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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

by Andrea Johnston
President and Co-Founder Girls Speak Out Foundation

Note: Andrea will be writing a monthly column for Feminist.com. Please contact Andrea at www.girlsspeakout.org to ask questions, react and otherwise spread wisdom.

Past columns:

Girls Speak Out About Girls:

Girls Speak Out: For Women:


Real Connections in Her Real World:
Girls and Social Networking from the Inside Out

Girls’ need for social networking was documented decades ago when we first learned about girls’ psychology, which was then centered on a phenomenon called the “lost voice.” According to research done at Harvard by then-professor Carol Gilligan, girls were sacrificing parts if not all of their unique true selves to fit in with limiting cultural norms. In the process, they lost their voice, or their ability to speak as an individual who challenges sexist views of her gender. Subsequent research showed that girls were also at a higher risk for depression and decreasing self-esteem in adolescence, and African-American girls resist better than other girls. In the early 90s, when I was traveling around the country meeting with groups of girls helping them hold onto their true selves, they asked for more and more information from each other and women in the room about the successes, struggles and choices they might encounter as females. It was often preventative, and it was always personal and in-person. Our shared stories would inspire girls to move ahead feeling secure; the time between meetings was an essential part of their processing and integrating what fit their needs, plans and personalities.

In 1997, at the closing session of the First Girls’ Conference held at UNICEF House in New York City, a 13 year-old told us, “If I knew at 7 what we learned here, I would have made better choices. I would have understood I didn’t have to give up who I am, and that I wasn’t alone.” As adults, we were moved to get our message out to younger and younger girls, helping them find the real time and space to connect from the inside-out. For a time, we believed girl power would be institutionalized, that is, there would be a concerted and sustained movement to liberate girls from stereotypes and support their development as healthy, unique individuals who would find themselves on a level playing field with boys, and as they grew up, with men. We knew this required creating safe and exciting places where girls could talk about their feelings and life-events, evaluate what they heard, find ways to have an effect on people in their lives, and hopefully organize and do something to change what was unfair. Circles as places of connection became ubiquitous as the form in which girls met, played, created and talked.

Here we are now at the end of the first decade of a new century, and girl power is not institutionalized as we had hoped. Yes, girls are still finding ways to express themselves that move them forward as integrated and liberated individuals, but the outlook a decade ago was more hopeful as messages began to reflect differences as valuable, and as girls from a variety of backgrounds came together and probed beneath the surface to find root causes and new waves of resistance. But media is much more pervasive than it ever has been. A 2009 PEW report on online use by teens indicates that 93% of American 12-17 year olds use social networking sites (SNS), which really are VSNS, virtual sites. Almost half of these teens have broadband at home, and 75% of them create blogs.

What does this mean for tween and teen girls whose sophisticated relational awareness and strong interpersonal skills are always online in the age of iPhones and tweets? What is happening when virtual social networking is replacing in-person talking, probing and connecting and downtime to process what’s going on? Today thumbs, especially those of girls between the ages of 9 and 17, are no longer just a measure of our evolutionary status. They’re instrumental in bringing technology into girls’ lives 24/7, and with hand-held devices come symptoms that are taking us back to the depressing mental health statistics regarding girls’ development of the last century.

A false notion of social networking is being mass-marketed in a new form, with SNS as its generic new initials, and it’s time to evaluate its consequences by gender and implement positive uses. What does it mean when girls and their families are inundated with beliefs that without constant access to an online community and immediate recording of reactions and observations, they will be left out, which means left behind, without a voice, becoming a blank screen, which scares anyone struggling to find a place in society.

Hand-held metallic devices that connect girls to each other (and a media still selling stereotypes) have more value today than furry, warm pets: cell phones, PDAs, laptops, WiFi, Tweeters, Twitterers, Facebook and whatever emerges even as I write this are among the pseudo-connectors girls bond with and carry with them. A May 26, 2009 New York Times article, Texting May be Taking a Toll, states that girls receive an average of 80 messages a day, or 2,272 text messages a month, and some parents are finding over 14,000 messages a month billed to their daughter’s phone number. If it doesn’t ring, it vibrates, and it does it all day and night. According to the article: "The phenomenon is beginning to worry physicians and psychologists, who say it is leading to anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation." How many of our conversations have become dead zones because a ring tone and/or buzzing command a child's attention as if it was life or death?

A few weeks ago, a friend who is a school superintendent in a suburb of New York City, explained why she is troubled by what is happening in her district (two grade schools, two middle schools and a high school): girls are deteriorating in increasing numbers. Girls who are medicated, which is something that seems to go along with the insecurity of being a helicopter parent, and girls who are unmedicated, are falling apart. They’re engaging in destructive behaviors such as multiple sexual relationships and STDs, and failing academically. They’re also relatively privileged financially, which to me, as someone who works equally with girls who live in comfort as well as in poverty, is a bell-ringer. I know that with disposable money comes more and more personal technology, and that means palms are now telling fortunes in different ways. They’re pulsing with frantic attempts to make connections that feel right and make girls fit in—and they need to be routinely shut off.

