Girls Online Feeling Out of Bounds

by Lisa Dewey

Not so long ago, hearing the words the “chatting teenage girl” may have instantly brought to mind the image of a girl with a telephone handset pressed to her ear. While telephones and teens are still synonymous, today that image also needs to include PCs. Especially for girls, e-mail and instant messaging (IM) are indispensable social and communication tools. Add in doing research, either for personal interest or for school homework, and the result is an ever-growing number of teenagers logging more and more hours online.

Just how are girls doing on the information superhighway? All too often they are driving without a license, according to The Net Effect: Girls and New Media, a study conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute with the assistance of Girl Games, Inc. When it comes to the Internet, many teenage girls are extremely computer savvy but can be naive and vulnerable when encountering emotionally charged situations like the prevalent online pornography or sexual harassment in chat room conversations. The study, published in February 2002, is one of the first to look at how the large amount of time girls spend online is affecting their social and emotional lives. Its findings are based on the Internet experiences of 1,246 girls, ages thirteen to eighteen.

“Being online is a new dimension of being a girl in the 21st century,” says Michael Conn, Ph.D., director of the Girl Scout Research Institute. “This study shows, however, that girls may be gaining tech savvy skills at a rate that exceeds their social maturity or their ability to deal with situations they can easily confront while surfing or chatting. So even if parents, guardians, teachers, or other adults are not as comfortable using the Internet, they still have a vital role to play in helping girls.”

A Growing Phenomenon

Because girls in the study are often online, they see themselves as the most computer-savvy members of their households. Internet access by everyone is increasing at remarkable speeds. The most recent data compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates there were 116.5 million Americans online at some location in August 2000 — 31.9 million more than there were only twenty months earlier. Most of these connections were happening at home. More than half of all households (51.0 percent) have computers — up from 42.1 percent in December 1998.

Teenagers are also going online at school and at libraries and other community centers. If current trends continue, according to the Pew Research Center-Internet and American Life Project, the implications are significant: In a generation, use of the Internet is likely to reach the same levels as that of the telephone, which is now used by 94 percent of Americans, or the television, which is used by 98 percent.

While no comprehensive survey has been completed, it is evident that more youth camps are allowing campers to go online to communicate with home and surf the Web for information either as part of a program activity or during free time.

What Girls Are Finding

Short of installing a filtering software program to block access to adult content sites, if teens are online, it is fairly certain they will be faced with choosing between safe and unsafe behavior. Yet The Net Effect found that all too often girls are not receiving guidance from adults in their lives about such choices but are relying on their own judgment. When asked how they know what is safe or unsafe behavior on the Internet, 84 percent of the girls surveyed cited their own common sense. Unfortunately, girls’ common sense does not always protect them. The study found:

  • Girls often do not know what to do when they are sexually harassed in chat rooms. Harassment comes in many different forms, ranging from being asked for bra sizes to being sent unwanted naked pictures of men. Thirty percent of the girls who completed an online survey reported that they had been sexually harassed in a chat room. In focus groups, girls reported grappling with how to react to online sexual harassment.
    ”I was in a chat and the guy IM’d me . . . then he started saying really perverted stuff.” — Age 13
  • Most girls try to avoid pornographic sites, calling them “disturbing,” but say they are frequently spammed or accidentally end up on these sites.
    “It was like a car crash. You want to look away but can’t.” — Age 14
  • Some girls fail to see online crime as serious, because it is in the realm of cyberspace.

Getting Driving Advice

While many parents and teachers have a list of “don’ts” — don’t give out personal information, don’t go to certain Web sites, don’t respond to e-mails from people you don’t know, and don’t talk to strangers — what girls want is more proactive involvement. Girls need help in dealing with the situations they encounter, not just prohibitive advice. The Net Effect found that girls want parents and adults to fully understand their online lives and help them successfully navigate both positive and negative experiences.

At camps, when girls are away from parental oversight, it is critical for adults to help them deal with any situations they may encounter online (see Tips for Helping Girls Navigate Cyberspace). It’s important for these adults to keep in mind that potential problems do not outweigh the many benefits for girls.

“Discovering new information on the Internet — and learning a new skill — is empowering to girls,” said Harriet S. Mosatche, Ph.D., director of program development at Girl Scouts of the USA. “Plus there is the wonderful benefit of girls being able to stay in touch with their family and friends via e-mail. But the Internet also presents situations that girls may not be ready for — pornographic Web sites, which they may be curious about but uncomfortable with, and unwanted comments in a chat room. Any adult working with girls who go online needs to be available to support their experiences.”

Lisa Dewey writes about technology, the environment, women, and today’s youth. Her work has appeared in several magazines and Web sites, as well as published booklets and guides.

Originally published in the 2002 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

Tags: