Let's talk about selfies. Twenty years ago, the idea of turning a camera around to take a picture of yourself would have seemed ridiculous. But then landlines evolved into smart phones, clunky desktops evolved into sleek and portable laptops, tablets hit the scene–and the front-facing camera transformed from gimmick into absolute necessity. Along a similar timeline, social media morphed from a marginal space for niche online communities into a defining feature of a generation. 

As a result, today's youth find themselves squarely in the middle of a social media era.[1]

Barring the extreme risks of selfie-takingover 250 people have died taking selfies worldwide since 2011–many parents and educators want to know: how risky is routine selfie-taking and sharing via social media, and how can we help the youth we care about steer clear of the most likely consequences[2]

Nurturing Heart-Mind Well-being, particularly the Compassionate & Kind Heart-Mind Quality, is one place to start. While concerns about selfies often revolve around youth's self-esteem, it's their (and our) self-compassion that may hold the key to avoiding social media's most insidious effects. It turns out that viewing selfies and other appearance-focused social media such as  "fitspo" can diminish the very thing we must arm ourselves with against social media's potential perils: self-compassion. [3]

Cultivating Self(ie)-Compassion

Self-compassion expert Kristin Neff describes the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion in this 4-minute video. While self-esteem is based on feeling good about yourself–which, in today's culture, often means feeling that you are better (prettier, smarter, more creative, more unique, more successful etc.) than others–self-compassion is a way of relating to yourself with kindness regardless of your circumstances. Self-compassion is especially valuable when our self-esteem falters[4], such as when we suffer a perceived failure, experience relationship difficulties, or fixate on our perceived flaws–as it allows us to be kind and loving towards ourselves, as we would a dear friend, when we need this tenderness the most. 

So, how can we–as parents, caregivers, and educators–help our youth harness the power of self-compassion in the face of our current cultural selfie obsession?

  1. Take this self-compassion test to see what areas of self-compassion you are strong in, and which areas need some extra TLC. [5] Invite the youth you care about to take it too. Talk through your results in a caring and non-judgemental way, and notice areas where you can help each other be kinder to yourselves. No one said you had to be self-compassionate alone!  
  2. Learn about the elements of self-compassion to help you understand what it means for you in your life, and to help understand your self-compassion test results in greater depth. 
  3. Train your self-compassion muscle! Research shows that compassion can be trained with deliberate and sustained practice.[6]
  4. Reflect on your (and your teen's) social media motives. [7]
Image credit: <a href="">People photo created by yanalya -</a>

85% of teens surveyed reported using YouTube, with 72% reporting Instagram usage and 69% identifying as Snapchat users. 

A 2017 study from the UK found that female undergraduates who viewed fitspiration images scored lower on measures of self-compassion than participants who viewed self-compassion quotes or neutral images.

Compared to participants who viewed neutral images, those who viewed self-compassion quotes demonstrated:

  • greater body satisfaction, body appreciation, and self-compassion
  • reduced negative mood

Researchers also found that viewing a combination of fitspiration images and self-compassion quotes led to positive outcomes on these measures compared to viewing only fitspiration images.

A 2015 paper from Australia reviewed the literature on the effects of social media use on body image, and reported these findings. 

E.g. Fardouly & Vartanian, 2016; Holland & Tiggemann, 2016; Mabe, Forney, & Keel, 2014; Manago, Ward, Lemm, Reed, & Seabrook, 2015; Tiggemann & Miller, 2010; Tiggemann & Slater, 2013; Vandenbosch & Eggermont, 2013 - as cited in Salomon & Spears Brown, 2018

2018 research from the Pew Research Center in the United States found that 95% of American teens have access to a smartphone, and that 45% of teens are online "almost constantly." According to the same study, YouTube is the most popular social media site for this age group, with Instagram and Snapchat falling closely behind.

A 2018 study out of the University of Kentucky found that 80% of the seventh graders in their study had at least one social media account on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and that the youth spent an average of 4-6 hours on social media each week (although some youth were on social media upwards of 10 hours per week). This study also found that around 50% of youth posted selfies - pictures of themselves alone or of just their faces.


According to Neff, research indicates that self-compassion holds the same benefits as self-esteem, without the ugly downsides, such as the need to put others down to maintain it, or it's contingency on external circumstances that are often outside our control.

A growing body of research reveals that youth's social media use is associated with negative attitudes towards their bodies. For example, a  2018 study from the University of Kentucky found that higher levels of self-objectifying social media use (eg. taking and posting selfies) in youth predicted greater body shame, which was associated with increased body surveillance (monitoring one's external appearance). Additional research reports that social media has been consistently linked with negative body image, an effect that may strengthen over time. The "appearance comparison" dimension of social media use is throught to be a key factor in this association.

Experts agree that social media poses a real and serious threat to teen's well-being. In an interview with the Child Mind Insitute, psychologist Alexandra Hamlet points out that though selfie taking and sharing through social media may seem lighthearted,  it also has a darker side. She cites the "behind the scenes" elements that have become a part of mainstream selfie culture - the makeup, retouching software, filters, and multiple attempts - as a hidden danger to youth's self esteem and emotional well-being.

And while it is not the focus of this post, mounting evidence suggests that social media may be linked with the skyrocketing rates of teenage and young-adult depression seen since the introduction of smart phones in 2007. 

Self-compassion can be a blind spot for many, as critical or even negative self-talk is often normalized in our competitive culture, and can even be (mistakenly!) perceived as motivating. Another common barrier to self-compassion is that being compassionate towards oneself can lead to uncomfortable feelings of guilt and vulnerability, which many of us would prefer to avoid. 

Try a compassion meditation, take a self-compassion break, treat yourself like a friend, or identify what you really want. Do these practices on your own, introduce them to your teen, or better yet, do them together! 

Invite mindfulness into your and your teen's relationship with social media. Reflect on the following questions, together or separately:
  • What do you hope to achieve by posting that selfie?
  • Do you edit your pictures before posting? How much, and why?
  • How do you feel when your picture is "liked" - or not?
  • Do you compare the comments and likes to those on your friends posts, or to social-media influencers" or models?

Supporting your teen in exploring their answers to these questions can bring insight to where they could benefit from more self-compassion. Exploring these questions in yourself can bring awareness to how you can grow as a self-compassion social-media role model. 

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.