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Reclaim The Night – 16 year old Lily speaks out about the on-line harassment of young women.

This week I am proud to have been given permission to publish an extract from one of the speeches given at yesterday’s Reclaim The Night rally in Sydney; this was given by 16 year old high school student Lily. The event was part of what is now a world-wide protest movement by women against sexual violence.

I am awed by Lily’s strength in speaking out in this way, and encouraged by the incredible grass-roots feminist group she has helped establish at her school.

May she inspire us all to work even harder for, and with, our girls. And may we all seek to create even more opportunities for young women to be given a platform from which they can share their experiences too.

 

Good evening! Thank you so much for having me. I’m Lily, I’m 16 years old and currently starting Year 12. I’ve spent a good amount of time with technology in my life and tonight I’m going to be speaking about the treatment of women on the internet today, as I see it and know it, and the experiences that other women have had online.

Collective Voice – High School students fighting sexism.

I’d like to start by giving a shout out to the feminist group at my school, Collective Voice, who are here today (there’s the banner)! In 2010 Collective Voice was started by our teacher Ms Fajou, in response to a lack of discussion with our peers about the sexism teens receive from the media, and each other. We discuss what feminism means to us – how we feel about body image, violence against women, homophobia, politics. We run campaigns at school encouraging girls to reject “beauty standards”, making posters and signing petitions.

We also have a very active Facebook page that we use to share videos, articles and current events connected with feminism. Here we share discuss issues that matter to us as young women. It’s awesome. We are building skills of productive dialogue and knowledge and opinion, which is powerful. One thing that we’re working against with Collective Voice is the widespread level of online sexism; a lot of online spaces have been claimed by a boys’ club of obscenity, anonymity and oppression.

I believe it is important, vitally important, to acknowledge that what happens online is still valid despite not being ‘in real life’. The attitudes and beliefs you encounter, the harassment you face, and the sexism which manifests is just as real online as offline. Just like in workplaces, boardrooms or any other social environments, online spaces can be made to feel unsafe and threatening. And when women perceive a space to be unsafe or threatening they are less likely to be able to participate equally in that space. If we stepped into a public space or workplace that was adorned with unavoidably graphic pornographic posters, where the people who you approached yelled hate speech at you or harassed you, where you were belittled or denied equal treatment due to your sex, gender, orientation or opinion – it would not be acceptable.

About a month ago, I attended my year 11 social. I had a good time and goofed around a bit, as you do. A few days later I found a particular photo of myself from the social on Facebook; it had been commented on extensively. Over 10 boys and men who are still complete strangers to me commented freely on my appearance, they debated whether they would masturbate to it, they told me that my photo would haunt me for years to come, they openly, and unapologetically discussed what they imagined my genitalia would look like. They were supported by over 40 others, who had ‘liked’ their comments.

This isn’t the first we’ve seen of Facebook acting as a medium for sexism and abuse, however. Notable additions have been “Punch a slut in the face day” (a group set up in a NSW school by boys who then went on to physically assault girls they perceived as promiscuous), “Define statutory: pro-rape, anti-consent” (from the lovely lads at St Pauls college from Sydney University); “it’s not rape if you yell surprise” and a swathe of pages titled with ‘women in the kitchen jokes’ in 2010. We saw the recent case of ‘Root Rate’, a page for young men to publically rate their sexual experiences with women, encouraging a lot of sexism and derogatory comments. Many of the contributors and the girls spoken about were underage.

Just two weeks ago, the world witnessed the case of Amanda Todd, a 15 year old girl who committed suicide after receiving extreme abuse online and in real time. Todd showed her breasts to a man online about 3 years earlier, and for this she was condemned by her peers and others. Before she committed suicide she posted a video online describing her story in detail.

Jarrah Hodge, who writes and educates on gender representations in media, politics and pop-culture, said, “(In the media commentary surrounding her case) there was no discussion of the pressure girls like Amanda experience to measure their worth through their sexual desirability. From her story it sounds like this man had the hallmarks of a predator—he tried to use her photos to blackmail her and yet she’s the one who got blamed. This comes from the idea that it’s up to girls and women to protect their purity at the same time as all their role models in the media say that you need to ‘get a man’ to be a complete person, that you need to be sexually attractive to be liked, appreciated, and valued. She said the guy she showed off to was telling her how beautiful she was. Given our culture that can be really tempting for a girl.”

What is surprising is that sexist, oppressive behaviour online has become very mainstream, especially considering that women make up the larger proportion of users of social media!

Currently 64% of Facebook users are female as are 58% of Twitter users. In theory, online space is a woman’s domain! And yet, online you receive 25 times as much abuse if you state that you are a woman or if your username is feminine…

…This is not a joke. This cannot be trivialised. What happens on the internet directly influences the way people behave in reality, and regardless how we interact with each other online is still a human interaction.

Of course, I am not the only person to speak out against the way women are objectified and men encouraged to degrade women online. There are numerous activists and online petitions targeting Reddit, Facebook and other forums.

It is how these efforts are responded to that perhaps gives us the most frightening insight of all.

Anita Sarkeesian has been running an online video series called Feminist Frequency since 2009, exploring and deconstructing pop culture in an accessible way. Sarkeesian makes video blogs (a form of blogging for which the medium is video, considered a form of internet television) analysing movies, TV shows, music videos – the things that influence us, and especially young people.

Her most recent project has been ‘Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games’, a 12 video project exploring the way women are represented in video games. During the making of it she has encountered unprecedented harassment. She writes:

“… a harassment campaign is being waged against me and has included attempts to get my accounts banned, a torrent of hate on YouTube, plus countless threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. As part of that intimidation effort the Wikipedia page about me was vandalized with misogynist language, pornography and racial slurs.This was not done by just one or two trolls but was a coordinated cyber mob style effort involving a whole gang working together.”

So this is what it all comes down to. Sarkeesian, now backed by over 7000 donors, is breaking the rules of the male dominated gaming community with this project. Not only is she attacking the way women are treated in the games, but the way women are treated in the gaming community – there is no space for women to exist at the same level as men in a community which constantly sees them as objects…

…Now, don’t get me wrong, the internet can be a lovely place. And the reason we all use it so much is because it has infinitely widened our ability to learn, communicate and create. The problem lies in dealing with issues of prejudice and offense – we just don’t know how to effectively serve justice online.

