How is it that something girls love so much can also create so much anxiety, paranoia and aggression? I'm talking, of course, about social media. This week, as I continue my tour of BFF 2.0 -- girls' social world online -- I'm talking about the paradox of social media.
On the one hand, social media can ease many of the insecurities girls feel about their identity and relationships. If real life has dealt you a hand you mostly cannot change, a few clicks help a girl control her online appearance. Worried about weight gain or acne? Post a flattering photo as your profile picture on Facebook. Want people to know you listen to cool music? List hip indie music festival pages under your favorite interests. Wish your peers saw you as "different in a cool way?" Upload an artsy still life photo you took. Don't have a boyfriend, but want to show everyone that guys still like you? Change your profile photo to one of you and your best guy friend from camp.
A girl's social networking profile is a persona she constructs, a photoshopped billboard on the information superhighway. It also offers a salve for the anxiety so many girls feel about relationships, providing the answers to burning social questions like, What do other people think of me? Do people like me? Am I normal? Am I popular? Am I cool?
A constant drumbeat of texts, especially from (and in front of) the "right" sort of senders, makes it clear that you are wanted, needed and liked. Photos of you and your friends laughing, posing and partying are a kind of social press conference, an announcement that these are my friends, this is my tribe, I am part of something important.
All this, however, at a cost. Here's where the paradox comes in.
The same tools girls use to alleviate insecurity are just as likely to inflame it. As relationship becomes more public and visible online, we learn things we would rather not know. Meghan, 17, called a friend to go to a movie. The friend said she didn't feel like it; later, Meghan read online that she had gone with someone else.
Social media forces girls to bear witness to painful realities of relationship that were previously hidden from view. It is a new kind of TMI, or "too much information:" publicly posted photographs of an outing or party you did not attend, or a personal web page like Formspring, can send a girl into paroxysms of anxiety and grief.
Where information is power, there can be no filter. Girls click to consume even the most painful social news, because it is just a click away, and because they can. As a result, girls learn to comb the electronic terrain both to connect and protect their social status. Thirteen year old Jessica described her phone as a periscope that offered her intelligence on a conflict she was having with a friend:
"If I didn't have a phone, I would have probably been more scared to go into school, like, that Monday because I wouldn't know what was going on. I wouldn't know who was mad at me and who wasn't, because I wouldn't have been able to talk and ask people. Like, I wouldn't have known if Maureen was on my side, if she was forgiving Jill again. I would know nothing. I would just know that Jill...was going to be so mean to me when I got back on Monday."
This world is not so very different from the video games many boys play. These games recreate dark, unpredictable worlds that reveal lurking enemies and rewards. So does social media. For the self-conscious or insecure girl, technology can become a crippling addiction, an insatiable hunger not just for connection but the elusive promise of being liked by everyone.
In a recent survey, Secret's Mean Stinks found that 87% of girls surveyed agreed that social media sites have the power to be used positively in the fight against bullying. That's why I'm partnering with Mean Stinks on Facebook to create an empowering online platform where girls can find the tools to end the mean streak and start a movement of nice. Next week, I'll be back with more excerpts from the new Odd Girl Out!
This post is excerpted from the newly revised and updated Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. The new OGO includes two new chapters on girls, social media and parenting in a digital age. Order it now!
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