By: Julie Tiemann
When many of us were kids, we may have fallen into the trap of comparing ourselves with classmates, famous athletes and musicians, or maybe the kids on the Disney Channel. For me, it involved blue eyeshadow, thick, hot-pink lipstick, and a hairbrush—first I used the hairbrush to create the highest of ponytails, and then it performed double duty as a microphone. It was shocking I wasn’t mistaken for Debbie Gibson herself.
For most of us, the comparison options were fairly limited, to either those in our daily lives, or perhaps what we could observe in a couple of minutes standing in the checkout line with Mom at the grocery store.
Much has been written about the impact of social media—and the Internet in general—on adolescents and their self-image, especially young girls. But 2020 has thrown multiple curveballs our way, such as the rapid lowering of the average age of kids getting online, and the rapid increase of the time kids spend online.
Preschoolers have learned new words like “Zoom” and “mute.” Early elementary kids are having to learn not just how to read and write, but how to engage in chat sessions and interpret emojis.
It’s the Wild West out there online, and many of us have felt the horse take off before we even considered if we were ready to ride.
A Whole New (Virtual) World
This past spring, my family felt the tension immediately when school went online. Our 11- and 10-year-old girls went from a daily average of an hour or so online to do some homework and maybe watch YouTube, to suddenly spending upwards of six to eight hours online watching live teaching sessions and taking online music and theater classes. And that didn’t include any chance for connecting with friends, so we eventually gave in to some social time online via messaging and video chats with school friends.
We, of course, are not the only ones. In light of the pandemic, elementary-age kids are spending more time online than ever before, which opens them up to many pitfalls—including increased opportunities for comparison. Instead of just looking around the room to see what others are doing and how they’re dressing and speaking, kids now increasingly feel the pull to measure themselves against what they see on YouTube, online games, and social media.
When parents first acknowledge this new influence in their kids’ lives, their initial impulse may be to react out of fear. But what if we proactively framed the conversation to address healthy ways that kids can engage in online communities? What if the church equipped parents with tools and language to foster positive online experiences while also reinforcing boundaries?
How to Support Kids (and Parents) in This New World
Small group leaders have a unique role to play in these conversations, without the baggage that comes from being a parent trying to guide their kids. There are some intentional steps leaders can take to begin these important conversations with even early elementary kids, creating a safe space for future harder conversations as well as establishing a healthy paradigm to view the online world.
Help kids recognize the social media “highlight reel”
Most adults are familiar with this concept: the idea that we’re all presenting the best possible versions of ourselves online. But as kids get older, filters become less about turning faces into bunnies and more about ways to hide flaws—and even create false narratives.
Let’s talk to our kids (especially girls) early on about the “airbrushing” that everyone does when they present themselves online. Let’s help them learn how to more accurately interpret what they see during “the scroll.” In addition, let’s encourage our kids to use technology and the Internet not just to passively consume, but to actively connect and create.
Use humor to connect
So often, the discussions around the topics of self-image, comparison, and online safety feel heavy. And this makes sense: these are very important topics with outcomes that can be felt over a lifetime. But if we create anxiety or shame around these topics, we shut down conversations.
On the other hand, if we use genuine humor and tell personal (appropriate) stories, we can build strong connections with kids. So, use silly memes. Give personal examples of how you’ve compared yourself (online or off) to other people. Humor and stories remind everyone that we’re all in this together.
Model gratitude as a practice
Comparing ourselves to others is something we all do, and it’s something we’ll never be able to completely shake this side of heaven. But the practice of gratitude has real power in framing our perspective. After all, it’s hard to be focused too much on what others have if you’re spending time being thankful for what you have.
Asking a second grader to start a daily gratitude journal might be excessive, but the elementary years are a wonderful time to help kids begin to cultivate the practice of gratitude. One practical way to do that is to start each small group session by asking kids to share things they’re grateful for—and then circle back around to these personal examples when conversations drift to frustrations or complaints.
Another option is to begin small group with a “pow” and “wow” time, allowing kids a chance to share both hard and happy things. Without glossing over what’s hard, leaders can end these share sessions by pointing out all of the positive things that are happening in kids’ lives.
When we allow comparison to rule unchecked in our lives, it can lead to jealousy and lower our own image of self. It’s impossible not to see what others have or what they’ve achieved. But if we can intentionally choose to celebrate others’ wins, we often find a change in our hearts that can beat down the trap of comparison. Leaders can model this for their kids by celebrating others’ successes—and then encouraging their kids to do the same.
Many parents are looking for ways to support their children’s sense of worth and self-image—especially parents of daughters. Books for kids can help, like this brand-new book from our team over at Parent Cue: What Is Beautiful? by Abbie Sprünger and Ashley Snyder. Especially for girls ages 6 to 12, this book is a refreshing and whimsical look at true beauty and where it comes from. To take a look inside, click here.
Julie Tiemann has served in elementary-age church environments since aging out of them herself at the ripe age of 12, and she has used that experience in her work as a writer for faith-based organizations, including Orange. She lives in Roswell, Georgia, with her husband, Mike, and their two middle-school daughters, and when she’s not leading worship at church or reading, she’s camping or hiking with her family. She shares her thoughts on life, faith, and parenting at julietiemann.com.