All too often, the cry goes up that the internet is the problem.The problem never lies with the internet itself, the blame lies with wrongful attitudes and social acceptance of them.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for solving inequality on the internet, just as there isn’t one for ‘reality’. But we, as women, do need to be strongly active. We need to take the knowledge and perspective we have and make it heard. The internet is a highly modern space filled with primitive ideals, and frankly, we’re better than that.

So tonight we are here to reclaim the spaces we exist in and make them safe for all women! Let’s include in that, the online space. And let’s reclaim the right for all women to live free from violence, harassment, misogyny and abuse!

 

The toxic message in Facebook teen health and fitness sites

I work with thousands of teen girls across Australia every year. So I am always interested to note online trends as these provide an insight into their emerging interests; and nothing seems to be engaging teen girls more at the moment than the incredibly fast growing ”Teen Health/ Fitness” inspiration sites on Facebook.

There are at least two of these launching each week, and within a matter of weeks they gain tens of thousands of predominantly teen girl fans.

We might be tempted to think this is a good thing. After all isn’t there a much-talked-about obesity crisis? Aren’t we currently considering weighing children in schools as part of our response to this deadly epidemic? If our girls are finally taking matters into their own hands, isn’t that to be ”liked”, and ”shared”?

But these sites are very problematic. First, we have no idea who is administrating the pages and if they are even qualified to hand out advice (and after reading the advice posted I think it’s fairly safe to say that many most certainly are not qualified).

Second, all the pages I’ve seen are often nothing more than Thinspiration sites – sites that glorify unhealthy eating practices and become communities where girls with eating disorders can ”feed” each other’s illnesses by sharing tips and encouraging each other to stave off hunger and exhaustion.

Advice offered on one claiming to offer ”Healthy living tips” includes: ”Work out twice as much as your skinny roommate” and ”Look in the mirror and choose not to see any changes” (in order to feel motivated to work even harder). The research clearly shows that online sites that offer this type of advice normalise unhealthy relationships with food and exercise, and may trigger the onset of eating disorders in vulnerable young people.

And finally, these pages aren’t supporting girls to get fit or healthy so that they will feel good, but rather so they will simply look not just thin, but sexy.

One page, aimed at girls 13-25, tells its fans they should ”cultivate your curves – they may be dangerous but they won’t be avoided”. The cover photo shows a girl’s very large breasts in a skimpy white bikini (I’m not sure how you could exercise your way to those) and has its profile picture the almost obligatory shot of a headless girl (never a somebody, just a body) in skimpy undies holding up a midriff top to show her abdominal muscles.

Qualified Health and Fitness coach Amelia Burton explains: ”The difference between promoting healthy eating and exercise from a place of respect and love for your body versus a voyeuristic desire to be stick thin or to fit some sexy ideal is often blurred. And it makes me very angry as healthy diet and exercise offers so much more than just hot abs and bouncing breasts! For teen girls in particular, a balanced diet and sensible exercise program will assist them in many ways other than just the aesthetic: including eliminating stress, regulating sleep patterns and giving them the energy they need to study, work part time and party with their friends.”

But it’s not surprising that so many teen girls would like pages that promise them if they can only be less, they will get more – more attention, more love. After all, isn’t this merely a more extreme example of the very same messages the multibillion-dollar diet industry peddles to us every day in mainstream media?

History shows us that it is almost impossible to ban or regulate online content. Instead, we must educate girls to be able to deconstruct unhelpful and unsafe messages, and seek more reliable sources of information on their health and fitness.

I am hopeful more young women will start to recognise that pages like this are not only limiting but toxic. I cheered on the young woman who posted the following comment on an image the administrator of one site in this genre had posted that spoke about the virtues of eating only salads and carrots:

”Eat some lean meat, wholegrains and vegies … and maybe your life won’t sound like a desperate struggle to exercise to get thin! What a load of crap – motivating my ass!”

And, finally, as we head into spring and are faced with the annual barrage of dieting/body policing propaganda, let’s also be good role models and show our girls that there really is more to life than tits and a six-pack.

This post was originally published in The Age, 5/9. 

N.B I did a radio interview on this topic, and my upcoming visit to speak to the parent community at Perth College, with Perth radio’s 6PR on the 6/9/12 – you may listen to this here ( because of the size of this file, it may take a few minutes to load): Radio 6PR interviews Dannielle Miller on Facebook Thinspiration sites and Enlighten’s work in WA

Generation Cleanskin: Part 3

In the final instalment of Susan Johnson’s exceptional piece on teens and body image that we have been running here for the past few weeks, teen girls speak frankly about how they respond to the relentless pressure to lose weight and be skinny, while teen boys talk about how they deal with the pressure to work out and “bulk up.” 

Saturday afternoon at Indooroopilly Shoppingtown, in Brisbane’s west, is teenage heaven. The movies, the food court, the clothes shops: teenagers in large groups or in pairs come to meet each other or eye each other off, checking each other out in that overt, challenging way that only teenagers can.

A group of giggling girls is meeting up: the girls come here almost every day after school. It’s free dress at their school, and the first pressure felt by these girls is the pressure to wear the right clothes, the “right” brands. Zoe Robberts (“I’m almost 14”) is in Year 9 and lives at inner-west Bardon: “Yeah, you have to have nice clothes, like the brands, and there’s pressure every day on what you wear. You can’t wear the same thing twice in a week.” Bella Nielsen, 13, also of Bardon, adds that “when you’re in primary school no-one judges anyone but when you’re in high school it’s all about first impressions. If you don’t look pretty, no-one will hang out with you or they’ll ignore you and there’s lots of cyberbullying going on around … on Facebook, [there are instances where] people really bully others.”

“I got called ‘fat’ one time on Facebook,” says Kiara Cavenagh, 13, of Middle Park, and a bigger girl than her friends. Her dad is tall and she comes from a family with “big bones”: “I feel pressure because all my friends are so skinny and I am, like, not skinny.”

