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"The Girls Are Online" by Hannah Lane

An Axis Course On The "Everything Smartphone" Guided Toolkit

But are they alright? 

By Hannah Lane

It has never been easy to be a teenage girl. Unrequited crushes, disloyal best friends, a first menstrual cycle that always seems to arrive far later or far earlier than everyone else’s (at the perfect time to feel completely horrible, in any case); these are features of the time-honored gauntlet of female adolescence.

But with the advent of smartphones and their current saturation point among Gen Z and Gen Alpha, there is a new dimension to “growing up girl” that not only brings its own host of issues but amplifies what’s already there to a nearly unbearable degree.

Essayist and poet John Berger wrote this in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing:

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

Berger wrote this in the 1970s, far before the advent of the smartphone. But, given the way social media—and the accompanying eyes of the world—now lives in our pockets at all times, it feels more true than ever. Especially when it comes to young women.

In one scene of the 2004 film Mean Girls, new student Cady is invited into a rite of passage by the titular mean girls. They gather around a mirror and immediately behind launching critiques at their reflections (“My hairline is so weird,” “my pores are huge,” “I have man shoulders”), before turning portentously to Cady to see what she’ll contribute. Social media has put that same expectation for self-loathing and comparison right into the palms of teenage girls today, only instead of three popular girls waiting to hear their assessment, it’s potentially millions.

Lola is an 18-year-old freshman in college. She got a smartphone when she was 12 or 13. When asked what impacts from smartphone use she’s noticed among her female peers, she said, “Girls normally compare themselves to people around them. They always have. Social media allows them to compare themselves to people on the other side of the world to a way more extreme degree.”

A new study published in Finland’s Archives of Disease in Childhood found that teenage girls spend an average of almost six hours per day on their smartphones. 17% of the girls surveyed likely had social media addictions, and 37% showed symptoms of an anxiety disorder. The results are shocking, but maybe not surprising. The suicide rates for young people have been steadily rising, and for girls between 10 and 14, the numbers have risen by 131% in the last fifteen years. Several studies show this increase is most likely tied to smartphone and social media use.

In another survey conducted by the Journal of Medical Internet Research: Pediatrics, high school students were asked whether they would rate their smartphone use as “excessive.” 59% of girls said yes. Of that 59%, more than a quarter reported feeling low or anxious, almost half say they experience sleep issues, and overall they were more likely to have tried substances like alcohol and nicotine than those who didn’t report excessive smartphone use.

Interestingly, these numbers weren’t the same for boys of the same age. Approximately 36% called their smartphone use excessive, and although they did report worse sleep and higher rates of substance use, the number of boys who said they experienced negative emotional impacts related to excessive smartphone use fell within the normal range of emotional variability among that age group. More simply: smartphone use just doesn’t seem to hurt high school boys in the same way it hurts girls, even among groups who both say they use their phones excessively.

“I’ve noticed girls spend less time on their phones but feel more guilty,” Lola said. “Boys spend generally 2 to 3 more hours on their phones but don’t feel like it decreases productivity, hinders body image or hurts their relationship with God. I think girls tie their worth far more to social media than guys. Men tend to use it as a tool and nothing more.”

Assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Dr. Taryn Grieder told the Toronto Star that these outcomes could be connected to the unique cultural space women are expected to inhabit. “The societal expectations of women to bond with others and seek out social support are so ingrained… The main driver of increased usage is likely that we’re just more likely to spend time connecting with other people.”

Much has been said about the “male loneliness epidemic,” but there’s a counterpart that might be worth considering when it comes to women’s social lives. Just because someone is connected doesn’t mean they aren’t lonely, and in fact the sheer number of inherently shallow “relationships” social media offers might increase a sense of isolation. As Oregon Health and Science University psychologist Bonnie Nagel told the New York Times, “They’re hanging out with friends, but no friends are there… It’s not the same social connectedness we need and not the kind that prevents one from feeling lonely.”

Lola’s mom, Lori, noted that the pressures of visibility, comparison, and performance young women experience now are not only different from what she experienced as a teenager but even different from what Lori’s older sister experienced. Lori said,

There is a high expectation of being current in everything, of staying on trend, of curating themselves, and comparing how others curate themselves. There is also that constant activity, access to entertainment, movies, YouTube, TikTok, etc. which can hinder the ability to focus on one thing. So yeah, the pressure to constantly be current and connected, and the comparison to others I think is a double whammy and can cause a lot of anxiety and insecurity.

Not everything about smartphones poses a problem for women. The communication smartphones facilitate really is unlike anything that’s come before it. Lori recently became a grandmother and said she wouldn’t know what to do without daily pictures and videos of her grandbaby. And Lola says that her smartphone offers her a real sense of safety, especially as a woman attending college away from home, knowing that others can track her location during a date or a night out.

The ability to reach friends and family from far away keeps people involved in their loved ones’ lives no matter where they are. The tools smartphones offer—from music and maps to, as Lola pointed out, an on-the-go Bible—can add real richness and depth to people’s lives.

So that leaves the question: is there a way that young women can experience the benefits, without falling into the pitfalls, of having their own smartphone?

We closed our interviews with Lori and Lola by asking this question: If you could describe your ideal relationship with your phone, especially as a woman, what would that look like?

“I have had many periods in my life where I find myself turning to Instagram any time I’m bored or uncomfortable,” Lola said. “My screen time often rises and falls… for Lent I gave up all social media and realized how little I wanted it back. My productivity was much better and I found myself being more present in social circumstances.” Her takeaway was that she “would love to use [her] phone only as a camera and to contact people in case of emergency,” but that that’s difficult when so many of her loved ones live in a different state.

Lori said, “If I could describe my ideal relationship with my cell phone, I don’t think it would be much different than the relationship I have now, using it as a necessity to keep up with things.”

Maybe the answer to how to help parent young women towards using their smartphones well is less about finding the perfect formula for raising them, and more about trying to use our smartphones better ourselves. After all, though they might define it differently, both Lori and Lola had the exact same goal of using their smartphones only for necessities—and defining together what “necessities” are creates the perfect opportunity for conversation.

There’s no guarantee that kids will copy their parents, or even that they’ll listen to and act on everything we try to teach them. But when we do what we’re encouraging them to do, they get to experience an ongoing case study of what that kind of life looks like.

For girls, the confusing and stressful experience of growing up female can mean that role models make all the difference. In many ways, the nitty gritty parts of being a woman—from menstruation to motherhood to makeup to meal planning to marriage to making money—are passed down from one to another.

Rather than just drawing boundaries and hoping they stick, we should talk about what impacts smartphones have on women and on the world with honesty and realism, neither preaching doom and gloom nor drawing a sunnier picture than would be accurate. By doing this, we create space for the girls in our lives to feel safe and ask questions, growing strong and confident, and becoming the kind of women God wants them to be.

Hannah Lane is a writer, researcher, content creator, and podcaster at Axis. She has worked as a research fellow for the Billy Graham Special Collections Library, pioneered the Humanities as Science research initiative at Wheaton College, and has written for faith-oriented literary publications since 2015. She loves helping parents and teens understand one another through the lens of culture, and believes that peace is found in the common ground of the gospel.