Sunday 25 February 2018

Social media and self-doubt the biggest challenges for girls of Generation Z

Teenage girls seem tougher, smarter and ­sharper than ever before as they look to a future of greater opportunity. But the internet has brought with it a new age of insecurity and they are still more likely to think they're 'not good enough'.

Leaving Cert student Jane Hayes Nally. Photo: Damien Eagers
Leaving Cert student Jane Hayes Nally. Photo: Damien Eagers
Leona Brady and Megan O'Keeffe, both 5th year students at Eureka Secondary School in Kells. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Twins Sarah, left, and Mary Murphy from 'Make A Mark' at Jesus and Mary Secondary School, Crossmolina in Mayo. Photo: Mark Steadman
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

They appear stronger, more self-confident and ready to crash through any glass ceiling. The future for Ireland's teenage girls is unrecognisable to that of their grandparents' generation.

There are much greater opportunities in the workplace. The expectations of the role they will play in society are much less confined to home and hearth.

But their world is no utopia of unlimited freedom and boundless ambition: the world of social media has brought new pressures and concerns, says Dublin psychologist Allison Keating.

"As a result of social media - Instagram and Facebook - there is still the proliferation of the idea that a female's value is strongly based on how she looks," she says.

Leona Brady and Megan O'Keeffe, both 5th year students at Eureka Secondary School in Kells. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Leona Brady and Megan O'Keeffe, both 5th year students at Eureka Secondary School in Kells. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Girls are outperforming boys academically. In all, girls secured a higher proportion of honours - A, B or C grades - in 26 out of 32 subjects at higher level in last year's Leaving Cert.

They have overtaken boys in subjects that were once considered a male preserve, such as technology and engineering.

It is no surprise, therefore, that young women outnumber young men at Irish universities, particularly in courses that have tough entry requirements such as medicine and law.

At the age of 17, Megan O'Keeffe and her friend Leona Brady are in many ways typical of a generation who feel that women can create a level-playing field for themselves; and they are quite clear about the changes they would like to see for women in Irish society.

Whether it is on the issue of abortion or their future careers, the two fifth-year students at Eureka Secondary School in Kells, Co Meath want women to have a choice - and they describe themselves as "100pc feminist".

"We want to see changes in the way women are portrayed as being the housewife, and as being submissive and weak. The way it is now, they always have to be seen as pure and clean and white," Megan says.

Leona adds: "It's not that we don't want women to stay in the household if that's what they want to do. We want women to have the choice to go off to college and become a success in the business world."

Megan, Leona and their classmates started a campaign last year to raise awareness of rape culture. They produced a poster on the topic of consent with the slogan "It's the yes, not the dress", and as a result they won a Young Social Innovators award.

Jackie Glynn, the girls' teacher at Eureka Secondary, has noticed a change in this generation of teenage girls. "They are much more willing to speak up about their concerns. They are very open and they are certainly not afraid - and I feel it is important that we, as educators, give them the forum to express their views," she says.

Girls may be the high achievers in school, but could it be that their diligence and perfectionism may be adding pressure to their lives, and a feeling that they are never satisfied with their achievements?

Adrienne Katz, an anti-bullying adviser to Irish schools and author of the book Cyberbullying and E-Safety, has surveyed the attitudes of teenagers. She has found that even though they score higher grades in school, girls are less confident about achieving their goals in life. Girls were also more likely to feel that they are "not good enough".

The greater achievement by girls in exams is consistent not only in Ireland, but across the Western world.

Why are they leaving the boys behind at this stage of their lives? There are several reasons for this, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Girls read more. They spend more time on homework, and usually spend less time online and playing computer games.

The "girls beating boys" trend has been apparent for some time but has this academic success translated into greater influence at the higher levels of management in their careers?

"You have to question who actually earns more in the workplace," says Allison Keating. Young women still have a long way to go in obliterating the gender pay gap - recently estimated at 20pc in research by recruitment firm Morgan McKinley.

The opportunities for young women may have grown, and they are less hidebound by gender roles than their parents, but the age of social media has also reinforced concerns among girls about body image, according to Katz.