Immediately all her girlfriends rush in with a chorus of “But you’re so pretty, Kiara!” and Zoe Morgan, 12, of St Lucia adds: “You’re like a mini Adele [the British singer]”. It turns out that Kiara sings too, and superbly (she led me to some YouTube videos) and has won a couple of local singing competitions. Which all means that possibly because Kiara is happy in other areas, being larger than her girlfriends is less of an issue: “I can’t be bothered to diet, even though I feel pressured [to be skinnier]. I like food too much! It tastes too good …”

Bella, on the other hand, feels the pressure more: “You walk around here and there are girls who are really pretty and their hair’s just perfect and, like, every day you see yourself in the mirror and you’re so used to seeing yourself you start picking out the little flaws and everything. You don’t see how pretty you are, you just see the bad stuff like, my stomach’s too big, my thighs are too big, and all that … ”

Zoe Morgan feels pressured too: “I’m happy with the way I look but you can never be, like, perfect to yourself … sometimes I see a girl who’s, like, really pretty and really skinny and I’m like, ‘I don’t like her! She’s so skinny’ … ”

Zoe Robberts says a lot of the pressure comes from boys: “Everyone’s trying to look pretty for them, to impress them … guys don’t have to worry. Boys don’t have to worry about anything.”

But her friend Bailey Vowles, 13, of western suburban Sherwood, disagrees: “If you’re really short for a boy you get called ‘cute’ and you probably wouldn’t want to be cute in Grade 8, you’d probably want to be hot. Boys want six-packs.” Bailey concedes, however, that much of the pressure girls feel comes from the boys as well as the media: “Personally, I’ve never dated anyone and I just think the pressure you have from boys to impress them is just, like, everywhere.” Friends Ben Stickley, 14, of northside Wooloowin and James Manteit, 15, of westside Chapel Hill, sheepishly admit that boys do indeed notice girls’ figures but appear nonplussed when asked about pressure. James: “Going out with a girl, I’d prefer that she had a good physique but we’re also friends with girls who are not, like, the best-looking people, but they’re just good to talk to.”

Ben: “Yeah, if they were, like, fat and stuff I’d care but I guess as long as the person’s nice, and nice to hang out with … ” Both think there is just as much pressure on boys as girls. James: “Girls definitely like boys who are muscled.” If James had more money he would spend it on clothes but, as it is, he tries to wear tight clothes to reveal his torso. He regularly works out.

Kean Coghill, 16, of Doolandella, met Aaron Eastment, 15, of Oxley, also in the outer west, at the shopping centre last year. The pair of mates now regularly travels there to meet their friends and look over the talent. Kean reckons “girls are mainly interested in looks these days” and both he and Aaron plan on starting bodybuilding soon. Aaron: “Yeah, most guys want to bulk up.”

Kean admits that, like most guys, “I do go for good-looking girls but they have to be nice too. But to be honest, the first thing you go for is good looks.” Of Aboriginal descent, Kean is sporting a new tattoo in honour of his grandfather who recently died. He wears a chain around his neck and a “snapback”, an American baseball-style hat worn backwards. He regularly straightens his hair, too, and wears the “right” brands, but that is about as far as his fashion-consciousness takes him.

Aaron, of mixed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, has been wearing braces for two years (“It hasn’t stopped him getting girls,” says Kean). Aaron’s fashion routine sometimes extends to straightening his hair but within minutes it is curly again so mostly he doesn’t bother.

They can’t talk long, these boys – they’ve got places to go and girls to meet. So they say goodbye and walk out into the mini-city of the shopping mall, the meeting place of thousands of teenage boys and teenage girls, skinny, plump, bosomy or muscled, anxious to look hot.

 

I would like to thank Susan Johnson and the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend for allowing me to share this insightful investigative piece. Susan Johnson is a full-time journalist and the author of seven novels; a book of essays, On Beauty (part of the Melbourne University Press series Little Books on Big Themes); and a memoir about her experiences of motherhood, A Better Woman.

Generation Cleanskin: Part 1

I am excited to be able to share with you an outstanding article on teens and body image, for which Australian journalist Susan Johnson extensively interviewed leading experts and kids themselves. With thanks to the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend, which originally published it, I will be presenting this engaging and important piece in three instalments over the coming weeks. In Part 1 this week, Johnson investigates why girls and boys are both feeling unprecedented pressure to fit a narrow body image ideal . . .

 

Skinny and denuded of body hair if you are a teenage girl and “built” and “muscled up” if you are a teenage boy: welcome to a world in which children as young as eight feel anxiety about body image. If Western society is supposed to be more “equal” than ever before, then idealised notions of what a teenage girl should look like and what a teenage boy should look like tell a different story. In this tale, all the girls look like anorexic 12-year-old lingerie models and all the boys resemble the Incredible Hulk.

Once the province of starving teenage girls, “body dysmorphia” is the term used when anorexics look in the mirror and see a fat girl looking back. Now the term “muscle dysmorphia” – sometimes also colloquially known as “bigorexia” – is increasingly used in relation to the body image issues of teenage boys. Today, both sexes are feeling the pressure.

Dr Lina Ricciardelli, associate professor in psychology at Melbourne’s Deakin University, has researched and written a number of papers on children and body image. In a 2009 study of children aged between eight and 11, she and her team found that 25 per cent of girls compared their weight to their peers, while 26 per cent of boys compared their muscles. By the time these children are teenagers, body image pressure can seem overwhelming.

Ricciardelli found that worries about body image can develop at an early age. “Children regularly compare their height, weight and muscles with their peers and this is natural, but on the flip side it can have serious implications when children are still developing their self-perceptions and identities,” she says.

The study threw up some interesting differences between boys and girls: “Girls were more likely to focus on their peers who they felt had a better body, particularly on those features they wish they had or could change, whereas boys tended to focus on their strengths and used social comparisons to feel good about themselves, helping to build their self-esteem. While comparisons seem to help boys to feel more positive and confident, girls tend to show signs of lower self-esteem and feel more discontent with their figures.”

However, the most recent comprehensive national survey into young Australians and body image conducted in 2008 by Mission Australia found that body image was an issue of concern for a staggering 22.2 per cent of Australian boys and young men aged 11–24 years old. And, according to 2011 statistics by the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel website (produced in association with Eating Disorders Victoria), about 3 per cent of Australian teenage boys now use muscle-enhancing drugs such as steroids.

