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EGirls conference pulls back the curtain on teen selfies, sexting and social media practices

Girls’ online experiences likened to “sitting on a powder keg.”

BY TARA SIEBARTH | APR 16 2014

“Oh my God, Jason just texted me. Should I go home with him? I guess I took a good selfie.”

While these lyrics, from the dance song “#Selfie”, may seem ridiculous to those of us over 30, the lyrics describe how teens and tweens communicate in their social media/hashtag world.

How do you take a good selfie? What are the rules for posting a photo on Facebook? Can you show cleavage? If you post a good photo, are you automatically a slut? Is there are right way to pose?

These are just a few of the questions that bounce around in (mostly female) teen heads, and are the guiding points for several researchers in Canada who are tackling the subject of teen online awareness and social media. One group, The eGirls Project, thought to get some of these researchers together, and recently organized the eGirls, eCitizens Conference at the University of Ottawa. The point of the conference was to discuss the research currently being carried out, hear what teens have to say and propose solutions to help shape policy and education.

The two leads on the eGirls Project, Jane Bailey and Valeries Steeves, kicked things off by sharing some of their research findings. They recently interviewed 34 female teens and young adults about their perspectives on online self-exposure. At first, most of the research participants had a good reaction to social media, but it soon became obvious during the interview process that girls have a very conflicted relationship with it.

“They said they use social media for a variety of reasons: to be creative, for promotion, for political activism, and for getting information. But the most common activity was overwhelmingly the posting of ‘the photo,’” said Dr. Steeves.

“The photo” refers to the selfie, a photo that you take of your face or your body (or both) and post online, typically to a social media site like Facebook. Participants in the eGirls Project research had many things to say about the rules revolving around how and why you should post a selfie. One girl illustrated the difference between a “good” and a “bad” photo by literally drawing her finger across her chest to denote “bad.”

Girls often feel much pressure from friends, as well as media, to post pictures of themselves online, but they don’t know or understand what the consequences could be should the photo be critiqued, passed on to others or go “viral.” Many of the participants in the eGirls Project even felt that social media intensifies pressure to adhere to social norms of prettiness and sexiness, thanks to functions such as the “like” button on Facebook. Ms. Bailey compared girls’ experiences with social media to “sitting on a powder keg.”

These sentiments were echoed during the three other presentations throughout the day. Jessica Ringrose, a professor of sociology of gender and education at the University of London, explained that online interactions can blend into offline confrontations, and shared how some participants in her research said they were physically assaulted or badgered at school because of something they had posted online, but didn’t feel they could approach teachers or their parents about it.

As a result, some girls are trying to navigate the potential chaos by doing some “self-surveillance” by posting headless photos of themselves. This was brought up by Lara Karaian, an assistant professor at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Carleton University.

She explained that girls are trying to fight the “slut narrative” online, as there is limited education out there for kids, and most of the messaging from people in positions of authority is about abstaining.

Many of the panelists at the conference agreed that policymakers need to change their tune when it comes to educating kids about social media. Most of the current messages are negatively focused, telling teens that they are making themselves vulnerable to online sexual predators and cyberbullying.

Julie Lalonde, a social justice activist, and founder of Draw-the-Line, advocated that parents need to educate themselves as well. She explained that parents often don’t understand social media and just assume that today’s youth is “bad”. Parents often shut things down on their teens or monitor their online activity too closely – which does not encourage an open dialogue.

“This generation of young people is the most monitored. But what we don’t realize is that kids do care about privacy. They want to be taught how to protect themselves online. We need to teach them these things, said Daphne Guerrero, manager of public education and outreach at the Office of the Privacy Commission of Canada. “We tell kids to respect the privacy of others, but we need to respect their privacy too.”

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