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Category: Social Media

Get in the game

I had an amazing experience last week at the ADC Summit, where I accepted an Australian Leadership Award and got to share ideas with leading thinkers in a whole range of fields. I was especially excited by Gabe Zicchermann’s thought-provoking talk on how video games actually make kids smarter. They do this by increasing children’s multitasking skills and their fluid intelligence, which is the type of intelligence you use in problem solving. He cites research into the five key ways in which you can boost fluid intelligence — all of which occur when a child plays video games:

  • Seek novelty.
  • Challenge yourself.
  • Think creatively.
  • Do things the hard way.
  • Network.

I was delighted that many of Zicchermann’s ideas accord with Enlighten’s philosophies of engaging and interacting with girls. His messages are encapsulated in this TED talk he gave:

There is no need to despair and wring our hands over kids spending time at their gaming consoles, Zicchermann assures us. The kids of Generation G (for Gamer) will be all right. In fact, they will be awesome — just so long as we embrace their world and enter the game too. This echoes a belief I hold dear: the way to connect with our children about anything is to open ourselves to their interests, instead of reflexively dismissing the things they love as harmful or trivial. Rather than policing and patronising, we need to empathise with, and understand the world of, young people. Only then can we positively engage with them and effectively support them.

Zicchermann notes a school where the introduction of an innovative video-game-based curriculum increased children’s maths and language skills by a grade level in just 18 weeks. How? By making learning fun and making it a communal experience. Again, this is something that we know works from our presentations. We capture the girls’ hearts. We make learning serious and important life skills fun and exciting. And we have found that the way to ensure messages resonate with the girls is to reach them collectively, which is why we always work with full-year groups of girls, rather than engage in individual or small-group interventions.

I’ve seen the life-changing results of these teaching approaches on girls in terms of self-esteem and body image, and I believe that video gaming can also be an incredibly valuable educational tool. Not only are there benefits to kids’ grey matter and maths and language skills, there are a whole host of other ways that gaming can be beneficial.

A fabulous example is Superbetter. Facing an uncertain prognosis from a serious concussion, Jane McGonigal (who also gave a great TED talk) created a motivational game to strengthen herself and speed her recovery. What she found was that she not only got better; her resilience and confidence improved so much that she became better than she ever was, or superbetter. Intrigued by the possibilities that Superbetter offers girls to improve their resilience in a way they can relate to, I had a teen friend who is struggling with an eating disorder try it out. Based on her feedback, this is a game I’ll be recommending to anyone, whether young or old, who is dealing with any kind of health issue:

When you are sick with anything, you tend to lose your sense of reality and focus on what’s hurting you and not the positives that you still have. You tend to feel sorry for yourself and that gets you nowhere. Superbetter really gets your mind set changed to something different. You can choose your own activities based on your own problems — mental illness, addiction, body image, anything! You get advice/help and activities to change the way you think. For a body image person, some of the first things you get asked to do when you log on is go to the mirror, find a positive body part and love it instead of hating the others, and also go look in the mirror and change the negative thought to a positive one.

I honestly think this site has the potential to help people who feel lonely and lost and need something to take their mind off feeling down about themselves. Changing the way you think is one of the first things you need to do in order to love yourself and feel good about yourself, and I really think this site can do that!  M—, 16

Another way that gaming can be great for girls is in making them familiar and comfortable with computers. Back in 1998, gaming and virtual-reality pioneer Brenda Laurel posed the question “Why are all the top-selling video games aimed at little boys?” in a TED talk. One of her concerns was that girls were slipping behind in ICT skills because boys were more adept at using computers due to all the hours of games they played. As I’ve written on this blog before, we need to support girls and help them become ICT savvy, as otherwise they are at risk of missing out on the jobs of the future.

Characters from the Sims 3

Thanks in part to her own efforts, since Laurel posed that question more games that girls enjoy have been developed. In fact, women now outnumber men as players of web-based games. As Laurel notes, girls are now major forces in game worlds such as World of Warcraft and the Sims. The Canadian company Silicon Sisters creates video games for women and girls by women and girls. Their School 26 series of games has a storyline centred on a high school social hierarchy. The aim is to help girls develop networking, relationship and communication skills.

And if you still need another reason to get into the game with your girls, researchers have found that playing video games together can strengthen the bond between parents and daughters. Research by Sarah Coyne, Ph.D., at Brigham Young University School of Family Life, in the US, found that girls who played age-appropriate video games with their parents “behaved better, felt more connected to their families and had stronger mental health”. As Coyne says:

Playing video games with your girls could be a really good thing. It’s the face-to-face time with an adolescent culture-type of game. When parents play with their kids, they’re saying, ‘I’m willing to do what you like to do.’

And I truly believe that sending kids that message, no matter what it is they like to do, is one of the most positive steps forward we can take. This weekend, let’s all go and get in the game!

Boy-band crushes and body image — the week that was

Last week was a big week in girlworld. Unless you were recently deposited back on earth by aliens, I doubt I need to tell you that One Direction arrived in Sydney for their Australian tour. I was in at Channel 9 to talk on Mornings about whether teen girls screaming and crying over this boy band is healthy and normal (yes!) or something parents need to worry about (no!):

For my daughter, Teyah (13), and stepdaughter, Jaz (17), the best part was that they were allowed into the studio to breathe the actual same air as their beloved One Direction, as the boys made an appearance on Today.

Jaz, 17, and Teyah, 13, in the same studio as their beloved One Direction

The fans squealed. They wept. They trembled all over. But please don’t dismiss their feelings as silly or hysterical. Their feelings are very real and raw. And they have their origins in biology: the frontal lobes of the brains of teenagers are primed for high emotions, fighting, running away and, oh yes, romance.

