Media and Self Image

How parents can help teens “Filter through the Filters”

We are living in a media saturated world. Media tells us what is “normal” and in some ways, shapes who we “want to be”. The greater our media exposure, the greater the impact. Problems can come when people forget that social media is filtered. What we see is not reality. No where is this more apparent than social media filters.

How Filters Change Us

Filters are designed only show what we want, how we want, while keeping the rest hidden. Usually what is being filtered out is what the user considers “messy” or “unwanted” or “imperfect” in another’s eyes. We forget that what we see is a “highlight reel”. Be careful not to compare someone else’s “highlight reel” to your “behind the scenes”. We are often quick to portray ourselves through filters to fit a mold and be what other people want. This means that we are less likely to show the variety that makes up life. Mass and social media will never give us or our teens the validation we crave. 

Focus on Teens

Teens are especially susceptible to falling for the filter trap. Why? For one thing, brain development. Teen brain development shifts focus outward towards peer groups as a way of establishing independence. Parental validation is often replaced by peer validation. Teens are also more susceptible due to the world they have grown up in. Many teenagers have always had exposure to media, screens, and social media comparison their whole lives. Social media is always present. Without parent support, teens can spiral and end up in an unhealthy place.

A Parent’s Role

Parents are essential to helping teens navigate a potentially unlimited world of access and exposure.


Limit setting is an important part of parenting. Parents who help teens set their own limits will help set them up for success as they grow into young adults. One of a parent’s primary responsibility is not to be a friend to their child but help shape them as a person. Limits are an important part of creating a secure, healthy connection. We often think about boundaries as a restraint on a roller coaster. The restraints on the roller coaster hold us down but when we are upside down, we are grateful! Many things in a teens’ life feel “upside down” and your limits help them stay safe and healthy. As much as a teen may push against a boundary, it is a test and they need and crave boundaries.

Providing a Secure Base

Another essential parenting role is to help provide a secure base for teens. What is a secure base? This just means your child knows knows you are always present, love them unconditionally and are predictable. A teen should know their parent is always there for them and their love is not conditional. The boundaries remain steady and love is not dependent on performance. So how do we do this with media?

Offering Safe Space 

Everyone is bombarded with confusing and critical messages that can create insecurity instead of inspiring confidence. Instead, provide a safe space where media messages can be discussed and challenged.

Low self-esteem develops when external messages become internalized. Talking about comparative thoughts can help keep them from turning into unhealthy beliefs. This means adults need to examine their relationship with these comparative messages as well. We may have internalized some of the same messages. It is best to praise and point out your teens’s strengths rather than surface level praise. This can help encourage them and give them validation they are craving through media.

A Need for Boundaries

Children need boundaries to protect self-esteem and promote healthy self and body image. Setting boundaries is a way to say “no” in order to say “yes” to what we care about the most. Here are a few signs boundaries need to be increased with media: 

  • Often feeling significantly pressured to be what other people want you to be, not who you were made to be?
  • Give too much time to media?
  • Do you or your teen follow people, images, organizations that perpetuate self-comparison?
  • Can you and your teen take time to see past the surface of media?
  • Do you or your teen accept media as standard?

Boundaries Continued – Supporting Holistic Awareness

Media is not necessarily all bad, but how we use media matters. What do we do? Here are some ways to create healthy boundaries with media:

Cultivate Gratitude

“Comparison is the thief of joy” – Theodore Roosevelt. First, instead of comparing, encourage your teen to look inward towards gratitude. Gratitude invites us to notice and enjoy the here and now, instead of saying “not enough.”

Support Individuality

Give them permission to be different. Do not assume different is “bad.” In fact, our differences and diversity are very much needed to support life. “Be who you are meant to be, and you will set the world on fire” – St. Catherine of Siena

Say “no” to what is unhealthy

Helping your teen learn to limit mass and social media will help them become healthy, confident individuals.

Support When you Need it

Navigating media with your teen can feel overwhelming and uncertain. Many times, media itself cannot be fully controlled. There is control over how we can help ourselves and teens respond in healthy ways. If you feel you and/or your teen need more support with “filtering the filters” and increasing self-esteem, please do not hesitate to reach out to a mental health counselor! 

Jessica Block MA, NCC, LCMHCA