Think about a girl who is regurgitating everything into her social networking accounts; she’s the new variation on adolescent eating disorders. She texts all the time, and when asked, confesses to being obsessed with what she can download next and listen to later as well. If she was eating fast food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and she complains about her gain in weight, and a doctor is concerned about juvenile diabetes and heart problems, you know where to look. It’s a no-brainer, right, that her food diet needs to be modified? Exploring foods that will support her health and well-being can even be a family activity. Chances are she might become a vegetarian, and insist everyone join her, because that kind of rebellion seems an appropriate response to a pre-teen and teen, and who knows, it may work out for everyone. The point is that we know, adults and children, what is good for us, but sometimes, we need other people to make sure we do it. Isn’t guiding part of connecting and or networking, and isn’t that what a girl also needs as she matures?

If your daughter, student, niece, friend, neighbor, texts and/or talks for the equivalent of breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack time and bedtime, and is confused, stressed, unfocused, depressed or irritable, not to mention secretive and distant, look at what she’s doing with her time. Help her find alone time, a refuge and silence. Maybe insist on it. She’s living at home, and chances are adults can control how technology functions there, at least until changes settle in and she can help construct a reasonable way to react and process wherever she finds herself.

Thousands of girls have let me know firsthand that a girl will locate and vibrate to her inner voice, and develop a positive self-image, no matter what is happening in her life, if she is has the time and space to find her voice and check in with it. This is true no matter where a girl lives or how she lives (it’s even been documented among children in armed conflict). But first, she has to be able to distinguish her inner voice to recognize it, isolate it from the cacophony. Then she needs to experience its resonance, and learn to trust it.

In my years working with girls in Kenya and Sierra Leone where there is little hand-held technology, where even cell phones are luxuries only a few adults have, there is less to chip away when getting to what matters. In non-technological communities, there is less noise (texts are noisy voices in our heads, aren’t they?), and truths are louder. It’s easier to find what is right for you although getting it may be harder because without technology there is often a lack of access to schooling, information, goods and services. Yet because there’s no sorting through what so many other people are saying almost at the same time, and with little or no explanation, I find that they get it sooner about our real strengths and abilities even when local custom says boys and men rule the hearth and pocketbook. Real social networking sites such as schoolrooms and huts are launching pads that move girls to doing something about traditional patriarchal beliefs much quicker and with their feet planted in rather than floating above self-determination.

Parents, teachers and supportive adults can have a real voice in girls’ lives in ways that encourage connection and offer balance. Girls hear what adults say when it’s offered as what we experience and conclude; she has to feel comfortable trying it on and seeing if it works for her now--or later. Many girls have told me, “I got it about being myself, but it took time to really get it. I had to think about it, and figure out what I really wanted.” The key here is THINK ABOUT IT. We used to call this “processing”, and it is different from reacting, and it’s essential to positive social networking.

Girls have the inner resources to be strong and healthy, along with the resilience to bounce back when negative events happen. However, once they are offered relevant and authentic information and support, they must have the space and time to think about it.

    When you look at girls and social networking,

  • Think of the palm and thumb as also leading to her heart and head.
  • Think about a balance between technology and emotional and social connections.
  • Find a way to ensure that a girl in your life has the quiet, space and time to learn who she is from the inside-out.
  • Impose limits on technology that reduce excessive availability and social pressure, and
  • Incorporate uses that validate soul-searching and reflection.

Girls need a smorgasbord of choices, and they have many options in part because media and technology connect a global, not local, community. But this technology connection is in its infancy, and we have to understand and control how to live with such overwhelming choices, some of them founded in greed and control, others reflecting justice and freedom.

A girl does need a tool to help decide which ideas, beliefs and actions are expressive of her identity, and help her make positive connections. That tool is her true self, which is the source of happiness and hope. Talking together, in person, actually sharing face time, about the value of listening to and communicating with her true self, is more important than anything we can buy her.

NOTE: Andrea is collecting stories and opinions for a book on what women would change about their childhoods knowing what they know now and using what is available now. Contributions can be confidential. Please contact [email protected] for more information.


*How to reach us: [email protected] or www.girlsspeakout.org

Note: Anyone can read this column, but alternate columns are written for girls. We hope that readers will write us and we will publish their writings and drawings. Please suggest ideas for columns, ask questions or describe what it means to them to be a girl. Girls Speak Out® is a program, book, organization that supports and connects girls, and an online column where girls can find each other. We invite you to join us.

Copyright © 2009 Andrea Johnston


Girls Speak Out About Girls:

Girls Speak Out: For Women:

ANDREA JOHNSTON is the author of Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self and the founder of the Girls Speak Out Foundation, an advocacy organization working with girls and their supporters on five continents. A 30-year veteran of public and private school teaching, Andrea convened and helped organize the First National Girls Conference at UNICEF House in New York in 1997. She has appeared in a Lifetime documentary, on CNN’s Talk Back Live!, and on local and national radio shows. She has also been a frequent keynote speaker at YWCA youth conferences, on college campuses, for parenting organizations, and in the General Assembly and Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. She has a son, Jesse, and lives in Northern California. Visit Andrea's web site at www.girlsspeakout.org.

Read an excerpt from Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self