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Instagram and Your Kids: What Would Piaget Say?

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Amy is a junior at an Ivy League University. She recently commented that many of her friends spend time and money glamming up for shots to post on Snapchat or Instagram. The point? To get “Likes” of course.

The power of that one click word in the lives of coeds in top-tier colleges, troubled teens, and adolescents of all stripes gains momentum daily. Interestingly, the word isn’t “respect, love or admire” – it is “like.” What a silly, meaningless word. But it is changing the personalities and identities of our teens and young adults everywhere.

The word is trouble for teens and young adults and here’s why. The great psychologist Jean Piaget posited years ago that there are four stages of cognitive development children experience before they become adults. These stages are: sensorimotor stage (0-2), pre-operational stage (2-7), concrete operational stage (7-11) and the formal operational stage (12 and up.)

In this fourth stage, Piaget describes what he calls the adolescent imaginary audience. This is the condition where the immature mind conceives that everyone outside of them watches their every move.  You remember this. At 16, you were embarrassed by acne because you believed that the moment you walked into class, all eyes would stare at the lone pimple on your chin. Or the high school soccer star who practiced endlessly in his backyard to millions of imaginary cheering fans. It felt at once wonderful but awful. All eyes are on you because you are so significant and yet, those same eyes see your greatness (usually imaginary too) as well as your flaws.

Allowing our kids’ fragile egos to be shoveled ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ day after day is cruel.

What Piaget didn’t foretell was that his theories were going to become reality. The elusive imaginary adolescent audience would dissolve into a quasi-imaginary audience in the form of  Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter where anyone could see any teen at any time. We could call the audience real but in fact, it isn’t wholly real. Yes, real people view pictures and posts, but they do so in a dangerous vacuum. Their responses are dissociated from relationships, feelings or exchange of truth. Most significantly, they feed the adolescent ego that craves attention from the imaginary audience. And herein lies the real danger. Piaget described a stage that teens move through in order to mature into psychologically healthy adults who can think beyond their own egos and learn compassion, empathy, and generosity.

Instagram and the like trap young adults and teens in this fourth stage by reaffirming the ego’s need to be fed hour after hour, day in and day out. That attention is the tiny icon thumb pointing up or pointing down.

The elusive imaginary adolescent audience has dissolved into a quasi-imaginary audience in the form of  Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

As good parents, we need to understand that Piaget was right. Allowing our kids’ fragile egos to be shoveled ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ day after day is cruel. It prevents them from becoming fully formed, clear-thinking and happy adults. In fact, do something bold today. Ask yourself why you are on Instagram and social media?  The truth is, it makes each of us feel better when we look happier/more successful/prettier etc. than our peers. Snapchat and Instagram are nothing but ‘show-off’ zones for the insecure. And I’ll admit – I’m insecure.  If you and I as mature adults feel better or worse with likes or dislikes, think how much more profoundly a young teen feels with them? Are you willing to post a photo of yourself without your makeup or when you just got out of bed? I didn’t think so.

Snapchat and Instagram are nothing but ‘show-off’ zones for the insecure.

Shrinking the ego to its healthy size takes years, so help your kids. Their minds and intellects are nothing to fool around with. Either keep them off social media altogether (yes this can be done and I have many mothers in my practice who can prove it) or limit your kids’ – particularly your daughters’ – participation in it to 30 minutes a day. You will be amazed how much better they will feel about life, themselves and yes, how much healthier they will be psychologically.

That’s what Jean Piaget would do.


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