I actually think it is beautiful to see the fans’ excitement for their squeaky clean and sexually harmless objects of desire. The big appeal of One Direction, according to almost every teen fan you ask, is that they are wholesome, down to earth and hard working. They pose little or no sexual threat. And there is no risk of rejection.

But of course there had to be a media kerfuffle about One Direction’s visit, with dire warnings being issued, and much tsk-tsking about the unbridled libidos of teenage girls these days. (Because the hysteria over the Beatles, Kiss, NKOTB, The Backstreet Boys, and so on and so on, was somehow different, apparently.) It all started when Channel 7 apologised because their Sunrise cameras captured fans in Martin Place holding signs that said “Point your erection in my direction” and “Send your one thing Down Under”. Many voices chimed in to express their outrage about the sexual nature of young fans’ adulation. Some pointed the finger at what many girls were wearing, saying their outfits were too revealing.

The fact is, there was a veritable sea of benign, nonsexual signs being held up by the screaming crowds. And anyone who wants to criticise teen girls based on how they dress should take a look at this Facebook album of One Direction fans and do a reality check. These young women are all shades of gorgeous.

To me, the real issue is why society is okay with young men making highly sexual comments, while girls seemingly should not even think about sex. Case in point: on that Facebook album, many males have left comments about whether the girls are hot or not. How sad that some little girl enjoying her first concert with friends inadvertently enters an online beauty quest. How sad that while girls are reviled for expressing a physical interest in their celebrity crushes, no one tries to stop those males publicly ranking teen girls on their hotness. And we wonder why girls end up playing the compare and despair game.

Why are we so threatened by what Wendy Harmer calls teen girls’ “emerging sexuality with training wheels”? Clementine Ford nailed it when she wrote last week in Daily Life:

The nascent sexual desires of boys are so readily accepted as part of life that we barely blink at the mention of them. . . . But instead of encouraging a similar sexual expression in girls (who experience the exact same explosion of hormones during their teen years), we demonise it . . .

At best, this trains girls to adhere to a system that constructs women as passive bystanders to sex . . . But at worst, it encourages the idea that their burgeoning desires are unnatural and gross . . .

A handful of girls waving titillating signs outside Martin Place isn’t representative of an orgiastic trend sweeping the nation, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. But it is a sign that no matter how much we try and shield girls from sex, they’re going to find ways to explore it and it doesn’t always mean they want to actually do it.

The answer isn’t to keep talking about how uncomfortable it makes everyone . . . it’s about giving [girls] the right tools to explore that sexuality in a healthy way, and trusting them to make the right decisions. They’re not delicate dolls, so stop treating them that way.

Hear, hear, sista!

Another big thing last week in this particular girl’s world was that I was on Life Matters on Radio National, talking to Wendy Harmer about positive ways to raise teen daughters. Of course, we talked about boy-band crushes, but we talked about much more, too. I especially loved having the chance to chat with listeners who called in with their concerns. One was worried about teen girls binge drinking. Another asked for advice on how to bolster the self-esteem of her beautiful teen daughter, who struggles with low body image and is teased at school for being flat chested. And a mother was deeply concerned about her 10-year-old girl who is of average weight yet is determined to stay on a diet because she believes it’s “part of being a girl”. All of their issues were heart breaking, so I was glad to have the chance to offer some practical suggestions for turning these situations around. You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

Hearing the stories of those mothers who are worried about their daughters’ body-image angst makes me more determined than ever to help make things right for our girls. If you know any young women who are struggling with body image, please let them know they can read the chapter on body image from my latest book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, free of charge. Simply click here for this free sample chapter.

 

A happy, peaceful, girl-power Christmas!

At Enlighten we believe it’s vital to not only help girls develop the tools to deconstruct toxic media and marketing messages, but also to offer them positive alternatives, so this year we’ve made an extra-special effort to provide girls with products that are inspiring and empowering. As we head into Christmas, I thought I’d profile these, and some other great gift alternatives created by amazing women. If you’re like me and you think girls deserve better than what many retailers are offering — Playboy-branded bling, T-shirts with sexy slogans — then here are some other gift ideas for the girls in your life.

Girls of all ages (and their mums, too) are just loving the Enlighten posters we had custom designed, featuring gorgeous imagery and uplifting messages. Some girls like to cover their bedroom walls with all eight of the posters, which are only $5 each — you can check them out at Enlighten’s website. I know a lot of people have had it with the commercialism of Christmas, and I agree that it shouldn’t really be all about spending. So another way to treat girls is to download the posters for free as wallpaper for their mobiles; for that matter, treat yourself, too.

On our site you’ll also find our free iPhone app, which each day features different inspiring quotes, self-affirming messages and web links to info that all girls should know — plus, it looks stunning! (We hope that one day in the future we will be able to roll it out for Android phones too.) For parents and people who work with teen girls, my book The Butterfly Effect: A positive new approach to raising happy, confident teen girls can make a great gift. (P.S. the girls’ edition, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, will be out in March next year, just in time for International Women’s Day!)

 For Real GiRLS!, a fantastic new Australian magazine for ages 7 to 12, has just hit newsagents and Coles stores. It is the brainchild of designers Sonia Pereira
and Liz Purdue. Liz came to one of my parent seminars after her eldest daughter, Rachel, did an Enlighten workshop at Pymble Ladies College. The themes of my presentation struck home with Liz, who at the time was working on several girls’ magazines, including Bratz and Barbie. Now the mother of three is working with a team of designers who are all mothers, producing a magazine that is a true alternative to the other magazines on offer for girls. There is no beauty, fashion, celebrity gossip or ads — oh, sweet relief. Her experience working on girls’ magazines and reading the fan mail that came in convinced her that “girls don’t really want to read a mag about celebrities and popstars (if they do they can access far more recent info for free on the net) and they are certainly not interested in makeup . . . they are far more focused on friendship than fashion!” This magazine will make girls and their parents equally happy. 

