Sady Doyle is the founder and publisher of Tiger Beatdown, a blog about gender. She has also written for 'In These Times,' 'Bitch' and 'The American Prospect.' This article appeared in the March 2014 edition of 'In These Times.'
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But the "social media is ruining girls' lives" argument lacks a crucial degree of nuance. For one thing, social media's deleterious effects are not confined to young women, or even to women, period. In a recent survey of 298 users, presumably including multiple genders, fully 50 percent said that social media made their lives and self-esteem worse, particularly "when they [compared] their own accomplishments to those of their online friends."
For that matter, 25 percent said they'd faced "work or relationship difficulties due to online confrontations." Having a social media presence is roughly analogous to competing in a beauty pageant while dodging heavy gunfire: everyone suffers from the pressure to create hyper-idealized portraits of themselves within a notoriously hostile and conflict-prone environment.
Yet rather than worrying about how Facebook is warping the fragile psyches of 45-year-old male finance professionals (poor little fellas), we focus on the young women. There appears to be more data and discussion about young women's vulnerability to online psychological damage than there is about any other group. We currently exist in a media environment, after all, where opining on young women's selfies—bold expression of self-confidence, or lesson on valuing looks over accomplishment?—can turn into a massive public debate.
This does make a certain amount of sense: young women are historically condescended to, fetishized and vulnerable to gendered violence or predation. If social media is harmful, its harmfulness will probably impact them more profoundly, simply because they face less support and more hostility from the offline world, too.
But our concern about young women and social media really hinges on an idea of these adolescents as particularly fragile and unable to fend for themselves—which, though it may be motivated by protectiveness and concern, is also an inheritance from a sexist culture. And it's an assumption, for that matter, that their actual internet usage doesn't seem to back up.
When we fret about young women being exposed to the internet and its alien newfangled ways, we're forgetting that for anyone younger than about 25, the internet has basically always been around. In the face of social media's gradual erosion of everyone's self-esteem, young women may be more qualified to form survival strategies than anyone else, simply because they're not adapting a pre-Facebook conception of the world to a post-Facebook experience.