The Extreme Effects of Social Media on Young Girls
The internet can be a wonderful place — information and the world at your fingertips. It has also become an enormous part of our social lives, with many interacting with friends, family, and acquaintances across various social media platforms. We use social media to keep up with our friends who live far away, plan social events, and share photos of our lives. But social media can also be a dangerous place, especially for young girls — the internet can abound with online predators, sexual temptations, unrealistic body standards, and vicious bullies.
We try to protect our daughters, raising girls who are independent, positive, intelligent, and brave. Social media can be a dangerous force working in opposition to parents trying to keep their daughters safe and confident. The perils of the internet, particularly social media, are numerous. Educate yourself so you can know what they are and look for the signs that your daughter might be engaging in these dangerous behaviors.
Sexting is sending sexually suggestive messages or photographs (including nudity) via text, email, or social media applications such as SnapChat. According to Psychology Today, 20-30 percent of teens have sent or received a sext. What’s more–those who engage in sexting are more likely than those who don’t to engage in underage sexual activity. In fact, according to a study by the University of Texas, 76.2% of teens who participated in “sexting” have participated in sexual intercourse.
The dangers of sexting extend far beyond increased likelihood of sexual activity. When surveyed about sexting activity, over 25 percent of teens admit to forwarding messages and photographs on to friends. This means that private thoughts and images of your teen could be making the rounds among their peer group, serving as fodder for blackmail, bullying, and countless other forms of potential humiliation or emotional distress. Once a photo has been shared, there’s no way to control where it is shared, tagged, distributed, etc. — this means the photo could not only damage your child’s reputation among her peer group and result in bullying, but continue to haunt her years down the line. If college admissions officers or potential employers are surfing the web, one inappropriate message or photograph could derail your child’s chances for a bright future.
Finally, sharing naked images of underage individuals is considered child pornography, which means your child or their partner could face serious legal ramifications for their actions.
Catfishing & Online Predators
The anonymity of the internet and the ease with which anyone can create a social media profile purporting to be someone they are not makes the internet a dangerous place for young girls. Sexual predators or ill-intentioned bullies can create social media profiles using fake photos (or photos garnered from the internet) to craft a fake online persona. According to ABC News, one in five internet users aged 10 to 17 report receiving unwanted sexual advances online. In the worst-case-scenarios, this can result in more grave circumstances such as kidnapping or rape. Sexual predators misrepresenting themselves on social media will lure teenagers, especially young girls, into a false sense of security and persuade them to arrange a dangerous personal meeting. 30% of teen girls admit to meeting a stranger in person after an initial online meeting.
On a perhaps less dangerous, but still detrimental note, teens often run the risk of being “catfished” online — that is, convinced that someone online is another person entirely (perhaps someone who doesn’t exist). Teen’s peers may create a fake social media profile with the aim of gaining the trust of your child, purely for the sake of bullying and humiliating them. This can range from encouraging your child to share personal details, which the catfisher may then share with unwanted parties, to luring your child into a false emotional (even romantic) bond that is crushed when their true identity is revealed.
One of the greatest dangers faced by young girls online today is the toxic nature of cyberbullying. Social media provides a new platform for bullying, where peers can spew abuse (sometimes anonymously) at your child — this could range from making embarrassing social media posts about your child to a personal attack of relentless messaging. Cyberbullying has become such a concern that Prince William himself has organized a task force, including leaders at top social media companies, to brainstorm ways to improve online safety. Cyberbullying is insidious, and it causes extreme mental and emotional duress, isolation, anxiety, and more. In the most extreme cases, it has been linked to a rising amount of teen suicides.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tracked a 200% increase in suicides among girls age 10-14, with a steep increase after 2006 (the same year that social media began to swell as an online force). While deaths due to disease decline, suicide rates are rapidly increasing, particularly among teenagers. Many experts point to social media and cyberbullying as the root of this increase.
Dr. Gene Beresin, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says, “ We don’t yet have the data on cyberbullying and suicides, but, in my opinion, cyberbullying may be a major factor in the suicide rates, particularly in young girls. Girls are the best at verbal bullying, very vicious. Boys tend to be physical, girls tend to be emotional. I’m not against social media at all, there are good things about it, but when a kid is cyberbullied, the ‘abuse’ can spread quickly and widely. Rumors that might have been contained to the high school can spread quickly and easily to a much, much larger population. The shame and humiliation can be devastating. So, the high rates of suicides in girls 10-14 may reflect a greater impact of social media cyberbullying among girls than boys. This is not a definite, but it needs to be considered and studied.”
Surprisingly, victims of bullies are not the only ones at risk. Studies have proven cyberbullies to be equally at risk for suicidal behavior as those on the receiving end.
Body Image and Self-Esteem
Finally, young girls already feel an enormous amount of pressure from their families, the media, and their peer group. They worry constantly whether they’re cool enough, smart enough, thin enough, pretty enough, and so on. Social media can be a detrimental influence in this regard, providing fodder for your child to compare themselves to others and feel they are coming up short. Most particularly, this affects issues of body image and self-esteem. If your daughter sees her friends hanging out in a photo on Instagram or rocking a new outfit in a Snapchat selfie, they may feel what we colloquially refer to as FOMO or “Fear of Missing Out.” This can spiral into a vicious cycle of comparison and a sense that they cannot measure up to the carefully crafted lives of those they interact with on social media.
This particularly extends to issues of body image. Bombarded with images of perfection or supposed ideal body types by the media, marketing organizations, and even toy makers, girls as young as five years old report concerns about their weight and appearance. Social media particularly aggravates this issue where teens and their appearance are catalogued and displayed in unprecedented ways. The International Journal of Eating Disorders found that a group of women asked to browse Facebook for 20 minutes experienced more body dissatisfaction than those who spent 20 minutes researching rainforest cats.
The BBC also reports direct links between social media usage and body image concerns. Ironically, girls feel more pressure from their peers when it comes to comparison and striving for the perfect body, despite the fact that nearly all social media users admit to doctoring their images before posting. With photo editing software on our phones and filters on apps like Instagram, it’s easier than ever to manipulate a photo and one’s appearance. Though most girls admit to editing their own photos, they tend to forget this when evaluating a friend’s post and comparing themselves.
Thus, social media can lead to lack of self-esteem and other self-destructive behaviors, such as cutting or eating disorders.
Though social media is a valuable tool for your daughter’s social life, you should take care to monitor it closely. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and the like are marvelous tools for socialization, but they also come with a unique set of perils and extreme consequences.