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“Generation Screen” and Self Esteem

The pivotal, life-shaping years between the ages of 12 and 21 have often been called the “turbulent teens”, in part, due to teenagers' tendency to overestimate the extent that which others regard and appraise what they perceive to be their self-worth. Consequently, an inordinate emphasis can be placed on how they look in the eyes of others and there is a tremendous risk associated with the social comparisons and self-evaluations that can result from social media. While there is considerable research on social media’s influence on the psychological and emotional health of teens, the effects on self-esteem are lesser-known and studies have shown disparate results. Acceptance by others, however, has explicitly been shown to be a critical factor that is positively connected with self-esteem and the impact that evaluations from others about one’s self have on a person’s self-esteem and well-being are undoubtedly greater during the teenage years.

Self-esteem can be defined as how an individual generally feels about themself, or a value judgment towards the self. Self-esteem is shaped by life experiences and outside voices, which for children include those of parents, teachers, friends, and social media, all of which can have a significant impact on a child’s self-esteem. When a teenager has positive self-esteem, it means they accept themselves and believe they can do things well, which in turn leads to trying new things, solving problems, and taking healthy risks, behaviors that are requisite to appropriate development and overall well-being. Conversely, low levels of self-esteem can lead to an overreliance on approval from others and compromising of values, negatively impacting decision making and self-expression while producing increased feelings of inadequacy.

Signs of low self-esteem, including but not limited to negative self-talk, loss of interest, avoidance of new things or challenges, cheating, social withdrawal, or frequent frustration, are mental health “red flags” that school nurses should be cognizant of when caring for and supporting adolescents. In collaboration with mental health professionals within the school, an assessment might include an evaluation of a teen’s self-esteem in addition to an inquiry regarding social media behaviors. According to the CDC, in 2019 more than 1 in 3 high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40 percent increase since 2009. This alarming statistic demonstrates the importance of promoting self-esteem in the vulnerable teenage population, building and enhancing a positive sense of self that is resilient and adaptable to the numerous challenges of the adolescent experience.

The school environment can help cultivate positive development of self-esteem by promoting connectedness in teens through building safe and supportive school settings that emphasize reinforcement of positive behaviors, the clear establishment of rules and expectations, support for student-led clubs, mentoring, and volunteer programs, as well as providing families with helpful resources on positive parenting practices. A sense of belonging in the school setting is an imperative building block for teen self-esteem, fostering feelings of acceptance and respect while decreasing the risk of many health-risk behaviors and mental health disorders.

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