In an article in InPysch, the journal of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, Steven Gregor noted that while women and adolescent girls have had to deal with pressures regarding body image for years, what is new is “that men and adolescent boys are now under the exact same pressures”.

He quotes Elaine Hosie, a registered psychologist and a director of counselling working with adolescent males, about the influence and role of the media: “The media promotes a certain idealised image of what it means to be a male. In regard to the body image debate, the media plays a large role in the idealised notion of what it is to grow from a child, to an adolescent, to an adult male.”

Hosie and Ricciardelli agree on the pernicious influence of the media as a major contributing factor to teenage body image anxiety. Ricciardelli says that “without question the media is completely saturated with images of thin, ‘ideal’ bodies, much more than ever before. Plus there are mass media of more kinds than ever before; the internet has thrown up such things as [social media website] Facebook and online videos and on and on and on. There are increasingly sophisticated technologies and marketing strategies now.”

It is not only the multiplication of media but its increased sophistication that has transformed the media into such a powerful tool of influence: where once a photograph was a recorder of images and the camera did not lie, now a photograph can cheat and distort and a photograph will never again be simply a photograph.

“The media is manipulating bodies much more,” says Ricciardelli. Between dangerously skinny models, boys with six-packs and Photoshop, the gap between ordinary flesh-and-blood girls and boys and idealised images of girls and boys has grown wider and wider.

There are no statistics on the numbers of young men and boys using private gyms in Queensland but anecdotal evidence indicates that the worship of the “built” male body, previously only seen in gay and bodybuilding cultures, has made its way into mainstream culture too, and particularly into teenage male culture. When popular young amateur Sydney bodybuilder Aziz Shavershian (known as “Zyzz”) died last year of a heart attack, probably brought on by his steroid use, he had 120,000 followers on Facebook, many of them teenage boys: now his page (maintained by fans) has 283,266 “likes”.

Dr Peter West, formerly of the University of Sydney’s Research Group on Men and Families and author of a landmark paper on boys, men and body image in 2000, says that in the 12 years since his study, body dysmorphia has only increased. “When I was growing up in the ’50s bodybuilders were regarded as weird; no-one went to the gym, unless you were doing boxing or something. Everyone just went to the beach or played cricket or football. It’s not like that today,” he says.

Of course, for as long as there have been human bodies, there have been inventive ways to fashion them: from African and Amazonian peoples inserting clay plates into their bottom lips, to Indian women putting jewels into their nostrils. Fashions come and go, too: in ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures men regularly removed all body hair, possibly because the pre-pubescent and newly pubescent hair-free, androgynous male body (rather than the female body) was believed to be the embodiment of beauty.

Dr Ricciardelli of Deakin University’s other area of expertise is male beauty and body image throughout history. She argues that the male body has been evaluated and scrutinised as an aesthetic ideal since ancient times. What has changed, however, is that today many boys are internalising messages promoted by a powerful media. “[There is a] perceived pressure that women are expecting men to shape up to the media images,” she says. Her studies have found that leanness and youthfulness as well as a sculpted appearance have become important standards of male beauty. In pursuit of this ideal, Ricciardelli’s studies suggest that up to 60 per cent of young adult men in the US and Australia have removed body hair (below the neck) at least once.

Ricciardelli is one of an increasing number of academics and psychologists advocating preventative work with teenage boys. In the APS InPysch article, Elaine Hosie argues that more psychologists, medical practitioners and teachers need to work together to ensure better outcomes for teenage boys: “I would say it [body image dissatisfaction] is not something that’s in their [adolescent boys’] awareness. The reason for coming to a counsellor would be about more concrete issues such as: ‘I’m doing really badly at school’, or ‘my girlfriend has dropped me’, or ‘I can’t get a girlfriend’, or ‘I don’t like my teacher’ – they externalise things; they blame the world. [But] these are the presenting issues, which often mask more serious health concerns such as body image dissatisfaction.”

Ricciardelli believes treatment needs to take into account “cognitive adjustment of distorted views about themselves” – just like teenage girls with anorexia.

 

I am pleased to have contributed my voice to those of the experts quoted in Part 2 of this feature, which I’ll bring you next week. In it, Johnson delves into issues such as the pressure on girls to diet and remove all their body hair. 

Susan Johnson, a full-time journalist at Qweekend magazine, is the author of seven novels; a book of essays, On Beauty (part of the Melbourne University Press series Little Books on Big Themes); and a memoir about her experiences of motherhood, A Better Woman.

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.

Helping Teen Girls in Crisis

Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

The tragedy of teenage girl Daani Sanders taking her own life this week weighs heavily on my heart. As a mother with teenage daughters, I have been giving them lots of extra cuddles and kisses. Some media are reporting that bullying on Facebook may have played a role. Certainly since her death, cyberbullies have attacked memorial pages set up on Facebook by her friends. I received comments that I felt were not healing for other teens on my YouTube page featuring an interview I gave with Kerrianne about this topic and made the decision this morning to disable comments:

The hateful comments that have appeared on Facebook are a timely reminder that we all need to keep a close eye on what our teenagers are doing and seeing online. It is especially important that we support our daughters and sons right now, as thousands of Facebook users, including many teens, are joining and viewing the memorial pages. The pages contain a mix of comments – some are healing; some are well-meaning but potentially damaging to vulnerable teens because they inadvertently glorify suicide; and some are intentionally malicious and destructive. Our kids need our help and support in navigating what they might see and read on those memorial pages.

Teens, especially girls, are immersed in the world of social networking from the moment they wake up till the moment they go to bed. These connections are vitally important to them, so the last thing I would want any parent to do is try to ban their daughter from social networking sites – instead, I think it’s important that we educate ourselves and get involved.

For guidance in speaking publicly about this topic, and in helping teens navigate what they see and read about it on social-networking sites and in the media, I have turned to the guidelines for journalists on the reporting of suicide. These guidelines were established by Mindframe, which is affiliated with the Federal Government’s National Media Initiative.

