If you came of age without Facebook, you probably regularly find reasons to be grateful for it. But a new survey suggests that despite the risks, social networks can make teen girls more emotionally safe and closer to their friends.
A study of 1,000 girls ages 14-17, conducted by the Girl Scouts, found that 68 percent of girls have been bullied or gossiped about on a social network, and 46 percent thought the medium makes friends jealous of each other. 40 percent say they lost respect for someone based on what they put on their social media profile.
Still, 56 percent of girls told researchers that social networks help them feel closer and more connected to friends, and 30 percent think they've improved their friendships.
This is despite the fact that there's a disconnect between the self these girls are presenting online — their brand management, to be precise — and how they describe themselves in real life. 74 percent said other girls made themselves seem cooler online, and 41 percent admitted they themselves did that.
That online self was less likely to be "smart" or "kind" — words the girls used to describe themselves as appearing in real life — and more likely to be "fun," "funny," or "social." Also, girls with "low self esteem" were slightly more likely to describe their online persona as sexy (22% percent versus 14%) and crazy (35% versus 28%) than girls with "high self esteem." At the panel that followed the presentation of the research last night, New York Times Magazine columnist Peggy Orenstein pointed out the risks of girls putting up every aspect of their lives for feedback — especially for younger girls, it makes sexuality something you show rather than something you feel or do.
We all know the Internet can increase the velocity and the reach of bullying. And those amateur mistakes every teenager is bound to make are immortalized. Orenstein wrote a column last year that touched on this aspect — how the constant contact of Facebook fixed a persona at a time when everyone is trying on different ones:
As a survivor of the postage-stamp era, college was my big chance to doff the roles in my family and community that I had outgrown, to reinvent myself, to get busy with the embarrassing, exciting, muddy, wonderful work of creating an adult identity. Can you really do that with your 450 closest friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self?
And yet social media can also be a lifeboat for a troubled teen, whether she's using it to feel more connected to the friends she knows, or to find people out there in the world to make her feel less isolated. On the same panel, Simmons college professor Janie Victoria Ward talked about how when she researched the effectiveness of social programs for girls, the number one concern the girls discussed was how hard they found it to trust other girls. But Mobilize.org head Maya Enista pointed out that participating in an anonymous online forum helping girls with their concerns was a form of mentoring that could be more effective than real life, where age or cultural difference or communications skills could be a roadblock.
Yesterday's popular hashtag on Twitter, #tweetsyour16yearoldself, didn't have to just be a way for adults to express their regrets about what they wished they'd known. They could also be a way for younger tweeters to get some perspective on their own issues. Also, three words: It Gets Better.