Another magazine concept, for girls aged 8 and up, is New Moon Girls, which combines a magazine and social networking site where all of the content is created by girls themselves — artwork, fiction, poetry, videos and more. There are no ads, and a year’s subscription gives girls 6 issues of the printed magazine and access to the social networking site, which is fully moderated and designed to be educational and build self-esteem and positive body image. Nancy Gruver founded New Moon almost 20 years ago, inspired by her twin 11-year-old daughters. It is based in the US, but the magazine can be shipped to Australia, so an annual subscription can make a great present. If you want to check out the social networking site, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial.

If you’ve been trawling through the shops in the lead-up to Christmas, you might have been infuriated by some of the hyper-sexy clothes targeted at young girls. So check out Pigtail Pals, which is run by Melissa Atkins Wardy, a mum and entrepreneur who was fed up with the stereotypes found in children’s clothing and wanted role models for her daughter that exemplified courage, intelligence and imagination. “Our motto is to ‘Redefine Girly’ and raise girls with the message they are smart, daring, and adventurous,” according to Melissa. “Our designs show girls as doctors, astronauts, pilots, pirates, exploring the ocean, and playing with dinosaurs.” They also have stationery, hats, tote bags and backpacks with positive messages for girls.

If you’ve been in the toy aisles lately, chances are it was just as infuriating. Perth woman Helen Schofield was looking for dolls for her granddaughters to play with and found herself asking, “Why do so many young girls seem to be enslaved by the need to be sexy at such an early age?” Rather than wring her hands in anguish at the poor choices on offer for girls, she decided to create a range of dolls herself. She and her husband risked their retirement funds and created Australian Girl, a range of five dolls that represent the lives of real Australian girls; the brand encourages self-acceptance and care for, and awareness of, others. Being a big reader ever since I was a child, I love the fact that the Australian Girl website encourages girls to make up stories about their dolls. The company even launched an adventure fiction book in which the dolls’ characters travel back in time and discover things they never knew about Australian history and significant Australian women.

Do you know of any other positive, empowering gifts for girls? I’d love to hear about them.

Wishing you all a happy, peaceful — and girl-power! — Christmas.

Life After Kyle

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which is also commemorated by the White Ribbon Campaign.

White Ribbon recognises that men and boys need to to work towards eradicating the fact that one in three Australian women over the age of 15 have experienced physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives. Disability Discrimination Commissioner Innes summed up why this day is more than merely symbolic: “…it is a time to draw attention to this grave issue in our society. It is a time to ask men to ensure their actions make it clear they are against it, by speaking out about it and passing the important message – that there is no place for violence against women – onto their family and friends, particularly to other males.” The White Ribbon Campaign encourages us to highlight the importance of respect for women and strive for attitudinal change; all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

How fitting then that both mainstream and social media are abuzz with discussion over Kyle Sandiland’s recent outburst against a female journalist. Sandilands named the journalist and said she was a “troll…a bullshit artist”. He then commented on her appearance, mocking her hairdo and ranting:  “You haven’t got that much titty to be wearing that low cut a blouse. Watch your mouth girl, or I will hunt you down.”

Using the hash tag #vilekyle, Tweets called for Austereo to sack him. An on-line petition urging sponsors to “ditch” Kyle attracted thousands of signatures. David Penberthy declared he finds him “…about as funny as the hole he has in his head where other people keep their brains” and branded him a “dictionary definition misogynist”. Miranda Devine attempted to highlight how this “living, sagging embodiment of misogyny” was a sad indictment on a culture that has become increasingly toxic for boys and men:  “We now have a generation of men brought up with rap music that celebrates violence to women while their own innocent maleness has been treated as a dirty little crime since boyhood.” Whilst, in my discussion with Kerri-Anne, I argued that it is those around him, his co-host Jackie O, Austereo, and indeed the listening audience who must also be held responsible for allowing this man the elevated platform from which he can belittle, threaten and abuse:

 

It is my belief Kyle will go. He has proven himself to be not just a shock-jock but a liability. You may recall Charlie Sheen was forgiven for his atrocious behaviour towards women (in 2006, Sheen’s then wife, Denise Richards, filed a restraining order against him, saying that Sheen had thrown chairs at her, pushed her, and threatened to kill her. In 2009, he made similar threats against his new wife, Brooke Mueller, while holding a knife to her throat.  And in 2010 Sheen went on a violent rampage at the Plaza Hotel, allegedly verbally and physically abusing a prostitute he had hired for the night). It was only after Sheen turned on his producers that he was sacked.

But how can we ensure another Kyle, or another Sheen, does not emerge to replace those that have, fuelled by their own self-importance and fury, self-combusted?

And how do we deal with the many other men who are not so public in their abuse of women, and are not currently being held accountable?

The conversations need to be kept alive long after Sandilands has been silenced.

Shaming and Taming Teenage Girls

“America’s favorite shame machine, Lindsay Lohan, has embarrassed herself yet again! …Look away now if you don’t like to watch people throw their dignity in the trash..”

Look away now if you don’t like to watch the media revel in shaming young female celebrities. The above quote wasn’t lifted from of the plethora of “trash” mags, but rather from online site Jezebel, a site that claims to be offering “celebrity, sex and fashion…without airbrushing.” No airbrushing but, it would seem, with an extra dose of female venom – or, as we like to call it, fem-ven. Sadly, Jezebel is not alone in reveling in dishing up the dirt on young women.