Mindframe cautions that there is “a strong association between news media presentations of suicide and increases in actual suicidal behaviour”, with greater coverage leading to an increase in suicides. This does not mean that we should stop talking to our kids about this topic, though. In fact, there is a decrease in suicidal behaviour when it is portrayed as “a tragic waste and an avoidable loss” and when stories about suicide focus on “the devastating effects on others”.

Many of the commenters on the Facebook memorial pages are conjecturing about the method used. It is important as parents and teachers that we reframe the conversation, because “not reporting method or location” is another way of decreasing the risk of others engaging in suicidal behaviour. Focusing on those who have overcome suicidal thinking is another way to decrease the risk.

Mindframe notes that “we need to find ways of increasing community discussion of suicide and suicide prevention”, which is my aim. Just one teen suicide is too many, so below I am sharing with you an excerpt from my book The Butterfly Effect on the warning signs and what to do if you notice them. For resources on cyberbullying and helping girls stay safe online, you might find these past blog posts helpful: Cyber Bully Busting
Making Friends With Facebook

And for strategies to deal with bullying generally: Bullying, It’s Time to Focus On solutions

Girls in Crisis

Posters available at www.enlighteneducation.com
Posters available at www.enlighteneducation.com

What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk, and that applies not only to teens but their mothers and fathers as well, even if that abuse took place many years ago but is unresolved. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can either directly lead to suicidal feelings or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Looking at teens in particular, bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make children try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. Your teenage daughter, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when your daughter may need extra support.

Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask their daughter the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. “Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,” says Dr Brent Waters. “They should ask; the issues won’t just go away.”

Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.

Suicide warning signs
• Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
• Giving away her prized possessions
• Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
• Violent or rebellious behaviour
• Running away from home
• Substance abuse
• Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
• A sudden, marked personality change
• Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
• A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
• A change in eating and sleeping patterns
• A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
• Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
• Rejection of praise or rewards
• Verbal hints such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer” or “Nothing matters anyway”
• Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life

What you can do
Reading the list of suicide warning signs is enough to chill anyone, but there is much you can do to help someone who is suicidal. Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like “I want to kill myself” or “I’m going to kill myself”, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 if you need to, or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available throughout Australia 24 hours a day:
• Lifeline: 13 11 14
• Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
• Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
In New Zealand, phone:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent “Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs” on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:
• Listen and encourage her to talk
• Tell her you care
• Acknowledge her feelings
• Reassure her
• Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
• Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
• Try not to interrupt her
• Try not to judge her
• Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences

My thoughts are with Daani Sander’s family and friends. My thoughts are with all of us who have lost loved ones through suicide. May we all, somehow, find peace. xxx

Postscript 25/7:  I was interviewed by Miranda Devine for her column entitled “A Network of Nastiness” late last week. It offers further commentary on cyber bullying and the perils of the always on on-line world.

Making Friends with Facebook: Technology has changed, but teens still just want to connect

rachel hansenThis week’s post, revealing the truth behind the hysteria about all the time girls spend on Facebook and texting, is by our talented program manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand, Rachel Hansen. Rachel is an experienced health and wellbeing educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Her research has focused on youth development, youth offending and women’s health.

Every so often new research is published on just how much time teens are spending online and engaged in social media. Eye-catching headlines are designed to shock: “Teenage ‘hypertexters’ more likely to have sex, drink, use drugs”, “Psychologist Warns of Facebook Dangers”, “Facebook warning after Aust teen lured to death”.

Generation Y has never known life without internet, and at times the way their world functions seems completely foreign to many parents. I always get a chuckle from teen girls’ reactions when I explain to them how my friends and I managed to navigate girl-world without the assistance of mobile phones or Facebook. To them, social media is so essential to the way they connect with their friends that it is hard for them to imagine a world without it. The effect all this connectivity is having on our children is certainly a hot topic among parents that I speak to.

All this has got me thinking – just how different are the social habits of today’s teens to those a generation ago?

As a teenager, I spent many hours camped on our family landline. I would farewell my friends at school, and then as soon as I got home I would be on the phone. I have a note in my 1992 diary exclaiming: “Broke my phone record!!! 6 hours non-stop!!! One phonecall!!!” (My mind boggles. Did we have toilet breaks? Refreshment pauses?)

And when we weren’t talking on the phone, we were writing to one another. Pages and pages and pages. My friends and I would wave goodbye as we headed off to our respective classes or homes, and these waves would always be accompanied with “write me a letter!” When we saw each other again, we would exchange letters and keep them to read when we next had to endure separation for more than 10 minutes. Due to my hoarding tendencies, I have kept every one of these letters. And let me clarify that these are not notes – some stretch to 20 pages long!

My point is this: as a teenager I spent in excess of 20 hours a week engaging in non-face-to-face social contact – that is, telephone calls and letters. I think that this behaviour at times probably exasperated my parents, but it did not have them fearing for my future socialisation.

Today’s teenagers send messages and status updates constantly, just as I spent endless hours talking on the landline and hand-writing letters. The medium is different but the drive is the same: the desire to connect with others, explore friendships, delve deeper into one’s emotions, and understand and develop relationships. This desire has always driven teen girls’ behaviour. I suggest that when it comes to core needs and values, girls today are not that different at all to us as teens. It is just that the modes girls use to express themselves have changed.

A common theme of the concerns about social media is that it prevents girls from developing real friendships. In presenting Enlighten workshops to teen girls all around New Zealand, I see no evidence of this. I see girls hugging, talking and sharing their lives with one another. They write about how important their best friends are in their lives. Recent research by Girl Scouts USA indicates that:

despite popular perception, social networks are not necessarily a ‘girl’s best friend’ . . . The vast majority of girls prefer face-to-face communication. Ninety-two percent would give up all of their social networking friends if it meant keeping their best friend.

The study also showed that 52% of girls have used a social networking site to become involved in a cause that they care about, and more than half agree that social networking online helps them feel closer to their friends.

girls making heart signs

I acknowledge that there are valid concerns about cyber-bullying, children viewing inappropriate material and the effects on a teen’s sense of self-worth of maintaining an online profile. Along with the many milestones your child encounters on the way to adulthood, the “safe social media talk” must happen. The sooner kids learn the basics of social media and staying safe online, the better: Superclubs Plus is a safe, regulated social media site for 6–12-year-olds. In many schools in New Zealand and Australia, this is sponsored so is free to use.

