By: Julie Tiemann
When many of us were kids, we may have fallen into the comparison trap with classmates or celebrities. 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. It was either comparing ourselves to those in our daily lives or perhaps what we could observe while standing in line 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. For example, the average age of kids getting online is rapidly lowering. The amount of time kids spend online is rapidly increasing.
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 and the Comparison Trap
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 online to do some homework and watch YouTube. Now, they are spending upwards of six to eight hours online watching live teaching and taking online music and theater classes. And that didn’t include any chance for connecting with friends! Eventually, we 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 the comparison trap. Now, they aren’t just looking around the room to see what others do, wear, or say. They’re also tempted 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 addressed healthy ways for kids to engage in online communities? What if the church equipped parents with tools to foster positive online experiences that reinforce boundaries for the comparison trap?
How to Support Kids (and Parents) in This New World
Small group leaders have a unique role to play in these conversations. There are many things they can do to foster a healthy self-image and grow kids’ self-esteem. Additionally, there are some intentional steps leaders can take to begin these important conversations with even early elementary kids.
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 by comparing themselves to others.
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. When instilling these ideas, kids are less likely to fall into the comparison trap.
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 to avoid comparison trap
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 avoid the comparison trap. 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. This practice will teach kids they don’t have to compare themselves to others to feel important.
When we allow the comparison trap to reign 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.
Want More Resources for Avoiding the Comparison Trap?
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.
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.