Beyond Likes and Shares: How to Build Real Self-Esteem

I can still remember the poster hanging in my fourth-grade classroom. Against the backdrop of a star-studded night sky, a comet blazed across the image accompanied by text that read, “You can be a star!” 

As a child of the eighties, I grew up during the self-esteem movement. Posters, programs, and books consistently communicated, “‘If we say you are great, you will feel great about yourself.” While self-esteem is a household term today, the concept actually dates back to the 19th century. Renowned psychologist William James was the first to write about self-esteem in the late 1800s when he defined self-esteem as a “set of opinions I have about myself.” According to James, these opinions were based on two things: facts and our emotional responses to those facts. 

The Modern Self-Esteem Movement

Self-esteem was relegated to the professional psychological literature until the 1970s when the concept entered the popular culture and the self-esteem movement was born. A booming industry brought books, curricula, newsletters, and retreats to the public.  They all promised to boost kids’ self-esteem. Yet many of these programs and exercises were not nearly as effective as promised. This is too bad, given that a recent review of the literature indicates that strong self-esteem is indeed associated with all kinds of positive outcomes for kids and adults. The problem is that the industry was based on a distorted definition of self-esteem. Instead of helping kids build confidence, too many of these programs were built on misconceptions:

Misconception #1: Self-esteem = Feeling good

Feeling good is great! It just isn’t the same as self-esteem. Heaping praise and constant adoration on children without taking into account their efforts, experiences, or self-evaluation can inadvertently erode children’s confidence and actually make them less willing to take on challenges.

Misconception #2: Stress, challenge, and disappointment damage self-esteem.

Toxic stress isn’t good for anyone, especially children. Yet children learn how to handle appropriate levels of stress and challenge by navigating it. Nurturing a “stress-can-be-enhancing” mindset can build young people’s confidence in their abilities.

Misconception #3: We can boost self-esteem through external evaluations alone. 

There is nothing wrong with telling children that they are stars. Indeed, naming young people’s strengths, gifts, and value is essential. Creating positive counter-narratives is especially important for young people whose worth and identities are constantly undermined by negative stereotypes. But words alone are likely to fall short and may even backfire. Instead, children who also have opportunities to build skills, make connections, and grow towards their goals are more likely to have strong self-esteem.

Self-Esteem Goes Online

“I was constantly thinking about my posts and checking them,” a young person shared with me recently. “It was exhausting,” she concluded. 

“Sounds like you are using the past tense,” I noted. “Does that mean things have shifted?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m honestly not sure exactly what changed. Maybe I just got older. Maybe it’s because I’m too busy with other stuff to care as much anymore.” 

We went on to chat about what kinds of activities she was involved in. Based on our short conversation, it seemed like she had finally found a balance between caring about her digital interactions without caring too much about them. This is no small task. Due to changes in the brain during adolescence, young people’s self-concept becomes more rooted in the opinions of friends. What peers say to us and how they treat us have an outsized influence on our sense of self during this time. 

Given that many platforms are designed to collect and display social feedback for broad audiences, it’s easier than ever to become preoccupied with other people’s opinions. Researchers Jacqueline Nesi and Mitchell Preinstein call this “digital status seeking.” They found that young people who put a lot of stock in online metrics and who use various strategies to increase positive online feedback tend to have higher health risk behaviors than their peers. Another study found that teens who put more value on other users’ feedback and interactions on Instagram tend to have lower self esteem. That said, scrolling more passively through other people’s profiles comes with its own challenges. One study found that teens who frequently engage in upward social comparison on social media tend to have lower appearance self-esteem than their peers. The direction of these influences is unclear. 

The relationship between social media and self-esteem is complex. There are plenty of opportunities to build confidence and self-esteem online. Creating and sharing meaningful content, participating in social movements, and building and maintaining friendships can all strengthen young people’s sense of self. As with all screen time research, impacts are shaped by young people’s strengths and vulnerabilities, content, and the degree to which media use interferes with self-esteem-building activities. That said, it is hard for even the most resilient kids to avoid the emotional rollercoaster of online feedback entirely.

What to do?

It’s tempting to try to counteract the emotional rollercoaster of social media with lavish praise or by trying to make our kids happy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with reminding our kids that they are stunning, valuable humans worthy of joy. But trying to boost our kids’ self-esteem with our own equivalent of “likes, shares, and highlights reels” isn’t the most helpful move. We can’t build our kids’ up on the same reassurance and status treadmill that brought them down. Instead, let’s keep the misconceptions about self-esteem in mind as we seek out opportunities to build real self-esteem:

Offer Unconditional Love

When we present our own affection or positive affirmation as conditional (on performance, appearance, identity, etc..) we feed into the same trap that encourages status seeking. Instead, we can consistently remind our kids that we love them for all and everything they are. We can give accurate and realistic feedback about their behavior without calling their self-worth into question. This also lays the foundation for self-compassion which is a far more stable antidote to self-criticism than status-seeking. 


Telling our kids, “Just don’t care about what people online think of you!” is decidedly unhelpful. For starters, caring about peer opinion is developmentally right on time. This social sensitivity is part of what helps our kids move out into the world and find their people. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. Try, “It makes sense that you feel this way. Social media is great for a lot of things, but it can be a tough place to get authentic feedback about what really matters to you.”

Grow New Skills

Learning feels good. Growing skills can strengthen self-esteem. Taking a break from the fragile and volatile space of online peer opinion to learn and build new skills is often the most helpful move. This is not about signing our kids up for activities they have no interest in. It’s also not about emphasizing over-achievement or superiority as a path to confidence. But focusing on growth – including things like working on three-pointers, painting the set for the school play, or learning a new language often helps young people discover more firm internal footing.

Build Bridges

Let’s not position all things technology as antithetical to healthy self-esteem. If we are concerned, let’s look for ways to build bridges between their interests and opportunities for healthy connections and digital skill building. This could be participating in a connected camp, learning how to produce videos, or making digital art in an after-school program. 

Learn From, Don’t Avoid Setbacks and Frustration

Frustration and setbacks don’t inherently damage self-esteem – they are essential experiences on the road to self-confidence. Young people learn new skills through trial and error. Rather than avoiding setbacks, let’s offer support, normalize setbacks, and help our kids reflect on what helps them step into a stronger sense of self worth. 

When in Doubt, Learn Something New

When I watch my kids’ confidence drop, it’s tempting to fill the void with more words. More opinions. More positive appraisals. To be clear, these are good times to remind our kids that our love is unconditional – now and forever. But sometimes the best way to counteract the self-esteem minefield that comes with growing up online and offline, isn’t to hang up a poster telling them they can be a star. Instead, let’s invite them to design, create, and print a poster themselves.