Much of popular culture perpetuates the idea that young women can simply not be trusted, particularly if they have money, fame or any kind of power. Think everyone’s favorite targets; Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian… Going by all the recent reports which document young women stripping off and partying on, you would be forgiven for thinking that young women are simply out of control.

Think too of the more troubling way in which teen girls are presented by those who are supposed to have their best interests at heart. How many books on teen parenting have featured either surly looking misses with arms folded on their covers, or titles which claim to help parents “survive” adolescent girls (please note – girls aren’t carcinogenic).

The general consensus seems to be that girls are running wild and must be tamed, or shamed- stat!

Never mind that teenage girls are considered more mature than their male counterparts. Never mind that girls continue to outperform boys academically. Never mind that girls aged 16 to 24 are safer drivers and have higher tertiary enrollment rates than boys in the same age group. And don’t even consider the drastically lower incarceration rates of young women compared with young men.

The problem is not that young women are irresponsible but that the media is interested only in the few who are.

The moral panic over young female celebrities is so intense that many people forget that in some ways young men are more at risk than young women, yet curiously there is no moral panic surrounding the boys.

As women who work with teen girls on a weekly basis, let us reassure you – it’s not that amazing young women are not out there. Young women are doing great things. The problem is one of visibility. The media rarely reports on young women in an affirmative way. Apart from the odd report of a young female sportsperson or aspiring fashion model, there is surprisingly little on offer.

As a young woman, unless you fit the category of innocent virgin, or vulnerable victim the chances are the media will vilify you. But why is there such a witch-hunt for young female celebrities? Just as many young male celebrities take drugs and misbehave. Hello almost every rap star / gangsta wannabe on the planet! Hello Charlie Sheen!

So why the double standard? And how does the double standard fuel the moral panic over girls as vulnerable and highly susceptible to negative influences? More to the point, are paternalistic offers of protection really just veiled offers to control girls?

The sexuality of teenage girls produces a cultural anxiety that results in the social scrutiny of young women’s bodies and behaviours. When teenage girls develop curvy bodies and active libidos they can no longer be neatly categorised by those who would prefer to view them as asexual beings. This unsettles many in the community.

Some then deal with their anxiety by projecting it back on to the bodies and actions of young women through extreme regulation and control. Some men police young women as a way of policing their desire for them. Similarly, some older women who are threatened by younger women’s sexuality deal with this anxiety by trying to police them.

But the vast majority of teen girls have not committed any crime and are guilty of nothing more than testing boundaries and trying to make choices in an increasingly complex, adult world. When we work with young women they tell us they are sick of being “lectured”, told off for “doing everything wrong” and policed.

Setting boundaries is vital but let’s stop the vitriol and panic and aim for a more empathetic, strengths based approach to raising girls. Let’s respect the competencies they bring to discussions and let’s build on their capacity for ethical decision making.

The real crisis? The fact that we are further alienating and isolating our young women by perpetuating a self fulfilling prophecy that all girls will be difficult and deviant.

 

This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti-sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting,” teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by US site Feministing. 


 

Twattish prudes and Playboy bunnies: Just another day at the Diva Facebook page

Jewellery retailer Diva’s Facebook fan page continues to be a hotbed of (barely moderated) comments about their new Playboy line that I talked about last week. Unfortunately, what could have been a forum for debate quickly became a cyberbully’s paradise. A handful of fans of the retailer – and many more trolls who seemed to be on the page simply to insult people – filled the page with taunts.

I posted the following comment on the page and also emailed it to Diva’s head office:

Diva your FB page has becoming increasingly filled with personal attacks and obscene language (not to mention it appears to now be haunted by young men who wish to insult women). This is a direct result of you introducing a porn-inspired range. It now means this page is no longer suitable for young girls. How do you feel about this? And, as this is your public profile, do you intend to monitor this page and moderate comments? Finally, based on the comments here it seems very obvious that the vast majority of CONSUMERS (ie: not young boys or 1-2 young women who are very brand loyal) now say they have lost respect for YOUR brand and feel alienated by this marketing decision. How do you intend to win back consumer confidence? Looking forward to listening to your responses.

My comment got 50 ‘likes’ yet I am still waiting for a response from Diva. So are scores of other people who went on the Facebook page and politely and rationally explained their concerns about Diva marketing a porn-branded product to tweens and teens.

I received a lot of positive comments but also the now almost-obligatory obscene comments (which came from a young guy who admitted he just likes stirring up strangers on the net).

The company was painfully slow to do anything about the hurtful, bullying insults all over their Facebook page. I don’t want to repeat any of the actual posts here – I don’t want to give the trolls any more oxygen – but the blog Corporate Failings summed it all up like this:

Insults relating to concerned customer’s gender, intelligence, sexual orientation, race, disabilities & weight have spewed forth unrelentingly.

One ‘fan’ even went as far as taunting a concerned customer suggesting they’d do well to take their own life because of their appearance. Diva was no-where to be found . . .

Diva finally began removing most of the worst bullying and adding their own comment:

Hi we like hearing your views but we are not ok with personal attacks on each other, so we will be deleting any posts that are considered bullying. Feel free to post a cleaner version as we are happy for you to have your say. x

The thing is, there are still some very hurtful comments on the page – the usual stuff about weight, age, appearance, oh, and calling us “twattish prudes”. Meanwhile, we are all still waiting for an actual response by Diva to our concerns. After waiting four days, this is all we got, and some pictures of flowery brooches and headpieces:

Hey, sorry we haven’t been able to respond sooner, we didn’t expect to be so busy over the last few days. As you’ve probably seen by now we’ve had heaps of FB comments, tweets and news stuff and on top of that we had a long wet weekend here in Sydney.

