangers that social media pose – especially to young people. Yes, we are more connected to one another – but in what way? Face-to-face communication, interpersonal, human connection remains the best and most meaningful way to create relationships.

The more “connected” we become to others through the Web, the more time we spend with our faces in our smartphones, computer screens and laptops. The less time we spend actually talking. I remember how sad it was to watch a bride once at a wedding, tweeting her way through her reception rather than enjoying the people there, her new husband, and the beginning of her new life. Will she even remember that night?

This life is fast paced and many jobs require extensive use of social media. However, I think it would serve us all well to monitor how much time we spend on our smartphones, on Facebook, “checking our Feeds.” What feeds the soul? Is it endless updates from friends? Is it seeing who commented on your latest album? Is it comparing yourself to old college friends online to prove that your life is so much better? Where do you find your validation? The internet can connect – but it more often can isolate.

The creation of a false cyber image can wreak havoc for the loved one already fighting with addiction or an eating disorder, who searches for worth and can find the web the perfect place to hide their problems from the world. Healing begins when one can let go of the need to present perfection, and live with the flaws instead. Use your social network to begin a connection, and follow through to the real human being. Don’t manage superficial relationships online – dare to go deep with a few people. Quality is more important than quantity.

What are you searching for? Whatever it is probably won’t be found on a Facebook page or a Google search. Look inside, not at your screen. As you unplug, draw others out into friendship, engagement, play and face-to-face communication. It is harder, but worth it. In a world overflowing with the superficial, dare to be real.

About Kirsten Haglund

“Since my own recovery, I am passionate about educating and empowering women to get the care they need to live amazing, productive and healthy lives,” said Haglund. “I see the same compassion and desire in the Timberline Knolls team and look forward to being a part of this work of restoring women to health.”

Haglund will continue to work as an advocate for greater awareness of eating disorders and resources for care. Since she won the crown of Miss America 2008, she has spoken on more than 20 college campuses, worked with youth and church groups domestically and abroad, lobbied Congress with the Eating Disorders Coalition, and started her own non-profit, the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, to raise funds and assist families financially in seeking treatment for eating disorders.

View all posts by Kirsten Haglund