Before we rush to condemn social media, it’s important to consider the many benefits of all this connectivity and how it can be a positive in our teens’ lives if used appropriately. In a previous post, Dannielle Miller has discussed the many benefits of girls being cyber-savvy:

Technology has the capacity to allow for connecting, creating, informing and educating. Let’s not allow fear to drive us to further isolate and limit our girls. Rather, let’s inspire girls to get savvy and to use ICT as a tool to meet their own needs.

One of the big concerns parents have regarding social media is privacy. However, ironically Generation Y is far more conscious of privacy online than their parents. According to Education IT consultant Robyn Treyvaud:

The Gen Ys who have been hanging out on Facebook for a while understand the implications of the privacy changes Facebook have implemented four or five times since December. I give them a lot of credit and we’ve got a lot to learn from them. We do fall into the trap of thinking we know better than them.

Furthermore, research by Mary Madden of the US-based Pew Internet Project this year found that

contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities” . . . Young people were very aware of their online reputation – customising privacy settings and limiting the information about them that appears online.

I think it is too easy for parents to dismiss social media and demonise it. Parents who ban their teenagers from social networks or widely condemn their use are doing their children a disservice. As one writer put it: “Is Facebook really worse for teenagers’ brains than the mindless reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch that their parents consumed growing up?”

I use Facebook regularly for connecting with friends, meeting like-minded people and keeping up-to-date on the latest research and news in my fields of interest. I live in (relatively) small-town New Zealand and I have many wonderful friends in my town. But Facebook allows me the luxury of connecting with a wide range of people who share my passions. I would feel professionally isolated without social media. Similarly I have heard numerous stories from quirky teens who just don’t have a social group they fit in with in their small town. The beauty of the internet is that regardless of how quirky your interests are, it’s guaranteed that somewhere there is someone else sharing your interests. For some teens, finding an online community of like-minded people can literally be a lifesaver.

Social networking icons by: ZyMOS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond Cyber Hysteria – Part 3: Dealing with more difficult truths

Please note: the blogging platform I use, Edublogs, filters out words like p*rn, hence the need to use asterisks. If you wish to comment, please use symbols to avoid your text being automatically deleted.

In a previous blog post, “Teens and P*rn, dealing with difficult truths”, I posed the following question: ” What messages will this generation receive about desirability if their emerging sexuality is largely shaped by p*rn?” P*rn is nothing new, but it has never been more accessible than it is today, thanks to the internet. In the excellent 2009 UK television series The Sex Education Show, three out of ten high school students interviewed said they learned about sex predominantly through viewing p*rn*graphy on the internet and mobile phones, or in magazines. However, recent Australian research conducted by the Family Planning Association provides some hope. This survey found:

  • Friends – Friends were the most commonly used source of information for young people, with 43% of respondents calling on their mates for information.
  • Sexual activities – 50% of young people turned to their friends for information, while only 20% sought advice from schools and parents.
  • Contraception – 48% of adolescents went to doctors for information; 38% went to friends first.
  • The Internet – 30% of young people combined the internet with traditional sources for information about sex.
  • Schools & Parents – 25% of the respondents turned to these sources for information.

Dr Deborah Bateson, Medical Director for Family Planning NSW said “The results show that young people seem to have an appropriate level of scepticism when it comes to using the internet for sexual health information.” The survey found that although young people are turning to the internet as a source of information, only 21% trusted the information they found and only 16% of adolescents trusted what they saw or read in the media.

It is pleasing to see young people may be cautious about believing all they see online. However, even if they don’t view internet p*rn as a source of information about sex, surely viewing it still shapes their impression of what a sexual relationship may look, sound and feel like? And I have to say, I am worried. I have come out in the media before expressing the need for caution and remain concerned that adolescents are having their sexuality shaped by internet p*rn, which is more often than not  focused solely on male pleasure, often degrading to the female participant and, indeed, often violent.

Even very small children may inadvertently stumble upon the most graphic of sexual images. When my daughter Teyah was 8 years old she searched Google images for a picture of a nun for a school project and was faced with p*rn images of women being abused in nun outfits. A few years later she accidentally typed in “hotmale” instead of “hotmail”. If you are looking for the Aussie website aimed at teens that claims to be “empowering girls worldwide”, girl.com.au, and forget to add the “.au”, you will hit the awful  girl.com, which features explicit images of pre-pubescent-looking girls posing naked.

The reality is that the proliferation of porn on the internet is not going away anytime soon, as it is such big business. Steve Jobs, the genius founder of Apple, caused a controversy when he was cited as saying he dreams of an internet devoid of porn. He is reported as declaring to a critic: “You may care more about p*rn once you have kids.” Apple does not allow applications that depict overtly sexual content but of course are powerless to stop what appears on the world wide web.

The Australian government’s report Adolescence, P*rn*graphy and Harm addresses some very real challenges parents and educators face in its conclusion:

Though restricting exposure will remain a priority, an over-reliance on this approach to protect against the perceived harms of p*rn*graphy is problematic as it fails to recognise the realities of ready availability and the high acceptance of pornography among young people. Moreover, it fails to examine the holistic way in which adolescents’ sexual expectations, attitudes and behaviours are shaped in our society and the complexity of factors that give rise to the cited harms. Protecting young people necessarily requires equipping them, and their caregivers, with adequate knowledge, skills and resources (e.g. media literacy; sex education; education about pornography and rights and responsibilities of sexual relationships; safe engagement with technologies) to enable successful navigation toward a sexually healthy adulthood, as well as tackling factors predisposing to sexual violence.

n229345874979_7801The internet can also be host to sites that are “temples to human cruelty”, a term Melinda Tankard Reist used to describe Facebook pages she alerted us to that depicted girls others viewed as “sluts”. Other pages I have seen that sickened me included one where people posted pictures of animals they had abused, and a page named “It’s not rape if you yell surprise.”  The image to the left is one taken from a Facebook page where members could discuss how they had used physical violence to “shut their bitch up”. A relative newcomer on the social networking scene is Formspring. Many parents are already telling me this site, which allows participants to ask others anonymous questions and post anonymous comments, is particularly frightening. It is very attractive to many teens as it is by its very nature confessional — “Ask me anything . . .”  Young people are often drawn to the notion of sharing secrets. However, most of the questions I have seen asked are really just designed to shock and hurt: “Are you really a slut, because everyone at school thinks you are.”

