Wednesday 24 July 2019

The secret lives of teenage girls

They take endless selfies, can't be separated from their phones and speak in tongues. Our reporter asks what's really going on with our young women in 2016?

Pout of control: Vivienne Ellis, her puppy Morgan and Kellie Harte go full selfie mode. Photo: Denis Boyle.
Pout of control: Vivienne Ellis, her puppy Morgan and Kellie Harte go full selfie mode. Photo: Denis Boyle.
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Ailin Quinlan

It allows us broadcast our every thought - not to mention our latest selfies - to an eagerly waiting world. No wonder we're addicted to social media.

And that's just the adults.

Many kids have a social networking profile from the age of 11 or 12 despite the age restriction of 13 on many - and by 15 or 16, 90pc of our teenagers have one, according to a 2014 study, Net Children Go Mobile, a two-year research project funded under the European Commission's Safer Internet Programme.

Irish children are growing up in a society awash in social media, which research shows, is particularly attractive to girls. And it's changing not only how they communicate with one another, but the nature of their relationships. It's also, experts say, having a major impact on their self-esteem.

The selfie phenomenon and the burgeoning range of social media platforms and apps - Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and many more - offers a culture of cyber-girlhood complete with rules, customs, nuances and excitable, hyped-up language, much of which is incomprehensible to parents.

"I always say something is 'amazing' - lovely just doesn't sound right," explains 19-year-old Kelly Harte.

"I use words like 'stunning', 'fantastic', 'fabulous' and 'gorgeous' - in comparison to them, 'lovely' sounds dull. On Facebook everything's hyped-up. On Facebook you tell a person you love them.

"They're your BFF, the best thing in your life - you wouldn't necessarily say any of this face to face."

Nobody as much as blinks at all the hyperbole, she says; it's expected, and she adds that most girls would be a bit taken-aback if low-key language was used to describe, for example, a freshly uploaded profile picture.

"We grew up with social media and we're used to it; we don't even think about it. If you're bored; it's something to do, looking at people's posts," says 17-year-old Shannon Duke, who says her phone has "no meaning" without social media.

"You don't text people anymore, it's all on Snapchat or Facebook," says the Co Cork schoolgirl.

"Social media language looks bonkers to us but teenagers understand the nuances because they have grown into the context of how it developed, so what seems like high drama and instant disaster or delirious joy to us is the norm for them," observes Dr Patrick Ryan, head of psychology at the University of Limerick.

Parents may laugh, but it's perfectly normal and understandable according to psychotherapist Stella O'Malley, author of Cotton Wool Kids: What's Making Irish Parents Paranoid?

"Their emotions are so heightened that the hyperbole in their language is natural. The two things are exploding in their brains," she explains.

"They don't give a sugar about each other, but it's all about widening their social network through complimenting someone and being popular with people," explains O'Malley.

In effect, says O'Malley, it's a type of social 'mating' - it's what they use to increase their social standing.

The rules may be unspoken but they're clear: "A girl could put up a post and I'd 'like' it - then she'd 'like' something in return - even if it's an old post," explains office administration student Vivienne Ellis.

"It's automatic, you don't even think about it."

Girls instinctively relate through relationships, so for them social media is highly competitive and all about their peer group status, O'Malley explains.

"They continuously get into photographs so that they will be tagged. They also tag people in the photos they take so that other people will reciprocate and give them a mention."

Like every culture, explains O'Malley, social media girlhood has rules and one of them is: "I compliment you and you compliment me. I tell you that you're 'stunning' and then you tell me that I am 'incredibly stunning' and it goes up and up from there."

It's the social media equivalent of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'.

Most of the 'likes' and compliments are actually quite meaningless: "A girl I know posted a photograph which I didn't think was a particularly flattering shot of her.

"I said she was better-looking in person and she told me that everyone else was mindlessly telling her she looked fab.

"They didn't care if the photo was flattering or not - that was irrelevant because their role was to tell her she looked gorgeous so that she'd say the same to them."

Kelly agrees: "If someone is always 'liking' something I do, I will 'like' them in return; it's just common courtesy," declares the social studies student, adding that she'll often 'like' someone's status without actually reading it because she knows the person.

"This is a culture with its own language and its own rules; it's complicated and sophisticated - which is why parents are lagging behind," explains O'Malley.