"The obsession with appearance has, if anything, become worse recently. Boys may look at porn and may expect girls to look like that, while girls are constantly looking at images of celebrities online.

"Movie stars are criticised online for putting on three ounces of weight. Everybody judges each other's photos, as if everyone is there to be rated.

"They can never put up a picture that doesn't show them at their best."

According to Katz, girls curate their own lives and put up photos that they think will make them popular.

"They want to make themselves look as if they are out and about having a cool time even if they are sitting in a bedroom."

Keating says there is a disparity between the outward appearances of teenagers' lives and the internal reality. "We don't seem to see awkward, gangly teenagers any more.

"Girls don't seem to be allowed to go through the normal awkward stages that you should go through. Everybody has to be leading a glamorous, fabulous life. They have almost become like a brand."

For 17-year-olds like Megan and Leona, social media is not seen as a problem. It is part of everyday life. They are not so negative about its influence on their generation.

"Some people express concerns about the effects of social media in terms of bullying and the existence of predators online," says Megan.

"But because our generation was born into it, it is one of the biggest powers in our lives.

"It gives us a platform to reach people, and I also feel that I have learned a lot from it."

So how can parents guide their teenage daughters into adulthood, and give them the resilience to face the challenges ahead?

They may be excelling in the classroom, but psychologist Keating believes girls need to get rid of an inner critic that may be holding them back.

She says girls should be encouraged to sit back and feel that they've done a good job sometimes, rather than having a constant push for perfectionism.

"There is the constant comparison of themselves with their peers. Sometimes, they need to be given the scope to have an off day."

Keating says young women also need to be able to face up to failure as well as success.

From the 1970s, there was an emphasis on building up the self-esteem of every child, she says. Everybody had to win a medal, and children lost the ability to lose.

"Particularly in the Celtic Tiger era, children got everything that they wanted. They weren't facing the challenges that they need to be able to face. You should nurture teenage girls but as a parent, you shouldn't fix everything for them."

There are also other ways of building up resilience, according to Katz.

"I think it is very important to talk to your daughter about what to look for in a friend. They sometimes gravitate to people who are only going to be nasty to them. A parent might talk to them about the qualities they should look for because that will build resilience."

While every teenage girl will have to face failure at some point, Katz believes you can build resilience by finding their strengths - and showing that you appreciate these qualities.

She says it is also a good idea to talk to a teenage girl about body image. If people are commenting about someone's weight on the internet or in a magazine, she advises making it clear how hurtful and inappropriate that is.

Social media may encourage teenagers to worry about their appearance, but it has also given girls positive role models.

"When girls look around and see other women in positions of authority, it definitely has an effect," says Keating.

For Megan and many of her contemporaries, the most inspirational figure of recent years has been Michelle Obama, who regularly features in surveys of role models for girls.

"She is not afraid to speak out about how women are treated and that makes me feel strengthened," says Megan. "I followed her recent speech on sexual behaviour at the time of the election of Donald Trump."

Dublin writer Denise Deegan, who is mother of a 20-year-old, believes the current generation of young women has a greater social conscience than her own generation.

"They care more about things. Because of the internet, they are more aware of social issues," says Deegan. "If you look at the same-sex marriage referendum, it was driven by young people, and a lot of it was inspired by concern for their peers."

The novelist, who writes young adult fiction, says today's teenage girls may face new pressures, but a lot of the issues remain the same as they were when she was a teenager, and have always been there.

"Their hormones are kicking in, they are going through this massive change from childhood to adulthood, and they spend a lot of time thinking about their place in the world.

"One of the most important things I have learned as a parent is that you have to keep reminding yourself to step back, and let them breathe.

"You have to let them be who they are - and trust them as individuals who are different."

Bullying remains a constant issue for teenage girls. Katz says it can be much harder for parents and teachers to spot than the physical forms of bullying perpetrated by boys.

"Bullying in school by girls tends to be quite complex and insidious," says Katz. "It is less violent and more psychological."

A girl may pass a remark about one of her classmates in front of a group as she eats her lunch such as "No wonder she's so fat!" She may not repeat the comment on another day as her classmate eats her lunch, but just a glance and roll of the eyes can have the same wounding effect.

A girl can bully another without even talking to them, according to Katz.

