Girls Don't Dumb Yourselves Down in Social Media
Featured in the Chicago Tribune – 11.12.2010
Ashley Gonzalez, 16, won't reveal her politics or social values on her Facebook page. She doesn't want to be judged by "friends" who don't know her very well. But she said she would never downplay her intellect, kindness or efforts to be a positive influence.
And she's troubled that a new national survey by the Girl Scouts Research Institute found that girls 14 to 17 years old often portray themselves in social media as "fun," "funny" or "social," rather than smart and ambitious.
"I understand they do it because they'd rather be popular and cool," said Gonzalez, a Chicago resident and longtime Girl Scout. "But it's the opposite of everything I believe in, and it breaks my heart to know a girl feels she needs to do that."
That some girls dumb themselves down in social settings, particularly those where they believe it's necessary to impress guys or fit into a clique, is nothing new. But what's different is that almost everything — think: bullying — re-created in the online social-networking world seems to be so amplified.
What's also different, researchers say, is that teens tend to view their social-media profile as a brand they're creating out of this amalgam of photos and posts. That online persona becomes part of their identity and, for better or for worse, could have an impact on how they see themselves in real life, experts say.
Maria Wynne, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, said her organization saw this firsthand over the summer while conducting focus groups separate from the institute's poll. She said they learned that although girls felt proud about building character and confidence in real life, they were shying away from such attributes in online social networking because they didn't seem cool.
In September, the organization launched the Web site "The World's Strongest Girl," worldsstrongestgirl.org, so that girls 5 to 17 could share stories, real or imagined, about acts of courage and how they overcame obstacles.
"We thought that girls needed a safe gathering place online to learn about themselves and each other in an environment that was largely anonymous," said Wynne. "Girls don't have a lot of platforms where they can envision who they might become."
Peggy Orenstein, the author of " Cinderella Ate My Daughter," due out in late January, said young people long have felt they were performing for an invisible audience, and now with social networking they really are.
"Kids get to craft their image or identity based on responding to people they don't even know, and the quickest way for a girl to get feedback is for her to be sexy, but not necessarily slutty," said Orenstein. "On one hand, girls have made such huge and obvious and wonderful strides, and yet the pressure hasn't abated to define themselves by their looks and sexiness."
The institute's poll examined 1,000 girls from around the country, many of whom were not Girl Scouts. The poll found that 41 percent of them admit that they try to make themselves appear cooler online.
Girls with low self-esteem were more likely than girls who were more self-assured to admit their online image didn't jibe with who they were in real life. Those low-self-esteem girls also more often portrayed themselves online as "sexy" or "crazy," meaning fun-loving.
According to the institute's research, 91 percent of the girls polled use Facebook regularly and 28 percent use Myspace regularly. Kimberlee Salmond, senior researcher at the institute, said the girls boast an average of 351 Facebook friends and said they make about six comments daily and post more than two personal status updates.
And while 85 percent of the girls said they have talked to their parents about safe social-networking behavior, 50 percent admit they're not as careful as they should be, putting themselves at risk.
But the poll did offer some good news: Even though girls spend a lot of time in the social-networking world, they prefer face-to-face communications.
"Ninety-two percent of girls would give up all social-networking friends to keep one best friend in real life," said Salmond. "Eighty-two percent of girls would rather go a full week without logging on to a social network than go a full week without seeing their friends in person."
When the institute mentions those stats, adults tend to breathe a sigh of relief, she said.
Gonzalez said it's important to note that online social networking isn't all bad. She said she's used it to get involved in causes important to her.
"Once you get beyond the scrutiny that's there, the fact that you're constantly being judged, you can use it for good," she said. "I try to be as honest as possible about myself at all times."
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