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Webinar: The Perfect Teen – Using Self-Compassion to Respond to Perfectionism in Adolescents

The increased usage of social media among teens has contributed to higher levels of anxiety and perfectionism, adding to the already growing youth mental health crisis. Learn more about perfectionism, anxiety, and how parents and loved ones can support teens.

April 12, 2023


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This CE was eligible for credit if you attended live and completed post-event evaluation surveys and is shared here strictly for informational purposes.

In collaboration with the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, Charlie Health hosted a webinar session focused on: “The Perfect Teen: Using Self-Compassion to Respond to Perfectionism in Adolescence.”

Charlie Health is the largest provider of virtual Intensive Outpatient Programming (IOP) for teens and young adults struggling with acute mental health issues. 

The National Alliance for Eating Disorders (the Alliance) is the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to providing referrals, education, and support for individuals experiencing eating disorders. 

Guest speakers from this session included: 

  • Haleigh Moller, education coordinator at the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, with a degree in nutrition and dietetics. 
  • Samantha Adams, LPC, NCC, Clinical Director of the Mid-Atlantic region for Charlie Health and a licensed counselor.

This session included nearly 500 counselors, healthcare providers, parents, and educators from across the country to discuss the impact of perfectionism on adolescent development, with a focus on social media and its influence on teens.

What is perfectionism, and how does it impact teens?

Perfectionism refers to a set of self-defeating behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high and unrealistic goals that are often mistaken in our society as desirable or even necessary for success. This is especially true for adolescents, as they’re in a phase of their lives where the pressure to be perfect and succeed is immense. Perfectionism can be broken down into three different types: 

1. Self-oriented perfectionism

Someone associated with self-oriented perfectionism is someone with very high personal standards. They’re also very critical of themselves if they fail to meet these expectations. Oftentimes they use humor as a way to create healthier social or emotional bonds with others around them. This type of perfectionism can have an impact on nurturing intimacy, social development, and altruism. 

2. Socially prescribed perfectionism

Socially prescribed perfectionism describes when someone believes that other people expect them to show up in a certain way. This person may feel that outside influences—such as coaches, teachers, and parents—have placed high standards on them to succeed. If they fail to meet those expectations, this can lead to self-criticism, self-judgment, and low self-esteem. People who experience this type of perfectionism may also struggle to find positive ways to cope with stress or adversity. 

3. Other-oriented perfectionism 

This type of perfectionism refers to those who expect others to meet the expectations that they set for themselves. In short, people who deal with other-oriented perfectionism hold others around them, like friends or family, to the same standards they have for themselves. If someone fails to meet those standards, this person may show an aggressive style of communication or humor as a way to criticize their disapproval. 

Socially prescribed behavior through social media

Socially prescribed perfectionism is frequently associated with the notion of socially prescribed behavior, which encompasses a set of behavioral norms and social scripts that guide our interactions with the world and those around us. Teens often engage in environments on social media that tell them how, where, when, and why to interact with different things in the world. 

Social media apps that are commonly used among teens include:

  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Snapchat
  • TikTok
  • Reddit
  • Tumblr

Sam Adams, one of Charlie Health’s Clinical Directors, shared a video during the webinar from Ditch the Label, “Are You Living an Insta Lie? Social Media Vs. Reality.” This video highlighted how we interact with social media and the thought processes someone goes through when engaged on social media. 

In response to the video and how it connects to socially prescribed behavior, Adams mentioned our “ability to edit our lives. We’re seeing behavior that’s not necessarily actually representing reality. We can curate the way that our image is kind of portrayed out there through various sites that we’re on.” Many apps come with filters to augment a photo or video, which she touched on later in the webinar. 

How social media impacts teens

In today’s world, we use technology for work, to connect with friends and family, and to find information. Teens are using devices now more than ever. On average, adolescents ages 12-18 spend about four hours in front of a screen for educational purposes, like online courses, or to complete homework assignments. In addition, adolescents spend four-six hours using devices for entertainment or recreational purposes a day. What’s shocking is that teens are spending more time connected to their screens than a typical eight-hour workday. 