"If they decide they want to target a girl, they may not even say something to them or about them - but they may slowly pull their friends away in a strategic plan to leave them isolated. It's called 'relational aggression'."

Parents have to learn to pick up the signals that their teenage daughter is being bullied, because they may prefer to discuss the topic in a roundabout way.

According to Katz, for some girls there is a stigma to the word 'bully'. So they may say they have 'issues' or that there is a 'situation', or 'I'm having a drama'.

Overall, as they are given more opportunities, teenage girls can face the future with optimism, as they look at fewer barriers in their path to self-fulfilment.

Psychologist Keating says young women now have much more scope to do different things, but they need to get rid of that inner critic if they want to achieve a higher level of happiness.

Some teenage girls isolate and target those they feel threatened by

Jane Hayes Nally, 17

Jane is studying for her Leaving Cert at Hewitt College, Cork. She is President of the Irish Second-Level Students' Union. Her role models are the Pakistani woman Malala Yousafzai, former presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, and her mother. Jane is glad that defined gender roles are breaking down in Ireland and she says all her classmates have ambitions to go to third-level and pursue careers.

"Often, we are pitted against each other based on factors that are outside our control - we are rated for our appearance and our value deemed by our looks. We tend to teach girls to be competitors, not academically or for career success, but competitors for beauty. Girls are taught not to be proud or ­assertive as it is 'unattractive'.

"Some teenage girls isolate and target those they feel threatened by. It diminishes the ­confidence and potential of girls, and discourages them to be assertive and proud. The emphasis which the media puts on women's appearance adds pressure. When women are being compared for what they wear, and their bodies are being scrutinised, it has a knock-on effect, especially on young girls and what they perceive as healthy goals. On social media we are hit with targeted ­advertising selling us teas which claim to help us lose weight, and shapewear to reduce the ­circumferences of our waists.

"Aspects of social media are damaging to girls. Family, friends, future, can get lost among the Kardashians and new make-up products and scandalous pictures of last weekend's party on Instagram. None of these things are actually bad, but there's a problem when that's the only world a teenager has to immerse herself in, because she starts thinking that's all that matters.

"My siblings and I are all guilty of this. We could all be sitting in a room, so busy updating statuses, editing photos and composing witty comments that no one will utter a word for a full hour. Sometimes, we're way too caught up in our online profiles to see that the time we have together is limited, and precious."

Hillary Clinton running for US president was  an inspiration to us

Twins Mary and Sarah Murphy (17)

Twins Sarah, left, and Mary Murphy from 'Make A Mark' at Jesus and Mary Secondary School, Crossmolina in Mayo. Photo: Mark Steadman

Mary (right) and Sarah run their own business selling Make a Mark, a device for marking sheep. They are fifth-year students at Jesus and Mary Secondary school in Crossmolina, Co Mayo.

Mary: "There are still stereotypes about how women should appear. People still look up to supermodels and there is a pressure on women to look like that. There are not the same pressures on men.

"Social media is a marvellous tool from a business point of view. We can share something worldwide in a matter of minutes, but I do think there is an over-reliance on social media. The art of conversation is being lost.

"There are definitely more opportunities for young women in the world. When you see someone like Hillary Clinton running for president of the US, the most powerful position in the world, it is inspiring for us.

"Mary Robinson grew up only down the road from us. To see someone like that from a small town in Mayo going on to be president and working for the UN is inspiring.

"In our own school, we have a school council and a lot of girls are involved. People see women now as more equal.

"In 10 years' time I hope to be working in business, and it would be great to still be working with my sister."

Sarah: "We have registered our company, but you have to be 18 to be directors. My mother is the secretary and my dad is the director, and we are shareholders.

"Mary is into the business side of the company while I am into the practical side. I like technology and computer graphics. I am the only girl in my technology class.

"When I leave school, I hope to continue running the business, and I would like to study something like engineering.

"There should be more women in politics. Our President is a man, the Taoiseach is a man and we have Donald Trump. We went to a Women in Enterprise day, and it was great to see that it is not just men in business."

In conversation with Kim Bielenberg. Mary and Sarah took part in the Student Enterprise Programme

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