Survey Finds Girls’ Isolation, Vulnerability Rise With Heavy Social Media Use

Managing Editor

Austin, Texas

New survey results released here reveal a heightened sense of vulnerability and disconnect among girls who immerse themselves the most in social media and technology.

The findings, unveiled at SXSWedu, a bustling hub of ed-tech talk, entrepreneurship, and sales, offered a reminder of the struggle that schools and parents face in knowing how and when to monitor students’ online usage—and in knowing when students’ tech exposure is too much.

The “Girls’ Index,” released by the Ohio-based nonprofit Ruling Our Experiences, was based on a nationally representative survey of more than 10,000 girls in grades 5-12, undertaken in partnership with schools around the country.

Many of the girls surveyed were prodigious users of social media.

Forty percent said they check their social media accounts 10 or more times per day. For younger girls, and Snapchat were the most popular forums. High school girls preferred Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

Among the findings of the survey:

  • Thirty percent of the respondents reported having been bullied or made fun of on social media. Nineteen percent said they have made fun of someone else on those forums.
  • Many of the girls who were the heaviest social media users struggle in making connections with peers, and they tend to have fewer outside interests, the research showed.
  • Girls who spend the most time using technology are five times more likely to say they are sad or depressed nearly every day. Girls who engaged with technology the most were also the least likely to be involved in activities such as clubs, sports, band, music, and theater.
  • In addition, girls who spent the most time on technology are the least likely to say they have supportive friends and supportive adults to talk to about serious issues.
  • Seventy-five percent of 12th grade girls say “most students their age send sexually explicit photos,” said a report explaining the survey results. And more than half of 8th grade girls have been asked to send a sexually explicit photo.

The more time girls spent on social media, the less likely they were to report that they wanted to come to school, the less confidence they had, and the more likely they were to want to change their appearance, said Lisa Hinkelman, the executive director of Ruling Our Experiences, who spoke about the results at a session at SXSWedu.

“Time on technology and time engaged with social media has some negative impacts for girls,” said Hinkelman in an interview. “We don’t have the ability to say that one thing causes the other, but we know there are these relationships that warrant further exploration.”

A Big Draw

There was a huge curiosity about the findings at SXSWedu.

When Hinkelman unveiled the results on conference’s opening day, the line to get into her session stretched down a hotel hallway, and dozens of would-be attendees had to be turned away. The next morning, her organization’s booth in the exhibit hall was swarmed by educators and others wanting more information.

Ruling Our Experiences, based in Ohio, focuses on research, education, and programming for girls, with the goal of improving their knowledge, skills, and success. The organization, which grew out of a research study conducted by Ohio State University, also trains K-12 school counselors.

The organization compiled the Girls’ Index questions with input from counselors, principals, parents, teachers, social scientists, attorneys, and others. The survey was piloted with a group of about 700 girls, and then refined, before the full version went into the field in 2016 and 2017.

The instinct among many parents and K-12 officials in looking at the results is probably to restrict social media use, Hinkelman said.

But that’s often a simplistic and misguided strategy, she said, partly because young people are going to fight back on efforts to restrict time spent online, anyway.

“The conversation we’re not having is, how do we help build girls’ competencies in other ways?” Hinkelman said.

“How do we help them build more effective relationships? It’s about helping them build effective relationships in life—and online.”

Schools can help by focusing on strategies to promote social-emotional learning—a growing area of interest in K-12, she said. Those programs can help girls who may or may not be struggling academically—all of them may be wrestling with interpersonal skills.

Girls need to be encouraged to learn how to bring about positive outcomes in their social media use, Hinkelman said, and adults need to encourage them to do so—rather than trying to cut off online access.

Ultimately, the skills that girls need to navigate coercion or pressure, and in knowing not to engage in bad behaviors, are the same skills they need online, Hinkelman said.

Online or offline, girls need to be encouraged to be able to set boundaries, stand up for themselves, engage an adult, or know when to end a conversation,” she said.

“We’re not teaching girls to be able to do that in real life—but we expect them to be able to do it online?”

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