97% of American teens have some kind of social media profile, with YouTube ranked as the most used social media platform among them. The Pew Research Center studied adolescents ages 13 to 17. In this study, teens were asked if they’ve ever used a specific site and how often they use it. 

  • YouTube: 95% have used the app; 19% use it constantly
  • TikTok: 67% have used the app; 16% use it constantly 
  • Instagram: 65% have used the app; 10% use it constantly 
  • Snapchat: 59% have used the app; 15% use it constantly
  • Facebook: 32% use the app; 2% use it constantly

In a 2014-2015 study, The Pew Research Center conducted research to analyze teen access to a smartphone and later compared those results to 2022. The study showed an increase from 73% to 95% in less than a decade. 

Pros and cons of social media

There are many incredible benefits to social media. Social platforms allow us to stay connected with friends and family, meet new people, or join communities. It also can serve as an outlet for creative expression. However, social media can also be harmful. It can interfere with sleep, homework, or other activities. There’s also the concern of oversharing personal information, coming into contact with dangerous people, or instances of cyberbullying—a very real concern among adolescents. 

Teens, in particular, use social media as a way to connect and reduce isolation, which was especially important during the pandemic and COVID-19 lockdowns. Many teens used social media to find mental health resources and access support.

However, teens who are 13 years old will use social media differently than a 17-year-old. Developmentally, they’re at different stages, meaning their social navigation and intelligence skills will vary and influence how they engage within these apps.

Adolescent development

To bridge the gap between social media and adolescent development, it’s important to remember that teens are using social media to help navigate the way they learn and engage with the world around them. As they begin to face change in their lives, they’re searching for information, most often through social media. 

Physical development

As their bodies grow and change, teens feel more comfortable searching online or through social media for information. This can include information on body changes, different dietary needs, or a change in daily activities. 

Cognitive development

This is the time when teens begin to assert their independence. It’s important for them to find their sense of self and who they are, and they turn to social media to see how other peers are posting or talking about these concerns. 

Psychosocial development

There are many systems that operate outside of the person, and teens recognize that there are other members of their school or community that have information to share. They recognize that people within their social group and beyond (such as parents, their schools, doctors, and retail businesses) have information to offer through their social media presence and seek out that information. 

Social media and perfectionism 

So, how does social media play a part in perfectionism? Social cognitive theory suggests that human functioning is the result of reciprocal interactions between personal factors, environmental factors, and behaviors. Meaning that as we grow and develop, we experience these interactions and gather information to build off of. For teens, this can be highly impactful on their own behaviors and approach toward perfectionism. 

  • Self-efficacy
    The idea of self-efficacy revolves around things within your ability and how well you do those things. This is primarily learned through observation and learning from past experiences. 
  • Socially prescribed behaviors
    Socially prescribed behaviors are linked through self-efficacy and our observation of others. How we perceive other people to behave and interact can dictate our own behavior and strive for perfectionism.  
  • The social environment
    How are teens interacting with each other? Interactions face-to-face between friends or groups of teens can, in reality, be vastly different from what’s shared on social media.

Adams mentioned that “Higher levels of socially prescribed perfectionism result in the lower sense of self-efficacy.” In essence, if a teen feels like they’re not meeting the expectations of others or matching the same standards as others, they feel the need to try harder. Unfortunately, this can manifest itself in unsupportive and unhelpful ways that impact the socially prescribed behaviors and social environment through filters. 

Social media filters and the idea of beauty

Socially prescribed perfectionism plays a big role in how teens approach and perceive social media. If someone feels like they’re not meeting the standards of others or what they see on social media, they feel the need to try even harder to reach that expectation. This is where app filters come in. 

App filters give people the ability to augment and curate how they look in photos and videos, even physically shifting the way they appear. Many of these filters lean into the Eurocentric idea of what is beautiful, leaving little variation and creating an unrealistic beauty standard. For adolescents, this can lead to comparing themselves to the filtered image they created. It sets the standard so high and ultimately unattainable that it can lead to impactful and devastating outcomes for those who are trying to achieve that standard. 