At my company, Enlighten Education, where we discuss a wide range of topics with young women in schools, including cyber safety and responsible use of technology, we have deliberately chosen not to run workshops on sexuality because families have their own values they wish to instil, and girls need to hear messages about sexuality at different ages, depending on their cognitive, emotional and physical development. We do believe, however, that by helping girls develop a strong sense of self, we are equipping them to be better able to make their own choices and to view themselves holistically – not just as a body but a heart, soul and mind, too.

In my book, The Butterfly Effect, I offer parents the following as part of an “Action Plan” to help raise healthy, whole young women:

Talk to your daughter honestly and non-judgementally about sex and her own sexuality. Her school will provide information on personal development and sexuality, but she needs you to be involved in this dialogue, too. This is part of your core business in raising your daughter to become a happy, healthy woman. When is the right time to start? I had a very wise grandmother who used to say ‘If a child is old enough to think of a sensible question, then they are old enough to hear a sensible answer.’ Keep in mind, though, that the onset of puberty is a stage of development that will unfold over many years. There is no need to discuss everything all at once. Be guided by her physical and mental maturity level, and her interest.

Be prepared for a few awkward moments; I have found that older teen girls often try to shock by asking questions they don’t think we will have answers for. (‘So what is a 69’er?’) If you respond calmly and in a matter-of-fact way, they are usually so impressed by your inability to be fazed that they go on to ask very thoughtful questions that really do matter to them. If you don’t have an answer, be honest and admit that you don’t know. In can be a powerful exercise to attempt to find answers together.

Be willing to attempt to resolve differences of opinion or at least be prepared to hear your daughter out, which will give her practice articulating her values. However, don’t back away from ultimately being the adult who sets limits about sex; and expect her to respect these. Encourage discussion by asking open-ended questions and actively listening to her.

It is vital to discuss the emotional component of sex, but think twice before making black-and-white statements such as ‘Sex is only for people who really love each other.’ Ideally, that might be true, but the reality may be quite different. Sex may be an expression of love, but it may also be an expression of boredom, curiosity, lust or even dark emotions such as anger or hate – for girls as well as boys. I have seen girls who engage in sexual acts only to later feel embarrassed by them. By helping your daughter to develop her emotional vocabulary, you will be helping her understand that sex not only has obvious physical consequences – pregnancy, STDs – but also an emotional impact. The glossy ads and catchy song lyrics rarely discuss complex human emotions. You should.

Get an effective internet filter. None of the filters on the market are completely fail-safe but they do offer some protection from porn on your home computers. Limiting and banning access to certain sites is only one strategy, though. It is far more effective in the long term to discuss why these sites are not suitable and what your daughter should do if she stumbles across one.

I’d be very interested in hearing your suggestions on how you are dealing with the ugly elements of cyber world.


Beyond Cyber Hysteria — Part 1: What is working?

I have recently begun presenting seminars for parents on how they can best support their children — girls and boys — to manage cyber world. This new seminar is called “The good, the bad and the ugly of cyber world”. (To make a booking for me to present this at your school, please email me: danni@enlighteneducation.com.)

When we hear disturbing news reports about children who have been tormented to the point of desperation by cyber-bullies, or groomed and exploited by online predators, it is tempting to want to simply shut the technology off! Yet whilst it is important to be alert and aware of the dangers, it is also important to take a balanced approach and recognise the huge opportunities that technology has opened up for us all. Over the next few weeks I want to share some of the insights I present in my new seminar and offer parents and schools some ways forward.

1197866_open_door_classics_3Firstly, what is the state of play?

Make no mistake, we are all wired up. Some fascinating cyber facts can help put the scale of change into perspective.

— It has been estimated that there are:

  • 1.73 billion internet users worldwide, with 20,970,490 in Oceania and Australia
  • 234 million websites
  • 126 million blogs
  • 27.3 million tweets posted on Twitter every day
  • 260 billion page views on Facebook per month
  • 1 billion videos viewed on YouTube every day.
  • 90 trillion emails were sent in 2009 (81% were spam).

— What are teens doing online?

  • 14% blog
  • 8% use Twitter
  • 8% visit virtual worlds
  • 38% share content
  • 62% get news
  • 48% buy things
  • 31% get health, dieting and fitness information
  • 17% get information about sensitive topics.
  • 41% of the Australian population has a social network profile, and 70% of them have 2 or more.
  • And about a third of high school students interviewed said they learned about sex predominantly through viewing pornography on the internet. (More on the implications of this for the development of healthy sexuality and positive relationships in another post!)

As I’ve argued in a previous post and in my book The Butterfly Effect, in our rapidly changing world, connection is vital. All young people need to not only be able to read and write in print media, but to be multi-literate — that is, to be competent in the manipulation of a range of media. There is considerable evidence that whilst girls are more successful at reading and writing than boys, more girls than boys are in trouble in relation to ICT literacy. NSW Department of Education and Training research tells us that:

girls (in Australia) were more inclined than boys to see IT as boring (36% compared to 16%) or difficult (23% to 11%). These factors result in more boys than girls studying technology related subjects. Analysis of NSW High School Certificate (HSC) 2002 computer programming student population revealed that only 17% of the total entrants were female. The trend is also demonstrated in the TAFE sector with women comprising approximately 40% of all Information Technology enrolments for 2001. This indicates a decrease in enrolment share from 1996 when women accounted for 50% of IT enrolments.

This trend is evident right across Australia and in New Zealand. If it continues, young women are at risk of becoming part of the information-poor and of being excluded from the new and emerging jobs of the future. Let’s not allow fear to drive us to further isolate and limit our girls. Rather, let’s inspire girls to get savvy and to use ICT as a tool to meet their own needs.