However, she says, teenage girls can instantly interpret sophisticated communications.

"They understand the message is not being tagged when everyone else in a group is tagged. It's very pointed - they know what they're doing.

"Parents tend to dismiss it as silly. It's not silly at all. It's actually very complex and sophisticated."

Social media is about loyalty and support too, says Vivienne (20): "If a friend put up a picture and only got, say three 'likes' in the space of 10 minutes I'd 'like' it."

Friendship with one person can also determine whose pictures you choose to 'like' or ignore, says Kelly.

"If one of my friends doesn't 'like' something someone puts up because she doesn't like the girl, I might not 'like' it either, out of loyalty," she adds.

Selfies are hugely popular - particularly the ubiquitous 'duckface' pout which no self-respecting teen would be seen without.

"I don't know how it started but it got very popular because it makes your face look slimmer and your lips look bigger. Girls do it because they generally think they look nicer that way," she said, adding that she does it herself without even thinking about it.

Shannon, a fifth year secondary school student in Bandon, Co Cork, says "You've got girls who'll post pictures of themselves several times a day.

"A lot of younger girls will hype-up their photographs to get attention and increase the number of 'likes'," she adds.

It's a worrying trend - one-in-three Irish teens feels under enormous pressure about their body weight and shape, according to leading cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken. She has expressed concern over the pressure that young people were under in terms of how they presented themselves online, warning that they can create a profile that is essentially a "highly curated and manipulated artefact".

"Apps or filters can be used to create better skin, shinier hair, whiter teeth or to appear five pounds lighter," she said, adding that this 'cyber self' can become increasingly distant from the real world self - and harder to live up to.

Some girls will post stunning selfies of themselves in flawlessly applied make up says Shannon - but only from the neck up, because they're not out; they're still at home and in their pyjamas.

There can be peer pressure to post flattering selfies, agrees Kelly.

"It shows you're on trend with the shellac nails, the Michael Kors bag, the knee-high boots; there's pressure if you allow the pressure and if you want the likes.

"I know a group where every single one of the girls posts comments, status and pictures on a regular basis."

If a picture doesn't get the hoped-for amount of likes, younger teenagers will accentuate it with filters, song lyrics, or even quotes from movies to attract attention, says Kelly, who along with Shannon and Vivienne, is a member of the Bandon Youth Group, which is run by youth organisation Foróige.

If a girl has posted a picture, and it doesn't get the hoped-for number of likes says Vivienne, she'll delete it.

"It's about expectations - to look good and feel good. With a lot of people they're looking for a response."

At the end of the day, the key to success is about establishing a supportive online network - highly socially successful girls can put up genuinely "awful pics" but they'll still get 500 'likes' says Shannon, because they're popular.

"The more 'friends' you have, and the more popular you are, the more likes you will get," Kelly explains.

"It's about being well known. Some girls build themselves up on Facebook.

"They may never meet the person who's liking them, but they'll put up these pictures of themselves and attract all these likes."

It's about a girl's perceived popularity, she adds: "You might say you're not looking for likes but if you get the likes, you're pleased with yourself.'"

And they all acknowledge, just as in real life, cyber girl culture has its downsides. Girls can have very public rows on social media. Even without mentioning names, they can make it obvious who they've fallen out with.

"Everyone comments - they're saying 'talk to me, hope you're okay'," observes Vivienne.

"They can talk about someone on Facebook with another friend, without mentioning the name, but you know who it is and girls can get really upset," Kelly explains.


Say what? A lexicon of their language

BAE: Before Anyone Else

A shorter version of Babe, meaning you come first for whoever has dubbed you their BAE. Lately however, it's become downgraded with people using it to express their love for a cat or dog.

On Fleek / On Point

A term of strong approval meaning something has been done perfectly. Originally described girls who drew in their HD (high definition) eyebrows properly.


Originated in text messaging; stands for 'Shaking My Head'. Denotes that the person using the acronym is shaking their head in disgust or shock.


Originating in text-speak and instant-messaging, these acronyms signal that something is extremely funny by implying the sender is either 'Laughing My A-- Off' or 'Laughing My F---ing A-- Off'.


Crying laughing emoji

Whole sentences consisting of emojis. For example someone could use an emoji of a dog, a person walking, a love-heart and a sun to show that they're walking their dog and loving life.

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