So now we are catching up on all of the things that we are cramming in to 4 days! One things for sure, we love our fashion, it always comes with lots of emotions, always changes and moves so fast.

So we know you are all looking for the next trend. We are loving that it’s spring carnival and we’re totes excited about seeing all your fashion on the field this year.

Here are some great pieces perfect for the races!

I love Caitlin Roper’s response:

So just to clarify, Diva’s official response was: Look, pretty flowers!

It is deeply concerning to me that the internet, which holds so much promise as a way to connect and share ideas and beliefs, can so easily become a venue for hateful speech designed to intimidate and silence. And all too often, it is women who are on the receiving end, something I have written about before, in Sticks and Stones. Facebook itself has sat on its hands while people set up fan pages celebrating rape and other types of violence against women.

I went of Kerri-anne recently to talk about my own experiences as the subject of an online hate campaign on Facebook against me after I made a comment about girls kickboxing. A prominent member of the kickboxing community said he wanted to punch me in the face and encouraged thousands of Facebook users to join in on the abuse. I ended up personally ringing a number of these people and confronting them about it, which was very interesting because a number of them turned around and apologised profusely, not quite realising the extent of their actions. Some ended up issuing public apologies.

Even when bullying is happening in cyberworld, we can – and should – stand up to the bullies.

Someone who is doing just that is 14-year-old Sydney girl Julia Weber, who has released a book, ILY (I Love You) – One Teen Girl’s Guide to a Bully-Proof Adolescence. Julia has been subject to bullying, including cyberbullying by a group of boys at a school dormitory. What upset her most was that only a few boys were doing the actual cyberbullying but the rest, about three-quarters of the boys, just stood by and did nothing to stop the bullies. “It’s those people – the bystanders – who we have to change,” says Julia.

I couldn’t agree more.

For tips on combating bullies, and some helpful links, see Bullying: It’s time to focus on solutions.

“Who has time for homework when there’s a new Justin Bieber album out.”


This is the product description for a Girls size 7-16 long sleeved t-shirt that American chain JC Penney was offering for sale on its website – under the “Self-Esteem” category (oh please). But wait, it gets worse: the t-shirt slogan reads, “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”

So outraged was American mother and activist Melissa Wardy, that she took to Twitter and Facebook to begin a social network campaign to get the product pulled – and she won. This isn’t the first time Melissa has taken action though. In fact, she is so committed to ensuring we “change the way people think about girls” and recognise that girls are “smart, daring and adventurous” that she started her own clothing line for girls with the aim of redefining “girly”.

The Pigtail Pals-Redefine Girly product range includes my personal favourite – a shirt depicting a female carpenter with the slogan: ” I broke a nail…”

There’s also a shirt depicting a female Doctor with the slogan “Call me in the morning.” Compare that to Nurse Barbie’s message for girls as seen in a toy shop near you right now: “Get new shoes and call me in the morning!”(on the box of the current vintage Barbie range). Me thinks Nurse B may end up with a medical negligence law suit on her hands if she gives out that kind of advice to her patients. The dolls may date from 1961, but so too does the message which is a recent addition to the newly packaged Babs.

These are by no means isolated examples of products and campaigns that would have girls believe “Math class is tough!” (talking Barbie’s first words to girls in 1992) or that our daughters should be more preoccupied with bling than brains: “Don’t theorise, accessorise!” (slogan courtesy of the Bratz dolls). Shine reports that earlier this year the Internet was  a buzz over David & Goliath T-Shirt that read, in pink bubble letters, “I’m too pretty to do math.” Then there was the one with “Future Trophy Wife” written on it. There’s also reality shows like Australia’s Beauty and the Geek, and a plethora of television programmes and films aimed at teens that send clear messages about what defines desirable – and it ain’t the bespecled “brainiac” who hangs alone at the library and only finds love and popularity once she ditches the books and gets a make-over. For every smart, savvy Hermione, there seem to be at least 5 genuinely clueless-yet-cute Gossip Girls.

I have noted some big girls playing the “dumbing down” game in social situations too and laughed out loud at this cartoon featured in an opinion piece by Liz Jones at the Daily Mail:

I thought it fitting this week to hand my blog over to Melissa to allow her to explain why we should all be working towards offering girls far more empowering, inspiring messages than those that would have our girls pass on their homework to the lads…

Pretty’s Got Nothing To Do With It

Tomorrow I send my child to her first day of school. Her first day of kindergarten. Her first day of formal education in a public school with years and years and years of learning to follow.

So I’ll ask you kindly to get out of her way, JC Penney. You too, Orbeez and Skechers. Mattel and your Monster High, we’ve already had words.

My daughter will not be sent to school with the message from her parents that she is inadequate. She will not be taught hat she is incapable of learning, and mastering, what is taught to her at school. She will not be treated as though she were delicate. Tea cups are delicate, girls are not…

Despite the direct contradiction to their charity Pennies From Heaven, this shirt teaches girls to expect very little from themselves, that their looks supercede their intellect, and that ‘being pretty’ will get you by. Pretty’s got nothing to do with school. Oh, and that little notion that the academic work should be left to the boys. In 2011, we are teaching the grand daughters of the Women’s Lib movement to forsake their education and have their looks be their main focus.

So don’t buy it, right? It is just one shirt. Right?

Wrong. WRONG.

It is the culture of consumer beauty and self-objectified sex surrounding our girls that drips right off a script page from a Kardashian-esque reality tv show. The message that beauty and sexiness measure a woman’s worth, and that one can never be too young to focus on these things.

