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How to Help Girls Navigate Pressure to Be 'Real' Online

The tug to be more authentic -- both online and in reality -- is a natural part of growing up. More and more, social media is the place girls go to get real. And it's all fine -- until it's not.
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Help kids resist the tug to reveal all online -- and discover who they truly are on their own terms.

By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media

There's something weird going on in the world of teenage girls' social media. Posting pictures of your perfect, airbrushed life is out. Posting pics of your most intimate self is in. Girls still want "likes," but the lengths some are willing to go to get them -- whether it's revealing a tearstained face after a breakup or a close-up bikini shot -- put them at risk for online sexual aggression, emotional trauma, and damage to their reputations. Even worse, it prevents girls from finding out who they really are on their own terms.

The tug to be more authentic -- both online and in reality -- is a natural part of growing up. More and more, social media is the place girls go to get real. And it's all fine -- until it's not. In her book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, Nancy Jo Sales reports that today's girls are coming of age in a culture that normalizes exhibitionism. One in four kids reports being sexually harassed by friends online. But at the same time, revealing too much -- for example, nude photos that go public -- gets you blacklisted on public "slut pages."

Undercurrents of rebellion indicate girls' frustration with the double standard. Nowhere is it more at play than in the phenomenon of "fake" Instagrams. These so-called "Finstagrams" are second, private Instagram accounts where kids post ugly, silly, unplanned photos, while leaving their "real" Instagrams full of the perfect photos for the rest of the world. That's right. The fake Instagrams contain the "real" photos. A while back, the hashtags #nomakeup and #nofilter emerged as a spirited response to impossibly idealized images on social media. But even the unadorned photos were called out as fakes. Now, claiming a photo is unretouched is a sure way to get accused of the inexcusable offense of actually wearing makeup or using a camera filter. How real do you have to be to prove you're not a fake? Let's hope girls resist the pressure to find out.

New apps are enabling the trend, too. The popularity of disappearing apps such as Snapchat (which encourages sharing casual moments) and anonymous apps such as Ask.fm (which lets kids express their true feelings) speak to kids' desire to find out -- and share -- who they really are. Live-streaming video apps such as YouNow are the ultimate in authenticity as they let kids video themselves in their natural habitats -- including their bedrooms and including while they're sleeping -- and stream the feed in real time to their followers. But that's why kids must be cautious about what they post and how they handle comments. The feedback kids get from friends can be tough to manage -- especially in the vulnerable tween and teen years when peer approval is so important.

In a culture that prizes authenticity, it can be hard for kids to hold back. But girls are particularly vulnerable to online sexual aggression and the phenomenon of slut shaming. Girls need to know that the freedom to share on social media gives you the freedom to choose what not to share, too. And they need to be reminded that while sexual harassment and violence are never their fault, social media gives would-be harassers access to them. Here are a few ways to talk to tweens and teens about the pressure to share more than you're ready for:

  • You have the right to privacy. Whether it's to preserve your reputation, protect other people's privacy, or just share on your terms, the choice to share -- or not -- rests with you.

  • Use privacy settings. Control what you share and with whom by using social media's built-in tools to filter who can see what you post and who can find you.
  • Be real for you. Social media isn't necessarily the place to prove how "real" you are. What's important is actually being real -- in real life. Explain that if your kid wants to find out who she really is, social media is only one stop on the journey.
  • Beware of social pressure. Those who push people -- or shame others into only showing their barest, most "real" selves -- are practicing an insidious form of bullying.
  • Your online self isn't the real you. What you post is always a curated account of your life and times. If people criticize you online, remember they're only seeing the side you've chosen to show. If they got to know the real you, they'd probably really like you.
  • Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.