Selfies. Likes. Invites. Comments. For most, these social media actions are a fleeting moment in modern day life. An afterthought. For adolescent and teen girls, on the other hand, these online interactions often feel earth-shattering.
“It’s a popularity contest,” explains Dr. Carli Snyder, a board-certified clinical psychologist in Las Vegas specializing in young women’s issues. “For a child, whose whole life is belonging and social interaction, it can be a devastating experience.”
While elementary, middle and high school girls and boys are both affected by online usage, Snyder and other mental health professionals have noted that social media, especially Snapchat and Instagram, exacerbates mental health issues in young girls.
Sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression are just a few of the growing health problems they’ve noticed. Though boys are also susceptible, the negative effects are less prevalent because of differing online usage trends.
“You see more addiction with video games and YouTube and less of an obsession about how they look,” Snyder says of males, noting that female brains are wired differently than male brains.
“Society tends to socialize girls to believe that they have to look a certain way and social media enforces this,” she adds.
Girls on the run girls
The statistics seem to confirm Snyder’s observations. A 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that over the last fifteen years the suicide rates have nearly tripled for girls ages 10 to 14. Suicide rates among boys in the same age range have also increased, but not as drastically as girls, the study shows.
“Kids are really struggling,” says Snyder.
Snyder isn’t standing by silently. In addition to her psychology practice, Snyder is founder of the Las Vegas-based non-profit Girl Nation, an empowerment group for elementary and middle school girls. The group encourages young girls to see their value, to be a good friend, and to stand up for themselves and others.
“Girls can be so divisive,” explains Snyder. “When we do support each other, we can do incredible things.”
Believe it or not, there are some advantages to kids spending more time at home on online devices. Snyder has seen a decline in teenage pregnancy rates, less substance abuse, and less urgency among teens to get drivers’ licenses.
Snyder is concerned, however, by the growing lack of real-world connections and experiences.
“We may feel like our teen is safer, yet research is showing that mental health is worse than it has ever been,” she says.
Snyder, who is a member at Temple Sinai, recently teamed up with the synagogue’s Rabbi Malcolm Cohen to host a showing of Screenagers at the Adelson Educational Campus. The film digs into the lives of teens and shows how the time they spend online affects their education, family life, friendships, and personal safety.
“Technology is not going to go away,” says Rabbi Cohen, who has two kids, ages 6 and 9, one of which is a girl. “It’s amazing, life changing, but we still have to be aware of how we are moderating it and mediating it.”
Along with discussion and guest speakers, Girl Nation workshops include fun, interactive activities like gratitude exercises, yoga, and meditation that help to guide girls through today’s complicated world, which includes social media usage, and embrace their individuality and self-worth.
“Social media has taken girls, who are already very self-conscious and already somewhat obsessed with how they look, and intensified [their feelings],” explains Dr. Snyder. “We all want to look pretty and we all want to be accepted, but there’s such a focus on it [online]. These girls are constantly comparing themselves to other people rather than cultivating who they are inside. And it comes at a time when they’re still struggling to find themselves in this world.”
Brigette Kelly-Kirvin, Executive Director for Girls on the Run Las Vegas, agrees.
“By age nine, their confidence starts to decline,” she says. “That’s a really young age for confidence starting to plummet. They don’t even know who they are yet and they’re starting to take shape based on what others outside of themselves are telling them. It’s a really impressionable time, pre-adolescence and adolescence.”
A research-based Social-Emotional Learning program, Girls on the Run uses running as a delivery mechanism for empowerment messaging and positive life development. The intentional curriculum places an emphasis on developing competence, confidence, connection, character, caring, and contributions in young girls through lessons that incorporate running and other physical activities.
Young girls enjoying the movie Screenagers
Kelly-Kirvin has noticed that girls are coming into the program “younger and younger and younger with smartphones,” and not only from affluent areas.
“We know social media is part of their life,” she says. “We can’t say don’t do this because that’s only going to drive them to it more.”
Instead, groups like Girl Nation and Girls on the Run are helping girls to get to know themselves and their boundaries.
“We want them to understand when someone is encroaching on their boundaries or bullying them on social media, and how to navigate that,” says Kelly-Kirvin.
Grace, 9, has been attending Girl Nation events for the past year. She considers it a safe space.
“All of the girls are similar but also different, in good ways, so you can be yourself and make a weird face and no one will look at you funny,” she says. “We do a lot of yoga and … if you’re having problems or someone is rude to you at school, and you don’t know how to solve it, we talk … about things we can do to solve it or help others solve it.”
Hirsch, who turns 10 in October and is excited to get her own phone for her birthday, believes that Girl Nation is preparing her for challenges to come.
“I feel a lot stronger in any situation that comes up,” she says. “I can stand up for myself, but not in a rude way.”
The fourth grader doesn’t have any social media accounts, and she isn’t in any hurry. She is waiting until middle school to sign up.
Kelly-Kirvin points out that bullying can happen whether you’re online or not, but the anonymous nature of the Internet may embolden someone to say something mean they wouldn’t necessarily say otherwise.
“Bullying is not new, it’s just different,” she says, adding that it’s important to teach young girls to “be up-standers not bystanders.”
For more information on Girl Nation, visit www.itsgirlnation.com. For more information on Girls on the Run, visit www.girlsontherunlv.org.