Exhibit B: Orbeez Soothing Spa with magic rainbow de-stressing beads, for that stressed-out 11yo in your life. Because, OMG, school is just like soooooo freaking hard! You can watch the commercial HERE.

Orbeez wants you to know that school is hard!
Orbeez wants you to know that foot spas help your hurting brain from all that learning!

Who needs hard things, like learning, when you can relax at the spa and work on being pretty. How I went through my entire girlhood in the absense of spa products and services usually reserved for adult women of a certain income and lifestyle, I’ll never know.

Learning hurts! Pretty is fun!
My response? To do what I do best and offer girls a different message:

Melissa’s inspiring designs for girls, including this latest response to JC Penney, may be ordered at her site: www.pigtailapals.com. Items may be shipped to Australia.

Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff

Teenage girls have been getting a lot of media lately, much of it alarmist, with headlines such as ”Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?” and ”Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teenage girl”. In on online feature recently, Australian fashion editors had a go at girls for dressing like ”streetwalkers”.

Girls see this media coverage, too, so I guess it’s no wonder they often say to me after an Enlighten workshop that they thought it would be “just another boring lecture about the things we do wrong”.

While we must be realistic about the very real issues that girls are facing, I believe it is just as important to recognise the positives and engage with girls, not alienate them. We need to move beyond finger wagging. I know that Martin Luther King Jr wouldn’t have inspired anyone by declaring “I have a nightmare!”

Writer Emily Maguire’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month, “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff”, touches on this issue and talks about how best to help our girls navigate the sometimes dangerous world in which they live. I am grateful to Emily for allowing me to share an excerpt with you here.

Emily Maguire is the author of three novels and two non-fiction books. Her articles and essays have been published widely including in The Monthly, The Australian and The Age and in 2007 she received an Edna Ryan Award (Media Category) for her writing on women’s issues. Emily was named as a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. Her latest book is “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.”

 

 

We need a reality check. . . . A minority of teenage girls routinely abuse alcohol or illegal drugs. A minority put themselves at risk of social stigma or criminal prosecution by sexting carelessly. A minority of those who are sexually active don’t practice safer sex. But most understand the potential dangers of drugs, alcohol and sex and make choices which minimise those dangers. Those who continue to put themselves at risk need specific, possibly professional, intervention. Impersonal, generalising panic over behaviour is unlikely to change it.

But of course, not all harm can be avoided by even the most sensible girl. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to a 2010 Mission Australia survey, body image is the top personal concern for young people. Sexual assault also remains a major problem with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society reporting that 38 per cent of female secondary students have had ”unwanted sex”.

It’s scary stuff. Little wonder that some parents are tempted to lock their daughters in a room free of TV, internet and phone. But one day those girls are going to have to step outside and then what?

Although we wish the world was a safer place and should work to make it so, we need to prepare girls to live in it as it is. This seems obvious when talking about boys: of course they need to learn resilience and determination and rebelliousness against those who would hold them back or harm them. But we’re still so damn precious about girls. We pretend that passivity and fragility are innate, even as we expend a great deal of energy on instilling and enforcing them.

. . .

In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons details the ways in which adults ”discourage the emergence of physical and direct aggression in girls” and ”either encourage or shrug off” the ”skirmishes” of boys. In one study, adults told girls in their care ”to be quiet, speak softly or use a ‘nicer’ voice about three times more often than boys”.

Teenage girls are often criticised for being sullen and underhanded, for resorting to passive-aggressive silences and unexplained bursts of tears, yet we’ve spent a decade or so training them to suppress. What do you do with the natural teenage rushes of emotion and hormones and excitement and rage when you’ve been repeatedly told not to draw attention to yourself, not to argue back, not to speak unless you have something nice to say?

We know girls face a sometimes hostile world and yet we train them to be meek in the face of it.

. . .

If girls are human then they should be allowed to explore the full range of human experience. They should be allowed to look to rock stars as well as pop princesses, pirates as well as sailors, vigilantes as well as stoic victims. They should be allowed to find inspiration in rebels with or without causes.

Fictional role models are a start, but there are plenty of real-life teenagers who demonstrate courage and resilience. Jessica Watson is already a role model for many teenagers, but how about Ellyse Perry who, at 16, played for Australia in both cricket and football? How about Angela Barker who spent her teen years in a nursing home after suffering a severe brain injury and now campaigns for the rights of young people with disabilities? Or Kalinda Griffiths who began her career as an indigenous health researcher at 17? How about the 170,000 young people who are primary carers for parents or siblings?

Poster available at www.enlighteneducation.com.

These kinds of real-life examples don’t just serve as inspiration to teenagers; they serve as a reminder to adults that teenagers of both sexes are capable of much more than our society gives them credit for.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Many teenagers possess powerful self-awareness (the flip side of teenage self-obsession) and a great capacity for constant questioning and insightful cultural critique. What they tend to lack is self-control, the ability to envisage the consequences of their actions and, obviously, life experience. That’s why we adults need to have their backs. We can encourage toughness while offering advice on how to minimise damage to the self and to others.

If a girl knows you’re on her side — that you won’t treat her as stupid or fragile or dishonest or assume she can’t handle anything more challenging than buying top-up credit for her phone — then there’s a better-than-even chance she’ll listen to your advice about when to bite her tongue and when to scream like a banshee. And when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, it’s more likely she’ll tell you about it if she knows you won’t panic about her lost innocence and vow to guard her with a shotgun until she’s 21.

. . .

