From sexting to Facebook, Ailin Quinlan reveals how can parents help their teenage girls survive the potential dangers that await online.
Girls are brought up to believe they can do anything, but somehow they’ve got the message that they have to be everything: Beautiful, successful and, above all, popular.
Social media has merely intensified these ideas, often distorting a teenager’s perception of what really matters.
Teenage girls take their crushes very seriously, says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, author of Cotton Wool Kids: What’s Making Irish Parents Paranoid?
“They’re immature and it’s their first time having a sexual attraction,” she explains.
Although girls are often primarily interested in romance, O’Malley says, they want to get a boy interested and may do this by being sexually provocative. “By age 13 some girls are sexting to boys,” she says.
This gets them validation from boys and it can go to their heads: “Sexting has become very normalised — these kids are texting pics of everything from coffee to their dog.
“The boys cajole the girls, give them attention, flirt with them. There’s a dynamic played out online that can lead to some very embarrassing pictures being uploaded.”
What should parents do?
“Don’t lose it if you find your daughter is sexting,” says O’Malley.
Discuss, for example, Kim Kardashian’s recent nude online pics and how people perceive her. “Have an intelligent thoughtful conversation ” — for example, is Kardashian coming across as a bit needy?
The behaviour of celebrities is hugely relevant to teenage girls, she explains: “Ask whether Kim is more popular as a result — but is that the kind of popularity any of us would really want?”
Do the research, find newspaper articles about real people who did something inappropriate and got caught out — and get your daughter thinking.
“Their self-esteem is very tied up with how they look,” explains Trish Murphy, psychotherapist and agony aunt on the Ray D’Arcy radio show.
If girls upload pictures of themselves and get a lot of likes they feel good, she says. If not, they feel bad.
As a result, many will put up what are essentially ‘false’ images of themselves. “There’s this feeling that I have to be ‘other than me’, so they put up these unreal pictures,” says Murphy.
What can parents do?
Research shows that human beings are attracted to people who are confident, healthy, and optimistic. “It’s helpful for parents to be able to say to girls that attraction is not just about looks but also about how you feel yourself — how happy you are in your own skin. Explain that feeling good about yourself is very important,” says Murphy.
Encouraging teenagers to engage in healthy physical or creative activities such as dance, sports, music, or drama, she suggests. “Such activities are very beneficial to self-esteem.”
“Girls as young as eight are now worried about the size of their tummies or how their bodies look,” says Murphy.
“Weight is a huge issue and the culture of thinness really contributes to mental health issues for girls.
“It eats away at self-esteem and confidence, and can cause life-long problems.”
What should parents do?
“Mothers should not discuss their own weight issues, either in terms of diet, complaining about feeling fat or declaring they feel fabulous for losing weight. Make no connection in the home between weight loss and success,” says Murphy.
“Teenagers compare themselves on a kind of unseen league table,” says Murphy. “There’s a saying that comparing yourself is the fastest way to misery, but teenagers do this all the time.”
They are terrified at the prospect of being left behind the pack in terms of boys, image, and relationships — this can lead them into inappropriate behaviour, she warns.
The high emotion and volatility which characterises teenage girls means their peer group receives “an astronomically high priority”, says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley,
Don’t dismiss this. “Adolescence is a dog-eat-dog culture — no adult has to deal with going into the office every day and experiencing overt bullying and overt social exclusion.”
Around the age of 14 and 15 teenagers do incredibly cruel things, she says: “A group may decide to ‘not like’ someone’s latest profile picture just to freak her out and they will organise themselves to do it.”
Another cruel pastime is screen-shotting a comment and then discussing it with the most savage cruelty, she says: “They are witty and cruel and they are very good at it.”
No wonder teenagers seem to over-state the importance of their social standing.
“Do they take it too seriously?” asks O’Malley. “ Yes they take it too seriously, but I can see why.”
What can parents do?
The worst thing you can do is to get “all jolly and dismissive” about the number of ‘likes’ your child has received, says O’Malley. “Teenage children are in the jungle. They have seen people get eaten.”
Parents need to be empathetic, to listen and understand social media and understand what being screen-shotted means, she warns.
Understand how social media works, and try to remember what it means not to get invited to things, she advises.
“Also be aware that online is very public and everybody knows when you are being snubbed.”
Teenagers can display jaw-dropping naivety about uploading inappropriate, offensive or even risky material. That’s partly because they live so much of their lives online, says Murphy.
“They live life in the moment. They can be very self-centred and don’t see the bigger picture or the long-term implications,” she says. “There’s also a pressure to upload stuff and to get responses and ‘likes’.
“I was talking to a head girl in a second-level school recently who said she had been talking to second- and third-year students about their online presence.” The senior student reported that the younger girls were shocked by the implications of what they were uploading, recalls Murphy, adding that many teenage girls are not only ignorant of the fact that inappropriate material uploaded by them will remain on the internet and could be found by potential employers years down the road, but can often be oblivious to the rights of others.
“I know of a case where a girl put up a pic of a guy peeing at a party. His face was visible. “She thought this was fun and didn’t realise how serious it could be,” says Murphy. “She didn’t understand that it was an infringement of his rights.”
Although young teens may not be aware of the risks, for older teenagers it’s all about the thrill, and this, she warns can lead to them taking potentially serious risk. “Years ago, teenagers were hard-wired to take risks, but we didn’t have the same opportunities to act on impulse like this — now they live their lives online and everything is visible.”
What should parents do?
Start talking, Murphy advises. “Ask them about what they put up and ask if they know that it could come back to haunt them?”
Ask them what they think the effects of a particular picture might be and whether a particular image of themselves is the one they would like to have online.
Ask: What image of yourself would you like to have online?
“Ensure they’re aware of the risk by drawing them out,” says Murphy, suggesting how they want to look on Facebook, for example.
Many teenagers have highly distorted appreciation of the peer group, says psychologist Patricia Murray.
“Teenagers are really hypersensitive now, even more so than ever before, with all the social media.”
Friendship has become such an overwhelming survival need that some younger teenagers interpret not being in with the ‘in’ crowd as bullying, she says. “It’s not always bullying, it’s often just part of the complex social hierarchy in place.”
In today’s world, the tension around the very complex social hierarchies is extremely heightened. “There’s no sense of normality. It’s delusional thinking and all this stuff on social media about ‘being accepted’ and about ‘being in’ and ‘liking’ each other is about not being abandoned,” says Murray.
“You cannot stick out too much but at the same time your presence has to be acknowledged by your peer group.”
It’s about hiding in plain sight — in the safety of a group, says Murray. “They want to be just like everyone else,” she says, adding that the group provides protective cover and the need for it is virtually “hysterical”.
What can parents do?
Understand that this is all about being seen in school with other people: “It’s about being a valid peer, about not being out on your own but being within a group,” she says, adding that all of this has an impact on a teenager’s mental and social health.
Do your best to support and facilitate friendships, even if it all appears a bit silly. “Don’t criticise or make comments or observations about their friends.”
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