Remember that moment in your Facebook life when Dad joined up? (I know you’re on there, Frank Magee, but I’m not ready to talk about it.) What about your 14-year-old cousin (when did she start wearing eyeliner??) While an older generation’s foray into social networking has spawned public jokes and private nervousness, it’s a younger generation’s participation that perhaps deserves our focus. Our moms and dads are adults, and developed into adults without either the attention or influence of a virtual community. Our teen and pre-teen cousins are different. Little girls grow up both on- and off- line.
The ‘Book’s cultural relevance is at an all time high, what with that movie and all, and the people responsible for social research are taking an interest in how Facebook and other social networking sites are affecting the development of those who barely know a time before their existence. This month, the Girl Scouts Research Institute–a research organization funded by Girl Scouts of America and dedicated to studies that “amplify the voices of girls”—released findings from their research on teenaged girls and social networking. Over a thousand girls, aged fourteen to seventeen, all of whom had some sort of social networking profile, took part in an online survey that measured social networking’s influence on nothing less than their developing identities. Of girls surveyed, over 90 percent used Facebook regularly. Another 28 percent used MySpace regularly, and 38 percent had a Twitter account (averaging 8 tweets a day!). In the midst of all this activity, the study found a serious cleft between how the girls viewed themselves and their character, and how they viewed the persona they presented online through their profiles. In person, more girls described themselves as smart (82%), then fun (82%), funny (82%), kind (76%), a good influence (59%), outgoing (55%), cool (55%) and social/confident (51% / 51%). But when asked to describe how they came across to others based solely on their online profiles, more girls used the words “fun,” “funny,” and “social.” Missing from the list? Smart! Girls also tended to downplay other adjectives they had previously used to describe their in-person character, chief among them their kindness, and their efforts to be a good influence on others. In addition, the majority of girls surveyed agreed with the statement “most girls my age use social networking sites to make themselves look cooler than they really are,” and nearly half admitted that it was also true about them. Perhaps more disturbing are the findings on social networking and self-esteem; girls who measured low in self-esteem were more likely to describe a division between their online and in-person image, and more likely to use the words “crazy” and/or “sexy” to describe the image they put forth online.
In response to these and other findings, the Girls Scouts Research Institute hosted a discussion panel of both adults and teenaged Girl Scouts. Supermodel and positive body-image activist Emme participated, as did Gabi Gregg, author of the fashion blog Young, Fat and Fabulous and MTV’s “first Twitter Jockey,” and four Girl Scouts involved in everything from camp-counseling to double-dutch to starting a volunteer ambulance corps. Peggy Orenstein, who wrote the bestseller Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap a couple years ago, voiced concerns about how Facebook only encourages today’s “performance culture,” in which femininity is commodified, girls learn to brand themselves, and online profiles serve as an easy way to try on new identities in an effort to successfully “perform” femininity and sexuality. She even sited one sex researcher’s findings that a new generation of girls, when asked to talk about their first sexual experiences, are for the most part talking about how they looked during them.
On the other hand, some of the Girl Scouts when asked talked about how Facebook has been useful in connecting them to friends and family, and to causes they care about as well as opportunities for leadership. In fact, the survey also found that online social networking could have a positive effect on social awareness and civic participation, with over half the girls asked having been connected to a cause they care about through a social network. Gabi Gregg also spoke up for the positives, saying that Internet socializing connected her to a support system when she felt like the only black girl, and the only big girl in her high school, and now she uses the Internet to spread encouraging messages to other girls, and from places where they might not always receive them (i.e. the fashion world and MTV). Most encouraging of all? The Girls Scouts study found that 92 percent of girls would trade every single one of their online friends if it meant they got to keep their best friend.
Findings from “Who’s That Girl? Image and Social Media,” published by the Girl Scout Research Institute, can be found at