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How to Reduce the Toxicity of Teen Girls’ Social Media Use

A simple intervention that changes the way girls view their feeds.

Social media is embedded in the lives of teens: 95 percent look at social media regularly. Parents, teachers, and policymakers are concerned about the detrimental effects on young people, particularly teenage girls, whose self-esteem is often seen to be at risk. The words girls use on social media, and the accounts they follow – 68 percent of girls focus on beauty, fashion, and reality TV stars – are more like a restricted diet of junk food compared with the social media word use and interests of boys, who, on average follow some “junk” but an average of 12 highly varied interests.

Parents and teachers often try to moderate the impact of social media by restricting screen time. This is a big ask for teenage girls who believe that without social media they would not have a life or be in the know. Working alongside the educational charity The Female Lead, I discovered something that paved the way to a simple and doable intervention we have found to be remarkably effective.

The Female Lead had access to a large data set (from data science company Starcount) that showed a correlation between girls’ restricted and unhealthy social media word output and the number of male or female celebrities they followed. Reviewing the accounts of 34,500 girls showed that among the top 50 celebrities they followed, 72 percent were male. But about 10 percent of girls (3,057 of them) were found to use words that flagged their interests and passions and goals. These included words such as journalist, tech, charity, CEO, woman, feminist, founder, book, news, and award. And among these 3,057 girls, 80 percent of the top 50 celebrities they followed were women, and at least two were high-achieving women.

We set out to ask whether we could improve girls’ social media health by asking them to follow at least four high-achieving women whose interests matched theirs. Of course, it was possible that the girls who followed high-achieving women were already different from the 90 percent who followed so many male celebrities. But the correlation the data revealed was so startling that we were willing to take a punt. At worst, we would have wasted some research time. But at best we would have discovered a way of improving girls’ use of social media – something no one else seems to have managed to do.

In the first interview with 28 girls between age 14 and 17 from five different schools and highly diverse backgrounds, we gauged their interests. Then we tailored a list of high-achieving women for each girl, and sent it out with the request that each follow four of these women on social media. The girls did not have to change anything else in their social media practice. All we asked them to do was include among the people they followed four of the women on the list. We returned to interview each girl after about nine months, and we were astounded by what we found.

First, girls said that their idea of social media had been transformed. “It’s given me like a completely different outlook on it, because it’s not about – obviously it’s social, but it’s not like about the materialistic side of it,” one girl told us. “It’s about other people doing like really good things, and it’s like education and like learning. And it’s really interesting and I didn’t know if [social media] could be used for that…” Several girls said that the exercise had transformed their views of social media and given them a “completely different outlook.”

Second, the exercise changed many girls’ use of social media. Instead of using it to keep up with friends, or the news, or entertainment, they realized it could offer guidance and vision. One girl said, “Normally you’d just have people you know or like, barely know, and then suddenly you have someone else and you’re just like, ‘Whoa!’ And I’ve followed much more, like, skiers and much more poets and artists now…It’s like the key chain events.”

Third, the exercise transformed their social media feeds. As one girl said, in following the women suggested by The Female Lead, “other stuff popped up and then I looked at other things to do with [my interests]." A common discovery was that in following the profiles suggested by The Female Lead, other individuals and organizations were recommended by their platforms. One girl who followed an astronaut was now following NASA; then she found the “explore” section (“It’s all quite physics things now. It’s quite funny”). Another girl was now following more political and activist accounts (and joining a Women’s March as a result); and others were following additional writers and actors. One 15-year-old followed a concert pianist on her list and was amazed by what she learned: “It was [about] competitions they went to…and I would never have known [about] that if I wouldn’t have followed them…I would have just, you know, had no idea.”

Here is a simple, inexpensive and doable intervention that improves girls’ social media health. That this should be incorporated into the pastoral curriculum of schools and used by parents (who might then be relieved of the nearly impossible task of barring social media) is a no-brainer.

Facebook image: Martin Novak/Shutterstock


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