Last night, the Girl Scouts Research Institute celebrated its tenth anniversary with the release of Who’s That Girl? a new study about girls and social media. I’ve written about the GSRI and the wonderful work that they do before, and I’m so glad that this study has been done. Here are a few quick numbers for you. In a study of about 1000 girls between the ages of 14 and 17:
In person, girls say they come across as smart (82%), funny (80%), kind (76%) and outgoing (55%) as well as fun, cool, a good influence and socially confident.
Online, the words girls most frequently use to describe themselves are fun, funny and social. There’s a disparity between their online personalities and their offline personalities, and they’re playing down their intelligence, confidence and kindness online.
For girls with low self-esteem, a disconnect of this kind is almost twice as common. Girls with low self-esteem are also more likely than girls with high self-esteem to construct an online image of themselves that is “sexy” or “crazy.”
Many girls understand the potential negative consequences of posting information about themselves online – 42% are concerned it could prevent them from being accepted at the college of their choice and 39% worry that it could cause friends and family members to lose respect for them. Despite this, half of the girls surveyed admitted that they weren’t always as carefully as they should be.
68% percent of girls have had a negative experience on a social networking site – like being bullied or gossiped about.
But the news isn’t all bad. The study also showed that 52% of girls have used a social networking site to become involved in a cause that they care about, and more than half agree that social networking online helps them feel closer to friends.
Last night we were treated to a panel of brilliant women – Mobilize.org CEO Maya Enista, author Peggy Orenstein, Simmons College professor Janie Victoria Ward, former supermodel Emme and MTV’s new Twitter Jockey Gabi Gregg – who covered a wide range of issues, from the premature sexualization of girls to the need for parents to model healthy body image for their daughters.
Speaking about the worrying finding that girls with low-self esteem are more likely to sex up their images online, Orenstein, a mother whose book Cinderella Ate My Daughter comes out in February, said that the trend was a result of a “performance culture” around feminine sexuality. Orenstein expressed concern about “the way that the culture is marketing and telling girls what it means to be feminine and what it means to be a girl,” which, she said, mostly means being sexy and sexual. The result is premature sexualization and rigid, restrictive definitions of femininity. It starts early, and never ends. “It starts in the womb,” Orenstein said, “when you buy your first pack of diapers with the Disney Princesses or the cars on them.”
Gabi Gregg urged parents to take an active role in their daughters’ online lives, encouraging them to check their kids’ Facebook profiles, and to talk to them about online risks. According to the study, 85% of girls have talked with their parents about social networking safety – but many of those girls still knowingly take risks. Emme, a former model and the founder of the new Body Image Council at the National Eating Disorders Association, stressed the importance of parental involvement offline, too, and of the power of the parental example. Girls are more likely to have low self-esteem, Emme said, if mothers don’t have “a strong foundation” in “how they talk about themselves and how they allow other people to talk to them.”
Finally, the women turned the mics over to the girls. A panel of four New York City girl scouts, all of them high schoolers with lofty career aspirations – nursing, anesthesiology, optometry, and research science – offered their insights into how girls think about social media. They were smart and on point and it was such a pleasure to hear young girls speak, rather than hear them spoken about or spoken to.
Speaking about what she considers the greatest challenge facing girls today, fourteen-year-old Regan Sims – who aspires to be an actress, as well as a research scientist – said that the girl panelists all drew a blank when they were asked to name women who acted as positive role models for girls. Sims said that her generation of girls needed to produce more leaders, so that the next generation of girls wouldn’t be stumped when asked the same question. The Girl Scouts say that they’re all about giving girls a voice. Last night, with this insightful and inclusive discussion, they proved that that’s more than just talk.