  • 87% of people ages 13 to 21 use a filter on social media.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 teens use a beauty filter on every social media post.
  • 61% of teens report using a filter makes them feel worse about their appearance. 

Teens are frequently being evaluated and receiving feedback regarding their performance or ability to meet certain standards. Whether that’s being a good student or star athlete or being a good friend or partner, teens feel added pressure from their environment and people around them, making it easy to retreat to social media as a means of distraction. 

As mentioned earlier in the presentation, teens who experience self-oriented perfectionism tend to seek out higher academic achievement and a higher sense of self-efficacy. If they don’t reach those high standards, this can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, interpersonal impairments, and eating disorders. The same can be said for adolescents who experience socially prescribed perfectionism. 

The social media and perfectionism cyccle

The cause-and-effect cycle between social media and perfectionism is actually quite simple. Social media shows us prescribed expectations of how we should look or the type of life we need to lead. If we fail to meet these standards, our stress increases, which increases the risk of maladaptive safety seeking to reduce that anxiety. 

It’s important to note that “safety seeking” can refer to a spectrum of activities. This can include scrolling on social media, self-injury, unsustainable use of exercise, disordered eating, unhealthy comparison to others, and the list goes on. 

How do we break this cycle?

The key to breaking this cycle of perfectionism may lie in self-compassion. Dr. Kristn Neff, founder of self-compassion.org, states that: “Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself.” It’s the idea that you treat yourself with the same compassion you’d show a friend or family member if they were in the same situation. 

Interrupt the cycle With self-compassion

Using these three concepts of self-compassion can result in a positive outcome for those experiencing perfectionism. 

  • Mindfulness
    The ability to be aware, have intention, and find balance is met with an over-identification of the situation. When we see an expectation on social media, we have the ability to be aware of the situation and find some way to balance out the statements. “Mindfulness comes from a place of non-judgment,” Adams added. 
  • Self-kindness
    To counteract self-judgment, allow yourself to be kind to yourself even if you’re not meeting the high standards you’ve set. This leads directly to self-compassion and how we forgive ourselves. 
  • Common humanity
    Meeting the sense of isolation—that this is only happening to you—with the awareness that other people are experiencing this too can help reduce the feeling that you’re the only one experiencing this. “This suffering is happening, and it’s part of the shared human experience,” Adams said. 

Practices of self-compassion

Adams highlighted a few ways to help teens navigate through practicing self-compassion, particularly for those who are mental healthcare professionals or educators. Some of the methods included: 

  • What would a friend say?
  • Self-compassion break
  • Writing exercises
  • Supportive touch
  • Journaling
  • Challenging critical self-talk
  • Identifying what you really want
  • Taking care of the caregiver

How can parents respond? 

By educating themselves on common social media practices among adolescents, parents can have a big impact on how their children approach perfectionism in their own lives. More so, understanding that there is a direct link between social media and teens striving for perfection can further aid parents in responding to perfectionism in their children. Here are a few ways parents can respond:

  • Create a dialogue
    Open the conversation up with your teens about perfectionism. 
  • Offer compassion
    Lead with compassion and steer away from judgment or criticism. 
  • Healthy social media limits
    Know your own use and relationship with social media. 
  • Understanding the newest platforms and their use
    Go onto the App Store and educate yourself about the types of apps your children may be using. 
  • Relationship with perfectionism
    Reevaluate and understand your own relationship towards perfectionism. 
  • Encouraging social engagement away from screens
    Limiting screen time and opting for in-person engagement can be impactful for everyone. 

Adams closed out the presentation by reiterating that teens are, on average, using screens for at least 4 hours a day, if not more, for educational purposes. Adding social media usage only increases their time in front of a screen. It’s important to set healthy social media limits, such as designated device time, creating media-free routines, and screen hygiene (such as using devices in bright rooms to reduce eye strain). 

Although there are many positive benefits to using social media, having healthy boundaries and relationships with social media can help mitigate perfectionism in teens and adults. Reach out now to Charlie Health to learn more about support and educational resources.