[Published November 20, 2017 on LinkedIn]
My generation of women – those of us born in that hazy space between Gen X and the Millennials – love to talk about how grateful we are to have gone through high school before social media was a thing. We still had the internet, in all its snail’s pace, dial-up glory. But no Facebook, Snapchat or Twitter to publicly broadcast every teenage heartbreak, drama or questionable fashion choice.
I’d imagine older women probably feel the same. It’s easy for us to think back to all those paper notes passed frantically between classroom desks (the social media of the time), and feel safe in the fact that they’re long since destroyed, untraceable by future employers with a knack for googling. If you’ve hopped on the social media bandwagon a bit later in life, it’s easy to see yourself as completely removed from what today’s teens get up to online.
Except increasingly, that’s not the case. Social media is a reality that today’s teen girls have grown up with, and in many ways, it’s a funhouse mirror that reflects and distorts everything society expects from them. Like it or not, that makes us all complicit in the toll it can take on those who use it most.
Ask a teenage girl today, and odds are she’ll be active on at least one social media platform – usually it’s several. If you’re raising a teen girl, you’ve probably already had more than a few conversations (read: fights) about how much time they’re spending on their smartphones, and who they’re spending it with.
And with good reason: new research from Ipsos for Girl Guides of Canada shows that more than half (55%) of girls aged 15-17 in Canada say that trying to meet social media expectations about how they should look or act has negatively impacted their self-esteem. Who’s the most likely to feel the psychological fallout? You guessed it: girls who use social media the most.
Let’s come back to that funhouse mirror again. Social media only reflects what we, as a society, put into it. A majority of girls (59%) agree they feel pressure from society to conform to unrealistic expectations about what it means to “be a girl,” be it how they should look, dress, speak or act, or the interests they should have. That’s “society” writ large, meaning parents and teachers in addition to the traditional media and social media.
Girls are quick to pick up on social cues, even when those cues are completely contradictory. Our research shows that more than half of teen girls (56%) get mixed messages about how they’re supposed to act and behave, or look and dress. Stay thin and lose weight, but flaunt those curves. Play sports, but not those sports. Be smart, but not too smart.
While many of us choose to see this as simply part of the teenage experience for girls, we’re missing out on the bigger picture. This whirlwind of social pressures, mixed messages and conflicting expectations doesn’t magically come to an end with high school graduation.
What manifests today as avoiding an activity or sport that not many girls participate in, will lead to fewer women excelling in those sports and activities in the future. When today’s teen girls hide a budding passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) in the classroom for fear of being rejected by their peers, it means fewer women leaders in the key industries of tomorrow. Already, one in four (24%) say they aren’t motivated pursue their dream career because they’re worried they’ll be compensated less than their male counterparts.
If that’s the way girls feel in 2017, then none of us can take gender equality as a given in Canada. It’s still a way off, and we’ve got our work cut out for us.