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Confessions of a Digital Mom: Emoji Sweet Nothin’s


Hey Moms. Are you trying to play catch up with your daughters?  I am. We have two dynamic duos under our roof.  I’ve never experienced anything like the sheer fluency my girls have with their smartphones and apps. They pick up the latest things with such ease, it’s crazy. Snapchat, Vine. I’m convinced my 13 year old will be an animator or movie director. She’s producing shorts  (like 6 second short movies) in no time.

My older one has already posted over 6000 tweets on god knows what girlie girl nonsense… oh and by the way tweeted that she hated me one day when I made her go on a youth retreat that had been planned all year.

Anyway. SOML.

I’ve come to the stark realization, that our girls are engaged – and spending so much time – in their digital playgrounds, that the lines are getting blurred between the real and the virtual world. And that parents, including me, tend to go merrily along thinking are our girls are smart, kind, and respectful, that they should know better about how to behave in all social arenas.

If you think back just 20 or 30 years to our own teenage years we were passing notes in hallways, saving them in shoe boxes, or making paper collages from cutouts of Teen Beat and Seventeen magazine… and plastering them on our bedroom walls. This took a lot of time and reflection. We had no money to develop photos and rarely owned a camera for that matter.

Also, there were only one or two phones in a house, and our parents had rules about the phone since it was a shared among many.

But mostly we spent a lot of time playing, hanging out, and talking with each other – like in person. Today’s teens spend up to 40 hours a week using technology, looking at screens, which is of course, the equivalent to a full time job.

Times have changed, haven’t they?

Here’s the first reality that is ever so evident (and you don’t need a PHD to know this): Girls’ social networks have become a primary way for girls to relate to each other. They are immensely connected to this new way of communicating. It’s mesmerizing.

Another Selfie
A Sisterly Selfie

In fact, of all the demographic groups teen girls are the most prolific texters, with numbers of text upwards of 4000 per month and over 100 a day. If I added up my 15 year old’s tweets, texts and posts per month, it’s like around 10K. Maybe not. I should really take the time to count. But I can’t. It’s a guestimate. I bet she’d qualify for a 10K club of digital divas. I could be a proud mama, right?

Actually, if she wasn’t also a decent student and super busy on several athletic teams, I might be concerned about her social media excess and my parenting. Plus, she’s doing her own laundry now. Bonus for me. (I resigned as laundress when she entered high school. It’s a good strategy.)

But here’s my take on what happens with tween girls and technology:

Texting, social networks and chat apps amplify girls’ biological drive to share, compare, and care.

Those behaviors that we mothers did as girls are now digitized: sharing secrets, taking photos, collecting images of favorite things like celebrities, fashion, cute guys, funny or inspiring quotes … it’s all online and doesn’t cost much money, although it consumes way more time and attention in girls’ lives.

And that’s the sad truth of the matter.

In fact, girls relating in this way find it so beguiling that technology is the perfect trigger for compulsive behavior. They crave it. The get anxious when they aren’t connected to their devices.

In fact, many of you moms are doing this, too. Admit it.

But tweens and teens don’t filter what they do in these digital realms – they don’t take the time to reflect before they post; they don’t yet have the cognitive skills to do this with ease. They don’t have the brakes to slow down.

Their brains just aren’t there yet.

As far as I can tell the books and resources on online safety and digital culture don’t adequately take into account how girls an boys are biologically wired for certain behaviors in adolescence. You know, the behaviors to ensure survival and passing on of genes, like sex?

It’s a perfect storm. Maturational changes, biological drives to procreate, desperate need to be with friends, competing for social status, and sensation seeking – all being played out on the modern digital stage. Social technologies feed right into certain neurological mechanisms that reinforce behavior and learning patterns.

Girls in particular are primed to behave in a number of ways based on the female biological blueprint that plays out in interesting ways in digital playgrounds. Here’s my take on three primary ways modern girls connect:

BEAUTY: Girls’ begin to focus on their appearance and engage in ways to be more attractive for mating. This, by the way would occur regardless of our overly sexualized media. Media magnifies girls’ attention to appearance but biologically girls are driven to make themselves appealing.  So posting photos and pruning their digital profiles is the current method for posturing. They don’t even realize it. (See post on my daughter’s first high heels.)

This drive to be wanted and accepted is also why tweens rigidly conform to the current fashion trends – it’s out of sheer fear.  God forbid a girl stands out from the crowd as being too different. Where my girls go to public school, I call it the middle school Abercrombie Uniform. Thankfully, girls grow out of it in high school and tend to adopt more fashion diversity as they develop their identities. Nevertheless, they spend hours posting outfits and dresses in prep for the school socials or proms – getting endless tips and feedback from friends. Then there is posting once the event has actually occurred. At that point the number of “likes” becomes the ultimate personal affirmation.

FRIENDSHIPS: Girls’ drive to bond and socialize intensifies in adolescence. So there is, what seems to parents, a ridiculous need to be with girlfriends. Cliques begin to form, which again, has a basis in human survival. Whereas boys and men tend to be primed to fight or flee in face of danger, girls and women do what some social scientists call “tend and befriend.” They gather in groups as a way to have strength in numbers and naturally nurture each other in the face of stress.

