Social media has changed how we communicate, learn, and share our lives with each other. From one vantage point, the emergence of social media has been a positive tool in our society. Unfortunately, there is a darker side to this medium. Anything good in the wrong hands can bring negativity, and in the wrong hands social media can cause harm to others, particularly young girls who are often the subject of cyber bullying.

Where Did All the Happy Girls Go?

Stanford University analyzed a recent study of the effects social media has on young girls’ psyches. According to their data, girls between the ages of 8 and 12 who spent a significant amount of time using social media were found to be less happy than their peers who did not partake in the social pastime. Although the study and its results have been scrutinized, what led to the study was an intriguing question: What role does social media or “faceless communication” play in a child’s social development?

Girls are natural born communicators. No matter where they congregate you will see them huddled together, talking, sharing, listening. So why would a digital medium that was seemingly invented just for them, make them unhappy? Scientists believe it has to do with the lack of real social cues. In face-to-face situations, humans read each other in a specific and natural way. We pick up on body language, vocal tones, facial expressions, even pheromones; it is all part of human interaction. By decreasing this face-to-face time that is intrinsically a part of our evolution, social media might be doing more damage to child development, particularly female development, than has previously been considered.

Shout Out to the Girl Scouts

The Girl Scouts offer us more than boxes of delicious cookie goodness (a big Samoa shout out), they also offer us a unique glimpse into the lives of today’s young American girls. Wanting to address the possible impact social media had on developing young ladies, the Girl Scouts did their own research to find out just what role this digital platform plays in the lives of young girls.

74% of girls surveyed said that they, and their girlfriends, used social networking sites like Facebook to create a “cooler” persona of their actual selves. Offline, the girls admitted they were much more well-rounded and thought of themselves not only as fun and funny, but smart and kind as well. Online they tend to downplay their intelligence and kindness in order to focus on being the funny and social girl – the cool girl. Trying to “be cool” is nothing new and will never go out of style, and in this case perhaps social media takes the place of getting your ears pierced or borrowing your Dad’s car. Social profiles depict not so much who the girls are, but how they wish to be seen.

Model Behavior

Growing up is hard enough in any era but it seems to be getting increasingly difficult for young ladies to know exactly how to behave in the digital era. Parents and teachers are constantly promoting modesty and ladylike behaviors, but online communities and television programs show an increasing number of female figures setting crude examples of what is now deemed acceptable behavior.

Was it really the original intent of the feminist movement to advocate dropping the f-bomb or dancing like a stripper in study hall? You can make the argument that girls should know the difference between make believe and reality, but the reality is, reality TV has single-handedly destroyed the integrity of women with shows like The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives, Teen Mom, and Bad Girls. This latest generation of girls has grown up with reality TV, and no doubt their idea of what is and what is not acceptable behavior is skewed at the very least.

Tips for the Teenage Years

Now more than ever parents need to get involved and set guidelines and positive examples for their children about how to navigate the digital space. Most importantly, when dealing with teenage daughters, parents need to understand the complexity of social media. Social media can indeed exploit young women, but social networking sites also offer a safe space where young girls can connect with others who share their hearts and minds. A few safeguarding tips for parents:

  • Set a good example and don’t spend all of your time online or on your smart phone

  • Don’t allow your daughter to take her cell phone to bed with her – make sure it gets placed in a neutral room
  • Do not allow your daughter to share her password or personal information with anyone, not even friends.

The Positive Spin

More focus needs to be aimed at how social media can be used in positive ways to influence young women and the choices they make. One such positive comes from a mentoring program that uses social media to connect adolescent inner city girls to Wayne State University undergraduate female students. The idea behind the project is to open the eyes of young girls to different career opportunities available to them in the science and technology fields. The mentors digitally connect with the young girls throughout the school year and share their lives as college students in pursuit of a science degree. So far more than 600 girls have taken part in the program and the outlook is good that more will enroll.

Another benefit to social media is that it connects young girls to each other all around the globe. In countries where issues such as lack of clean water and rampant poverty are still daily concerns, increasing Internet access is now providing young girls with knowledge and a caring community they’ve never had before. In this instance, social media is playing a significant role in global gender equality.

The discussion about the role social media plays in our lives has only just begun. We must all take part in the dialogue and help shape the way this emerging technology is used in our homes and classrooms. The issue of girlhood and social media is certainly not hopeless. As parents, mentors, and powerful business women, we can make sure that the girlhood-social media relationship is fueled by positive energy.

Disclaimer: The author is affiliated with University Alliance, on behalf of the University of San Francisco’s online training program. SocialMoms was not compensated in any way for this article. This article was edited by SocialMoms staff to meet our editorial and quality guidelines.