Teen Girls Flip The Negative Script On Social Media

Mar 24, 2016
Originally published on March 24, 2016 2:04 pm

For many teen girls, the Internet can be a hateful place.

To counter the negativity, they've been coming up with their own social media solutions. According to Pew, 73 percent of teen girls use social media to get support from peers, so they've been creating spaces where teens play into the positive and taking national conversations about gender into their own hands.

Last year, Caitlyn Clark, 16, who lives near San Francisco, saw an anonymous Instagram hate page about some girls she knows.

"It's one of those things that just kind of appears like randomly, just out of nowhere. Someone will get tagged in a picture of themselves and the caption is just something really horrible," she says.

That account disappeared after just a few pictures went up. In its place, girls at Caitlyn's school created a different Instagram account. Open it, and there's row after row of smiling selfies with comments like:

Sara is a great person with a loving personality.

I agree. Sara is so cute and nice. Can we have more people like you on this planet?

There's also the trend of the "challenge" on social media. Usually, it's something like, "How many mouthfuls of cinnamon can you swallow?" Increasingly, there are challenges designed to spread self-esteem, kind of like a modern-day chain letter.

On Facebook, for example, users are called on to post three confident selfies and to tag 10 people you feel should share their beauty with the world. "And then, there will be like 10 people [commenting] 'Awww, oh my God, you're so beautiful,' " says 18-year-old Billy Cruz, Caitlyn's boyfriend. "It's really cool, because it's like, here, I'm being confident, and then you guys all be confident now. And they're like, 'OK, we're all confident now, let's pass it on to other people!' "

I've been tagged in stuff like this before. And I was like, OK, whatever, next! Is confidence really as simple as getting tagged in a post? But when you dig beneath the superficial stuff in these social media campaigns, girls are raising serious issues. Take #dresscode, which challenges whether school dress code policies are fair.

"When you interrupt a girl's school day to send her home because her shoulders are exposed, you're telling her that making sure that boys have a distraction-free learning environment is more important than her education," says Bay Area student Rhea Park, 15.

She's reading from a thread on Twitter where girls post outfits they've been sent home for — like a T-shirt that shows her collarbone. Teenagers have been fighting dress code policies forever. But students haven't always had social media to make the case.

"If one person goes and talks to a school administrator, I feel like they'll blow it off, be like, 'Oh, it's just one kid complaining.' But once you get it on social media and it's public, then it kind of becomes more urgent, and the school might want to do something more about it," she says.

For example, a Kentucky high school's dress code policy changed after a student's YouTube video about the policy got more than 300,000 views.

Here's the thing: As a teen girl, there are all sorts of situations we can't control, like a mean comment on Instagram, or the embarrassing experience of getting sent home for wearing the wrong outfit. When we take our story to social media, sometimes we manage to turn shame into empowerment.

This story was produced by Youth Radio.

Copyright 2018 Youth Radio. To see more, visit Youth Radio.

DAVID REENE, HOST:

You know, we spoke to the author Nancy Jo Sales on the program recently about the painful experience many teenage girls have on social media. It's not just rude comments or not enough likes. Boys will demand naked photos from girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NANCY JO SALES: Very often they are asked to send nudes. And if they don't send them, then sometimes they're even threatened with some kind of reprisal. They said that people would make up rumors about them or say they were a prude. They hated it. It bothered them so much.

GREENE: Being at Youth Radio this week was our chance to hear directly from young people who use social media. And Youth Radio's Stella Lau says it's not always such a dark place.

STELLA LAU, BYLINE: Caitlin Clark is a high school sophomore near San Francisco. Last year, an anonymous hate page about some girl she knows showed up on Instagram.

CAITLIN CLARK: It's one of those things that just kind of appears, like, randomly, like, just out of nowhere. Someone will get, like, tagged in a picture of themselves and, like, the caption is just something, like, really horrible.

LAU: That account disappeared after just a few pictures went up. In its place, girls at Caitlin's school created a different Instagram account. Open it, and there's row after row of smiling selfies. And the comments...

CLARK: Sara is a great person with a loving personality. I agree, Sara is so cute and nice. Can we have more people like you on this planet?

LAU: Comments are one thing. There's also the trend of the challenge on social media. Usually, it's something stupid, like how many mouthfuls of cinnamon can you swallow? More and more though, I see challenges designed to spread self-esteem, kind of like a modern-day chain letter.

BILLY CRUZ: It's that time again. Upload your three most confident selfies and tag 10 people you feel should share their beauty with the world. And then what will be 10 people, like, aw, oh, my God, you're so beautiful.

LAU: That's Billy Cruz. He's Caitlin's boyfriend.

CRUZ: That's really cool because it's like, here, I'm being confident. And then, you guys all be confident now. And they're like, OK we're all confident. Now let's pass it on to other people.

LAU: I've been tagged in stuff like this before. And I was like, OK, whatever, next. Is confidence really as simple as getting tagged in a post? But when you dig beneath the superficial in these social media campaigns, girls are raising serious issues, like whether school dress code policies are fair.

RHEA PARK: (Reading) When you interrupt a girl's school day to send her home because her shoulders are exposed, you're telling her that making sure boys have a distraction-free learning environment is more important than her education.

LAU: That's Bay-Area student Rhea Park, who's 15. She's reading from a thread on Twitter where girls post outfits they've been sent home for, like a T-shirt that shows some collarbone. Teenagers have been fighting dress code policies forever. But students haven't always had social media to make the case.

PARK: If one person goes and talks to a school administrator, I feel like they would blow it off and be like, oh, it's just one kid complaining. But once you get it onto social media and it's public, then it kind of becomes more urgent. And the school might want to do something more about it.

LAU: Like actually change the dress code guidelines, which is what happened at one high school in Kentucky after a student's YouTube video about their dress code policy got more than 300,000 views. Here's the thing. As a teen girl, there are all sorts of situations we can't control, like a mean comment on Instagram or the embarrassing experience of getting sent home for wearing the wrong outfit. When we take our stories to social media, sometimes we manage to turn shame into empowerment. For NPR News, I'm Stella Lau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.