OMG, girls are chatty, too, and have more developed language skills than boys do in early adolescence. This is also related to the oxytocin spike that occurs in the middle of the menstrual cycle – the bonding hormone. Don’t you ever wonder why your daughter might be ignoring you, not listening, grunting her way through a minimalist conversation and then all of the sudden she’s talking up a storm and you wonder what the heck happened? Maybe you feel she stills love you after all and cares what you have to say?  Alas, credit can be given in part  to her hormonal cycle. (BTW: It’s worth it to track both your and her menstrual cycle. This helps to predict the good and the bad days and when to ask her to clean her room. Let Dad in on the secret so he may be better prepared to deal with the female drama.)

The sheer volume of girls texting also begins to make sense. They spew out everything to thier freinds. It’s the uncut version. Girls announce every thought and feeling on their social networks.

The bottom line is that girls are built to socialize. Texting is simply the new channel.

STRESS: Girls, for some reason also begin to have higher levels of stress hormone cortisol. They are more sensitive to social cues.  They are very good at emotional recognition – and therefore they tend to “read” into many situations. They look for meaning even when it may not be there. This vigilance may have been necessary in hunt and gather days when protecting the young was a primary drive. But today?  They are expending energy trying to interpret the meaning of texts from their BFFs.

Of course, the opportunity for misinterpretation with social media and texting is HUGE without the face-to-face interpersonal cues. Girls expend a ton of energy reading between the lines and can easily get it wrong. This was just played out recently in my younger daughter’s little social circle and it was something one friend said in the lunch line about another friend – an anorexia jibe (which can be perceived as a compliment or a critique depending on the context). Of course, the comment got misconstrued and then texted among friends, causing unnecessary rifts and shifting alliances. There was anger, shame, tears, and confusion.  That the smallest slight can be amplified and go viral in an instant set girls more on edge and they “track” it more. We’ve heard about some tragic consequences when these things get out of hand when the “viral” humiliation – the sharing of a photo, slur and personal attacks – is too much and too painful for some teens to handle. Most teens have fragile hearts and fragile brains. They are still forming their identities, skills, and ability to cope. It’s a stressful time in life.

Which girls might be more at risk socially?

It is really hard to know or predict how girls will navigate their social circles and who might be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects or experiences with social media activity. Why? Because being a teen comes with a lot of volatility given all the changes in body, brain and social life.

So let’s look at some research on this.

Roy Pea and Clifford Nass, communication researchers at Stanford (2010) surveyed over 3,400 girls, ages 8 to 12, all subscribers to Discovery Girls magazine, about their electronic diversions and their social and emotional lives. The results were unsettling.

The girls took the survey online, which asked about the time they spent watching video (television, YouTube, movies) listening to music, reading, doing homework, emailing, posting to Facebook, texting, instant messaging, talking on the phone and video chatting. Basically, what every girl does outside of school hours. They also asked how often the girls were doing two or more of these activities at the same time.

The girls’ answers showed that multitasking is a major drag. The results indicated that girls who spent many hours watching videos and using online communication reported negative personal experiences:

  • feeling less social success,
  • not feeling normal,
  • having more friends whom parents perceived as bad influences,
  • and sleeping less (no surprise there).

Of course, a definite cause-and-effect can’t be proved with a survey but the results are cautionary.

But the survey also asked the girls a different, and very important, question: How much time do you spend participating in face-to-face conversations with other people?

The researchers found the opposite effects:  Higher levels of face-to-face communication were associated with greater social success, greater feelings of normalcy, more sleep and fewer friends whom parents judged to be bad influences.  Ok, like this is key, right?  Here’s the message that modern families need to get: Our kids learn the complicated task of interpreting emotions by watching the faces of other people and interacting with them. You want emotional intelligent empathic kids, right?  Monitor their media diets! Especially in adolescence, a highly sensitive period of brain development.

Good Night Emoji © TCousineau 2013
Good Night, Little Emoji

I confess that I love texting with my daughters. Just at a time when they are pulling away, a short text seems like a token of love. Sending an Emoji infused text when I’m out of town – a smiley face blowing a kiss – or my favorite, a crescent moon – approximates a sentiment of caring. It’s virtual parenting. These digital doodads also fill a gap when, god forbid, you actually try to give your a teen a goodnight kiss in person. Emojis are like an emotional mom-aide. This techno-luv is all well and good but can’t ever truly compensate for the real thing. So in my home, we are trying to make a concerted effort in balancing things out when it comes to media. In the end, the work is less about stopping the floodgates of technology and more about spending time together in meaningful ways. It’s good for the heart and it’s good for the brain. We have to do this now because when they grow up, we really want them to be able to look someone in the eye, shake a hand, speak with purpose and be emotionally connected.

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For more on girls and social media, check out my teleclass: Keeping Your Daughter Safe: What You Need To Know About What Girls are Doing Online.


Good Reads:

The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine

Grown Up Digital: How the New Generation is Changing your World. By Don Tapscott



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