There’s the example of the 14-year-old who was at the movies with her friends when a man in his 20s put his arm around her shoulder and asked her to come sit with him. She said no and he went away but she was shaken. Talking it through with her friends, there were suggestions that her outfit was ”kind of sexy” and so maybe she shouldn’t dress like that any more. Others in the group thought that was unfair: her outfit was amazing and she felt great in it. She just needed to be ready for men who thought she was older or looking for a boyfriend or whatever. Together, the girls came up with a strategy: the next time she (or any of them) had an adult man crack on to her she should say — very loudly — ”I’m 14!” and if he persisted, she would — louder still — tell him he should be ashamed of himself for trying to pick up a child.

There’s no doubt the ideas behind this solution came from a thousand conversations with adults and peers and from various forms of media. When it came to the crunch, the girls were able to talk it through, support each other and come up with a strategy that acknowledged unfortunate realities while refusing to cower in the face of them. Talk about empowering.

Unfortunately, when the girl told her parents about the incident, she was banned from going to the movies with her friends. Again, an understandable impulse but the girl feels punished for fighting her own battle and will either stop doing so or — more likely — will be sure to keep future battles a secret.

It can be dangerous out there. We can teach girls to be frightened and meek, to aim to be mere silent witnesses rather than victims. Or we can teach them to fight, not just for themselves but for others who can’t. We can teach them that the world can be terrifying, and that sometimes, they should be terrifying right back at it.


Bullying: It’s time to focus on solutions

Australia made a step in the right direction last week with the first-ever National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence. Kerri-anne Kennerly took a huge personal interest in the cause and pushed to discuss bullying at length on her show.

I went along with my beautiful, brave and articulate 16-year-old step-daughter, Jazmine, who spoke about her experiences of being bullied, as did another teen, James. Tess Nelson spoke for her son, Dakota.

Kudos must go to Kerri-anne for extending the story to more than 9 minutes, which for breakfast TV is a double segment. The piece raised awareness of the seriousness of bullying and it gave voice to the experiences of the victims of bullying, which I think is very important.

But ever since the segment finished, I have been bursting to take the discussion further. In this post, I want to go beyond the “what, where and why” and discuss the issue that will really make a difference to kids’ lives: how to stop bullying.

What schools can do

We all need a whole-school culture that makes it clear bullying will not be tolerated. Steps that I have seen work in schools include:

  • strong peer-support programs, where older children buddy up with younger ones and look out for them
  • a zero-tolerance approach to any bullying incident
  • celebrations of difference, such as school multicultural days, gender awareness programs, anti-homophobia initiatives
  • getting the local police youth liaison officer in to discuss the topic with students, which the police are more than happy to do.

Bystanders, take a stand

I think the National Day of Action organisers got it right when they chose to focus this year on encouraging bystanders to do more to stop bullying. Let’s consider the video that recently did the rounds on YouTube of a NSW teen boy throwing another boy to the ground in retaliation for bullying. The teen had been subjected to bullying for years and tried to turn the other cheek—until on this day, in his own words, he “snapped”.

I was disturbed that many in the media portrayed the bullied boy as a hero for fighting back. A Current Affair noted that he had “finally stood up for himself”, as though up until then he’d been somehow morally weak and that the only true way to stand up for yourself is to use physical force.

I empathise with the boy who had been bullied, victimised and assaulted repeatedly before retaliating. But I think if we want to use the word “hero”, we should look at the girl at the end of the video. After the assaults, a friend of the bully comes forward to retaliate against the assault on the bully. The girl walks over and stands between them and assertively tells the bully’s friend to back off.

One of the things that alarmed me in that video was the number of bystanders doing nothing or, worse still, filming the violence. The standard we walk past is the standard we set. That girl was amazing. The fact that she came forward to stop the violence in a nonviolent way is to be celebrated—and encouraged in all schools.

Teachers are of course responsible for doing everything they can to stop bullying—but the reality is that in 85% of cases, bullying takes place when there are no adults around. That’s why it is so important to create a school culture in which bullying is not tolerated and bystanders are encouraged to step up and say “It’s not on!”

Get real about bullying

Even today there are still some people who think bullying is just harmless name calling. Bullying takes numerous serious forms:

  • verbal—name calling, teasing, verbal abuse, humiliation, sarcasm, insults, threats
  • physical—punching, kicking, scratching, tripping, spitting
  • social—ignoring, excluding, alienating, making inappropriate gestures
  • psychological—spreading rumours, glaring, hiding or damaging possessions, malicious texts, email messages or Facebook comments, inappropriate use of camera phones.

All are very damaging.

Know the signs

I interviewed the Police Youth Liaison Officer at Castle Hill in Sydney, Senior Constable Rob Patterson, to find out more about bullying. He told me that his number one piece of advice to kids who are being bullied is: “Tell someone, and if they don’t listen, tell someone else.”

That this advice is even necessary highlights the sad fact that few children who are being bullied actually tell an adult about it. In fact, the father of the boy in the video who retaliated against bullying told A Current Affair: “I didn’t realise how much trouble he was actually in until I’d seen that video . . . you poor little bloke, how many years did you put up with this sort of treatment?”

That means it’s important for teachers and parents to be aware of the signs, such as:

  • refusing to go to school
  • a drop in academic performance
  • changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
  • bruises, scratches and other injuries
  • changes in personality, e.g., becoming withdrawn or angry.

Call bullying what it really is

Senior Constable Patterson noted that the police and legal system tend not to use the term “bullying”, because it softens people’s perception of offences that may be very serious. The police call bullies’ offences what they really are, using terms such as “assault”, “intimidation” and “online harassment”. If we also begin using the correct terms for these offences, we will begin to acknowledge the serious impacts that bullying has on victims and send a clearer signal to bullies that their actions won’t be tolerated any more.