On the positive side, technology has the capacity to allow for:

Connecting. Whilst we often hear negative reports about teen girls behaving badly on Facebook, Enlighten Education’s Facebook page has become a testimony to the capacity young women have to be thankful and engage in meaningful dialogue about issues that matter to them. We have had almost 3,000 teen girls join since we launched it earlier this year and we have had only one negative comment posted on the wall to date. Girls post images that inspire them, point out ads they find sexist or limiting and offer their thoughtful opinions on topics we pose for discussion.

find_us_on_facebook_badge

Informing. There are some fabulous sites out there for young people. Some of my personal favourites include: www.myfuture.edu.au (career information), www.reachout.com.au (youth-friendly information on topics such as depression and eating disorders), www.whatareyoudoingtoyourself.com (aimed at curbing teen binge drinking), www.mypopstudio.com (a creative play experience that builds media literacy skills), www.newmoon.com (a safe online community especially designed for young girls), www.latrobe.edu.au/psy/projects/bodylife/ (a free online program to assist girls with body image dissatisfaction), www.operationbeautiful.com (a grassroots movement aimed at ending negative self talk).

Creating. Many girls are creating their own blogs and websites to promote causes that matter to them. I love teen girl Parrys Raines’ site, www.climategirl.com.au, where she discusses all things planet-loving. My own teen, Jazmine, posts her amazing photography on Tumblr so she can share and get feedback from other budding photographers.

Educating. Many schools are doing incredibly innovative things with technology and have moved way beyond encouraging students to make their own PowerPoint presentations. Greg Whitby, Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta, is widely considered to be at the forefront in encouraging teachers to use ICTs (information communication technologies) as enablers to facilitate deep learning. He shares some of his favourite sites that promote true collaborative learning at his very good blog: www.gbwhitby.parra.catholic.edu.au.

So, Step 1: Join in! Get to know the online world your daughter or students inhabit.

Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

—Mark Twain.

Familiarity with the online world will become increasingly important as you learn some of the strategies that will help you protect children and ensure they are safe online — more on that next week.

The Darker Side of Facebook

Facebook has become a positive part of many of our lives, but there is a darker side of Facebook that all parents and educators need to be aware of: cyber-bullying. It is inevitable that bullies will try to use social networking sites as a tool. It gives them a platform to humiliate their victims not just in front of a schoolyard full of kids but potentially a global audience, with little chance of being held accountable.

The problem has grown so great that dealing with the fallout has become a major part of many school counsellors’ jobs. The Adelaide Advertiser reported that at Blackwood High School, counsellors “spend all day Monday and sometimes longer dealing with the issues that are generated on Facebook and by text messages over the weekend”. 

Kids are also using Facebook to harass teachers. In Australia recently, students have posted messages on Facebook threatening a teacher with being “massacred by chainsaws”, targeting a female teacher with sexually offensive material and falsely alleging that another was a gay paedophile.

Bullies are renowned for being blind to the feelings of others, and when they take their bullying campaigns to the internet, a terrible thing appears to happen: that lack of empathy spreads like a virus. The victims become depersonalised, just images on a screen rather than real people with real feelings, and it is all too easy for others to join in the mocking. Recently, 60 students at an Adelaide high school were involved in bullying a fellow student on Facebook, according to The Advertiser.

This phenomenon in evident on a very disturbing misogynistic Facebook page that Melinda Tankard Reist blogged about. It is a page on which members can post pictures of women or girls they deem to be “sluts”. These ordinary young women are left completely vulnerable to appalling taunts and insults by people all over the globe. She wrote:

Some images are clearly posted for revenge. Often full names are used. What means do these women and girls have to defend themselves? How do they deal with it? What does it mean for them in their daily lives at school or work or at home or anywhere, to be identified to the whole world as a slut?

By allowing this site, Facebook is a conduit for bullying, harassment and abuse.

There are a number of pages on Facebook that are, to use Melinda’s words, “temples to human cruelty”.

I was mystified when a 14-year-old girl at a school I worked with recently told me she had joined a Facebook page for fans of Eminem, named after a line in his song Superman: “I do know one thing though, bitches, they come they go’s.”

Image used on FB Page
Image used on FB Page

The Eminem song is that of a battle-scarred adult, full of twisted hurt at failed relationships, and full of vitriol and hate against all women. The profile picture? A beautiful but scared-looking young woman with her mouth taped shut, her hands presumably bound.  What a bully’s fantasy that is. I think it’s important to be aware that we live in a world where 14-year-old girls can be drawn to, and get involved with, such a seemingly incongruous message and online community.

But as I have written before in this blog, the worst thing we can do is have a knee-jerk reaction and try to stop girls from using Facebook. Not only would it be impossible, it would be a bad idea. Maintaining connections and mastering technology are vital for girls’ development. All young people need to not only be able to read and write in print media, but to be ‘multi-literate’, competent in the full range of media.

It is important not to lose perspective: most of what happens on Facebook is fine, and social networking sites can be a great way to get girls engaged in technology. Enlighten Education has its own Facebook page where positivity reigns supreme and the empowerment of girls is the ultimate goal. We post articles and videos to inspire girls and get them thinking, and we provide a safe and affirming forum for them to express themselves.

What we all need to do is get involved with our teen girls and give them the support and skills they need to use technology safely. At Enlighten, we run “digital citizenship” workshops for teens and parents, because it is crucial for teens to learn to navigate the social world of the internet, in the same way that it has always been crucial for them to learn to navigate the social world of the schoolyard. 

Bullying must never be ignored, whether it’s taking place face-to-face, on the internet or via text messaging. As adults we need to take responsibility for bullying, and give teens the support they need to deal with it.

Combating Cyber-bullying

  • Sometimes girls hold back from telling adults about cyber-bullying because they fear they will be banned from using the internet. Rather than making threats, keep the lines of communication open and establish trust. 
  • Make yourself familiar with Facebook so you know what your daughter may encounter while using it.
  • Some adults become their daughter’s Facebook friend so they can monitor her. I think it’s more beneficial to work on a trusting relationship with your daughter so she knows she can come to you if she has a problem.
  • If you suspect your daughter might be a victim, don’t ignore it. Ask her sensitively about your concerns.
  • Parents should alert their daughter’s school to cyber-bullying. The only way to solve the problem is for parents and school staff to work together.
  • Encourage girls to think before they accept a Facebook friend request. Is this a person they would be friends with in the real world?
  • Emphasise the importance of girls setting their Facebook privacy to the highest level so only their friends have access to their page.

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