Why We Should Stop Panicking about Girls and Social Media, and See the Possibilities!

It’s been called more addictive than cigarettes. According to The Royal Society of Public Health, it’s creating a “mental health crisis for girls.” In general, it’s making many girls more lonely, anxious, and insecure. I’m talking about social media.

As the founder and Executive Director of the Boston-based non-profit MEDIAGIRLS — and mother of a 14-year-old girl- I am seeing up close the damage done to girls’ well-being. I am also seeing it’s potential to bring out our best, and believe girls and young women can flip social media to empower one another and enhance (yes, enhance) their well-being.

In our programming, we train female college students in Boston to teach girls in middle-school to think critically about undermining media messages being sent to them. The average teen girl consumes eight to ten hours of media a day (The Representation Project) telling them that their self-worth comes from how “hot” and thin they are. This messaging has trickled down to social media, where girls post photos to present their most flawless selves. They use “Facetune” to do away with acne, stand at specific angles to hide body curves, and adjust filters to find the most flattering light. The girls in our program tell us that the highest praise a girl can receive on a post, no matter what she writes, is often “So pretty!” or “So cute!”

Ugh.

But here’s the inspiring news: We’ve spoken with thousands of girls in our workshops, and they want something better for themselves on social media. They are admittedly addicted to Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, but can’t stand the “drama” and the “fakeness.” Proof: Many girls on Instagram have “Finsta” accounts, which stands for “fake Insta,” which is a separate account with less followers for their “true friends.” It is there that they show candid thoughts, goofy faces, and awkward moments. The irony is that “Finsta” is a whole lot more real than “Insta” (aka “Rinsta” for “Real Insta.”)

Above all, our girls tell us they crave seeing girls being more“real” with each other. When we ask them what other behaviors on social media would make the platforms more positive, they often name two more. “Girls should lift each other up instead of spreading snark or gossip,” and “Girls should speak up for what they believe in.” YES!

More hopeful news: This generation has plenty of female role models they can draw upon for inspiration from this year: Taylor Swift used her Instagram platform last October to tell her 113 million followers to register to vote in the mid-terms. Vote.org says nearly 65,000 Americans ages 18 to 29 registered to vote in the roughly 24 hours after the singer-songwriter’s social media rallying cry. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist in Sweden, uses Instagram to inspire activism in teens and has over one million followers. Emma Gonzalez, one of the Parkland shooting survivors, used her Twitter following, which has over 1.6 million followers, to speak out against gun violence and persuaded young people to vote in the mid-terms. Boston local Laureen Chalameau, age 17, started @usdarkskins on Instagram to showcase the beauty of dark-skinned people in the media, who are typically “erased” in media. This is the best of social media, right here.

Instagram (and other platforms) is not the enemy. Social media is a neutral platform, and how we use it is up to us. And specifically, it’s up to girls and young women; they are the ones to dominate in numbers on social media and can truly transform the culture the moment they decide to. That’s a lot of power for middle-school girls who aren’t used to having much say at all.

What we adults can all do is go beyond restricting their time on it and naming it “evil.” We can ask girls without judgment: “Who do you follow on social media and why?” “Does social media make you feel good?” “How could it make you feel better?” And perhaps most importantly of all, “What do you want to add the world using your social media?”

At the end of the day, the many millions of girls using social media are media makers. And it’s not they who need a makeover, it’s the media does.

Michelle Cove is the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to discover their self-worth and harness the power of media for positive change. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Katie Couric’s talk show “Katie,” “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, and The New York Times.