What parents can do

If you notice signs that your child might be the victim of bullying, raise your concerns sensitively with them. Most important of all, listen and get all the facts, then work with the school to try and resolve the situation.

If you feel that the school isn’t doing enough, go to the police. Senior Constable Patterson noted that the police usually contact the school as a first step and this may spur the school to take further action.

“Don’t forget that it is a criminal offence to make another person scared for their safety and the police can—and do—get involved. Daily,” Senior Constable Patterson told me. However, he stressed that it is important to have evidence, as one of the most common reasons that a school fails to take legal action is that they don’t have proof of the offence. In the absence of evidence, he recommends that parents encourage their children to ask witnesses of the bullying to write down what they saw.

Court action is not the only police solution. They may first seek another way of resolving the bullying—for instance, a talk with the police is often enough of a warning to a bully that they need to stop.

Ultimately, if you’ve tried everything, you’re not satisfied that your child is safe from bullying and they are still miserable—move schools! Many kids thrive with a fresh start.

Set a good example

All the anti-bullying campaigns in the world won’t make a difference if children are surrounded by examples of adult discrimination and bullying. This means it is important to remember to never make negative comments about other people’s race, gender, sexuality, weight, appearance, name, accent, voice and so on.

Bullies need us, too

I also want to emphasise another reason for putting a stop to bullying: the need to improve outcomes for the bullies themselves. There is ample research to show that bullies are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs and alcohol and engage in criminal behaviour. They have a one in four chance of having a criminal record by the age of 30. Bullies need intervention by schools, parents and the community to help them curb their aggression.

Helpful resources

Real-World Tech Influencers

Last week an infographic went viral that posed the question “Which Female Tech Influencer Are You?” By answering inane questions such as “Jimmy Choos or running shoes?” and “White wine spritzer or tequila with worm?” you are supposed to find out which successful female tech influencer you most resemble.

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Please. I know this is just meant to be fun but really — isn’t it incredibly patronising to suggest the biggest decision made by dynamos such as Google vice president Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is which handbag they might like to take to work? Writer and real-world tech influencer Alexia Tsotsis nailed it on the site Tech Crunch:

The women who have been highlighted here are smart, driven, and have worked hard for their success. They deserve so much more than being reduced to an infographic bobble-head on a cartoon body.

When you think of all the legends in the development of information and communications technologies (ICTs), you rarely hear the names of women. The usual names that spring to mind are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Stallman and, recently, Mark Zuckerberg , for being the genius behind the popular social networking website Facebook. Can you imagine anyone asking these men how they prefer to style their hair?

How can we move beyond limiting stereotypes and sexist sniggering?

By telling HERstory!

HERstory is an initiative of Take Back The Tech, a grassroots campaign that encourages everyone, particularly girls and women, to take control of technology and use it as a tool to do something incredibly vital: put an end to violence against women. The campaign lends itself to some excellent and much-needed school-based work on cyber safety and activism. Their website includes sensible online safety tips, campaign banners and posters, videos, blog posts and an “Idea Kitchen” filled with inspiration.  One of those ideas is to tell HERstory by spotlighting “the innovative girls and women around you who are doing creative, inventive and groundbreaking things with technology”.  I had never heard of the following women who shaped the cyber frontier until I visited the website for Take Back The Tech:

  • Ada Lovelace — the first computer programmer in history, who wrote the first algorithm specifically for the computer
  • Grace Hopper — the inventor of the first computer language composed of words
  • Betty Holberton, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings and Fran Bilas — the six women who were the original programmers of the first general-purpose computer, ENIAC.

Why does telling HERstory matter? Because when only men get attention for their roles in ICT:

This contributes to the idea that ICTs is the domain of men and boys as creators and innovators, and that women and girls are mainly just users and consumers. This in turn affects the choices that parents make in encouraging their children to study science and technology based on their gender, and the masculine culture that permeates the industry, making it hard for women and girls to enter as equal participants and decision-makers. What happens is a perpetuation of this cycle of gender stereotypes and myths that cast women as passive background actors in the development of ICTs and men as active groundbreakers – the stuff of legends.

— Take Back The Tech

I am always inspired by the women I know who are using technology to make changes. The team over at Collective Shout have initiated a number of successful campaigns lobbying corporations to end their objectification and sexualisation of women. Their recent petition to ban the release of Kanye West’s Monster video now has almost 7,000 signatories.

And I am really excited about the new site launched by the Equality Rights Alliance, Sharing Young Women’s Stories. This site has been set up to celebrate 100 Years of International Women’s Day. It features a number of guest bloggers (including yours truly) and encourages people to upload and share stories of women who inspire. There is also a postcard that can be downloaded and sent to  Minister Garrett, asking him to do more to promote healthy body image. Enlighten Education is going to pay to have 10,000 of these cards printed to distribute to our client schools during our upcoming in-school events. We find girls willingly embrace activism!

So, perhaps a revised infographic suggesting the decisions women really make when using technology to shape their careers, and indeed their culture, might actually pose questions like: “You see an injustice. Do you blog on it or set up an on-line petition?” and ” You like to share the love and encourage the women around you who are making changes. Do you Tweet about their work or set up a Facebook Fan Page?”

No . . . even that would be far too limiting. The smart cyber-amazons I know don’t just chose one path. They do it all.

Postscript:

Other Butterfly Effect posts on girls and technology that may inform and inspire you (particularly when planning International Women’s Day events at your home or school) include:

And my 3-part series on cyber world:

Part 1 — What is working?

Part 2  — Cyber bully busting

Part 3 — Dealing with more difficult truths

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