Throughout history, prominent models, movie stars, opera singers, and actors have captivated audiences with their performances and beauty. Even before we coined the term influencer, it was quite obvious that women like Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, and Princess Diana were influencers. Their respective public identities were intentionally curated and maintained to the best of their abilities. If they had access to our tools of dermatology and photoshop, they certainly would have used them to their advantage.

Looking back further, we have always been concerned with the authenticity of beauty. Allegedly, King Henry VIII was misled about the appearance of his wife Anne of Cleves before their marriage through portraits he received and false accounts of her beauty. When they met in person, he was reportedly disappointed by her appearance and, although they were briefly married, their union was annulled shortly after. From Anne of Cleaves in the 1500s to Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, the disparity between their real-life appearance and the carefully curated images they posed for, leveraging favorable lighting and strategic angles, has been evident. 

In our present era, we’re witnessing the emergence of artificially intelligent influencers, essentially fabricated personas, which garner attention. Milla Sofia, an AI-generated influencer who presents as a Finnish 24-year-old woman, has attracted a large online following, and more firms are exploring the profitability of AI influencers. Sharing his Oppenheimer-esque regret, Alexa Eden, founder of an AI Consulting firm, told FOX, “[Young women are] going to think that life is supposed to look that way and if it doesn’t look that way, if a woman doesn’t look that way, they’re not beautiful.”

The extent of potential harm to adolescents remains uncertain when compared to the influence of animated Disney princesses or Barbie dolls characterized by unattainable proportions. As we navigate this new landscape of AI-generated content, it’s essential to contextualize the impact of these digital phenomena within the broader spectrum of historical media influence on young minds. 

The claim that there is a direct link between Instagram use and teen depression is simply not yet proven, but that doesn’t mean that there are no problematic societal behaviors that have come from phones and perpetual internet access. 

Consider that teenagers who are easily affected by triggers related to eating disorders might find it beneficial to avoid certain influencers or Instagram accounts. However, a one-size-fits-all ban on all websites, influencers, or accounts that might be triggering for some people isn’t feasible, mainly because triggers vary from person to person. Plus, those same personal triggers linked to eating disorders can pop up from watching TV or flipping through magazines. Recall the various skinny-obsessed style trends in the 1990s, such as “heroin chic,” trends that presented young women of all ages with unrealistic body idols.

Elizabeth Self, a scholar at the Institute for Family Studies, wrote recently that smartphones and social media “blur the lines” between virtual and real spaces. She says, “Rather than offering the benefits of leisure well spent, social media makes kids less happy. When handed personal devices with social media apps, kids’ outside play decreases, their grades slip, and their mental health plummets.” 

Elizabeth is entirely correct in pointing out that untempered, constant, virtual communication with people outside of your family and more immediate community likely will have damaging effects on a child’s ability to form healthy in-person relationships. 

Children and teens don’t yet have the proper mental tools to self-assess when a behavior is harming them. For that same reason, parents generally limit junk food intake and television time. That type of parental scrutiny should similarly be applied to cell phone use and screen time, more broadly. 

Techno-panics are not new. Similar panic cycles accompanied the advent of television, video games, and even books when they first became widely available. Every means of abstraction, whether that be a new romantic relationship that forces us to reprioritize our activities or a new television show, requires some exercise of temperance and self-reflection. 

When comics became cheaply available, children were suddenly not required to be outside or play games for entertainment and adventure. They could abstract themselves into a different reality. Comic books and novels, like the internet, can be tools of imagination, or they can be bricks of obsession that prevent us from engaging in meaningful relationships. 

Smartphones and social media websites are not addictive in the same way that drugs, alcohol, or nicotine can be for people. However, it’s very possible to form unhealthy habits with any self-gratifying activity. Not everyone has to go to a formal rehabilitation facility for running, shopping, or sex addiction, but some people do

Consider that, unless a person has an underlying behavioral problem, they are in control of the time they give to the internet and can take steps to combat problematic behaviors.

A teen checking their phone during family dinner or getting into trouble at school for having their phone out doesn’t exactly prove that social media is wrecking society. However, it may signal a lack of respect and deference towards authority figures in general or an unhealthy habit—which is more of a parenting challenge rather than a tech problem. 

As I point out in another IWF blog, the web of connection that the internet and phones handed us isn’t going anywhere for kids, unless a parent steps in to either snatch the cell phone or set up some kind of blocking gadget. It’s time to involve parents in finding tailored solutions for problems in our digital realm instead of relying on government action. 

For example, one proactive approach to ensure kids’ online safety is for schools to organize educational sessions for parents. Teachers could offer insights into the issues they’ve noticed concerning social media and smartphones, and suggest practical ways to address unmonitored communication and unhealthy behaviors. Remember, parents don’t need to face this challenge by themselves.