I read a study recently that worried me and reminded me of some problems parents of teenage girls have been telling me about for the last couple of years. The study indicated that these girls spend a lot of time online trying to influence their friends and classmates to view them in particular ways that they think will make them popular. “Although 56 percent of girls told researchers that social networks help them feel closer and more connected to friends, and 30 percent think they’ve improved their friendships, there is a disconnect between their presentation of themselves online and how they describe themselves in real life. Many girls said other girls made themselves seem cooler online and also admitted they themselves did that. Their online self was less likely to be “smart” or “kind” — words the girls used to describe themselves as appearing in real life — and more likely to be “fun,” “funny,” “sexy” or “social.” Also, girls with “low self esteem” were slightly more likely to describe their online persona as sexy (22% percent versus 14%) and crazy (35% versus 28%) than girls with “high self esteem.” During a panel New York Times Magazine columnist Peggy Orenstein pointed out the risks of girls posting every aspect of their lives for feedback — especially for younger girls. It makes sexuality something you show rather than something you feel or do.”

Because of this, the mistakes every teenager is bound to make online are memorialized in print. In addition, the content of a Facebook post makes concrete and permanent a teen’s attempt to try on different aspects of self and leaves it there to confront the teen later in life, at a time that person may not wish to be faced with their mistakes. In addition, the Internet can increase the intensity and the capacity of bullying to reach teens that might not otherwise be bullied.

I am reminded of a young girl who was encouraged to post pictures of her self in sexy and somewhat uncovered postures online for her boyfriend to see. These were then sent, by him, to another girl who was competitive with her and they were spread around the High School class. The teen, who was struggling with her own feelings of self worth, was embarrassed at school and felt humiliated for the next few months. Her parents were concerned about her and came to me seeking advice and help. It is very important to talk to teenage girls especially, before they are lured into these situations to help them to see what the pitfalls are and to find another way of expressing their longings. It would also be helpful for parents to counsel their sons in being empathetic to their female classmates.

Barbara Feld, LCSW

Got thoughts or opinions on this topic? A helpful anecdote you want to share? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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