If there’s someone out there who didn’t go through extreme angst over their looks during their middle school years, I’d like to meet them. Somehow, we all got through it and learned to accept ourselves for who we were. (It’s an ongoing process, after all, but I have to admit that I wouldn’t go back to those pre-teen years for anything.) The difference between us and our kids: we didn’t have the internet and social networking to contend with.
But what if we’d had an audience of millions to whom we could ask, “Am I ugly?” That’s what pre-teen kids, mostly girls, have been doing on Youtube in droves recently, with some disturbing results in the form of hate comments from internet trolls. Many of the responses under the videos prey upon the girls’ biggest fears by saying, “Yes, you are ugly” — and then these cowards give reasons why. (I firmly believe the anonymity of the internet provides everyone with the ready-made ability to become a sniper of the cruelest kind.)
I think the thing that disturbs me most is that these poor kids are uploading their videos in the privacy of their rooms (another reason to have the computer in a common area of the house and postpone smartphones until kids are mature enough to have them). What feels private initially becomes suddenly very public. Regardless of how the kids feel when they create the videos, they are anything but anonymous on the internet.
It’s so sad to me how kids, and girls especially, are convinced that they aren’t worth the time of day unless they are beautiful. It starts early, and it’s all around us — pop culture pounds home that message every single day. Somehow back in the ’90s, “Girl Power” turned into the Spice Girls singing “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want,” in sexy little outfits. (How that was supposed to empower girls I haven’t a clue. I think it did the opposite, frankly.)
So what’s the answer? I think we need to praise our kids based on how hard they work, or what they’ve accomplished because of their perseverance or persistence or passion in life, rather than on how “cool” they are or what they look like. “Self-esteem comes from doing things you esteem,” said James Lehman, and he’s right — when something is difficult and kids stick with it and do their best, it’s more satisfying to them than any hollow compliment or meaningless trophy they could score.
Which brings us back to the “Am I ugly?” videos. What do you think the answer is? What’s the best way to build your child’s self-esteem? And how do you monitor your child’s activity on the internet?
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.