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Applying the Philosophy

Defining Self-Worth in the Age of Social Media

Photo by Drafter123 / Getty Images.

Every time I look at my phone, it’s as if my worth is being calculated,” says Mili, a high school student in New York. “How many likes did my post get? How many views? Why so many views but so few likes?”

A growing body of research finds that the more time a person spends on social media, the more likely they are to experience mental health struggles, including anxiety, isolation and hopelessness. If an overemphasis on social media can spur an emotional roller coaster for people of all ages, consider the impact on teenagers, who are still developing their sense of self.

A 2022 Pew Research Center poll found that 97% of teenagers use the internet daily, while some 67% percent use social media platforms at least once a day, with TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat topping the usage chart.

Such sustained online engagement can be exhausting, says Mili. Among her peers, communication can get complicated even when sending a simple text. If a friend sees she’s read their message but not responded, they may assume she’s mad at them, which adds to the pressure she feels to respond right away. “But it’s not like I can just quit social media,” she says. “That’s where I get crucial updates about my friend group, extracurriculars and even school work.”

Not all aspects of social media are detrimental. Social media can help us connect with friends and loved ones who live far away, bring together people of marginalized groups and help us cultivate an interest or hobby.

The question becomes: How do we take full advantage of social media’s positive functions, while avoiding the trap of deciding our self-worth based on algorithms, anonymous users and unrealistic depictions of peoples’ lives?

Ultimately, it comes down to how we spend our free time. The things that help us build a positive sense of self include interacting face-to-face with friends and family, engaging in our hobbies, sports and exercise, and enjoying culture in all its forms. Time spent with others can boost our mental health and help us develop a stronger and healthier self-image.

Going back to Mili, she said how important it is for her and her peers to believe in themselves apart from what the social media world thinks about them. “I love how Buddhism’s main focus is that each person is infinitely capable and precious and can create unique value for the world,” she says. Ikeda Sensei speaks to this sentiment, writing of the challenges young people face:

Youth is a time of extreme emotional sensitivity, a period of uncertainty and insecurity in the face of what seem like infinite possibilities. The bigger your dreams, the greater your anxiety. It may seem that you are weak and that your feelings are easily hurt, but in fact that is not the case. Within youth resides the vitality and strength to overcome any obstacle. Please be confident of that.

There may be times when you experience such extremes of emotion that it sends you reeling downward. But you always have the power in the depths of your being to pull yourself up and overcome that despair. This, I declare, is the real meaning of youth, as well as its special privilege. (The New Human Revolution, vol. 17, pp. 111–12)

Here are tips and guidance from Ikeda Sensei that can help parents and guardians promote healthy social media use to their teens.

1. Chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo daily with your teen to empower them to see their inherent worth and irreplaceable value.

If you can overcome hardships and trials without being discouraged by temporary ups and downs, both you and your children can nurture an indestructible strength of heart. The foundation for this is prayer. Parents pray for their children and the children respond to that prayer, and in this way parents and children grow together. We must not forget to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. We must never forget the basics. (Happy Parents, Happy Kids, p. 29)

2. Engage in social media and internet fasting. Set breaks throughout the day for your teens and have a plan for what you will do together during those breaks.

If you think that too much TV or video games are negatively influencing your children, it is important to discuss this with them and set time limits. Use your ingenuity to divert your children’s attention from TV and games by encouraging them to perhaps rest a while or by giving them a snack. TV can have both a good side and a bad side. You should be open-minded enough to discuss certain TV programs with your children. For example, there are some people who decided to study medicine and become doctors because, when they were in elementary school, they saw a program about the plight of refugees. Television is not an evil in itself. It is the adults creating the programming who have lost their sense of values and ethics. The problem is society’s growing tendency to emphasize profit over children’s well-being, while failing to consider, or even being willing to sacrifice, children’s future. (Happy Parents, Happy Kids, pp. 50–51)

3. Model positive social media behavior. Keep your presence online positive and try not to scroll at the dinner table or during other opportunities to connect with your teen.

Parents’ everyday conduct is the greatest form of education for children. Many things can be conveyed through words and reason, but what is most readily communicated to children is the parents’ character and way of life. (Happy Parents, Happy Kids, p. 13)

4. Help your teen understand that popularity or online success does not equate to happiness. In fact, many who achieve success cause suffering for themselves and others.

True victors in life are those who never give up and continually challenge themselves, without losing sight of their goal. There is more to life than just advancing on the “track of success” based on where one went to school or where one works. Even if one should progress on that course, it is a separate matter whether that person can lead a truly fulfilling life. More than a few graduates of famous universities end up getting involved in corruption and ruining their lives. (Happy Parents, Happy Kids, p. 75)

5. Provide your teens with a safe space for them to discuss their feelings. Young people need an outlet to discuss and better understand their emotions.

No matter how busy you may be, you find the time to get together and talk with your children. The length of time is not important. What matters is that parents use their wisdom.

When you have to be away from home for some reason, try to leave a note for your children or call them on the phone when you have a chance. The important thing is to make sure that you stay in communication with them in some form.

• • •

The good fortune that accrues to parents who apply themselves diligently to SGI activities will protect their children without fail. Nonetheless, you must still make positive efforts to open and sustain dialogue with your children, not allowing yourselves to neglect them, claiming that you’re too busy or it can’t be helped, or telling yourselves that somehow things will be taken care of. Unless you exert yourselves in this way, you are irresponsible parents who lack compassion.

Outward appearance is not important, what counts is what is inside our hearts. Are there heart-to-heart bonds? Some families may always be together physically but are estranged at heart. Other families can only get together for brief periods but manage to enjoy concentrated and lively heart-to-heart communication at such times.

Families that share bonds of closeness based on day-to-day efforts are ones in which the members feel comfortable and at ease with one another, no matter where they are or what they’re doing. (Happy Parents, Happy Kids, pp. 86–87)

From the June 2023 Living Buddhism

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