I’m 17 years old, and teen girls like me experience a lot of bad stuff online--mean comments, pressures to sext, or the very real sadness of zero likes on an Instagram post. Girls in particular--more than 73 percent of them, according to the Pew Research Center--use social media to get support from peers.
Caitlyn Clark is a high school sophomore near San Francisco. Last year, an anonymous hate page about some girls she knows showed up on Instagram.
“It’s one of those things that kind of appears randomly,” said Clark. “Just out of nowhere, someone will get tagged with a picture of themselves and the caption is just something really horrible.”
That hate page disappeared after just a few posts. In its place, girls at Caitlyn's school created a different Instagram account. Open it, and there’s row after row of smiling selfies with comments like “Sara is a great person with a loving personality,” and “I agree, Sara is so cute and nice. Can we have more people like you on this planet?”
Comments are one thing. There’s also the trend of the “challenge” on social media. Usually, it’s something stupid like, “How many mouthfuls of cinnamon can you swallow?” More and more, though, we see challenges designed to spread self-esteem. Kind of like a modern-day chain letter.
“It’s that time again,” reads one such challenge. “Upload your three most confident selfies and tag ten people you feel should share their beauty with the world!”
Caitlyn Clark’s boyfriend Billy Cruz is supportive of this kind of challenge.
“They’ll be like, aww oh my god, you’re so beautiful. It’s really cool, because it’s like, here, I’m being confident, then you guys all be confident now, and then it’s like, okay, we’re all confident now, let’s pass it on to other people!”
I’ve been tagged in stuff like this before, and I was like, “Okay, whatever. Next! Is confidence really as simple as getting tagged in a post?” But when you dig beneath the superficial in these social media campaigns, girls are raising serious issues--like whether school dress code policies are fair.
“When you interrupt a girl’s school day or send her home because her shoulders are exposed, you’re telling her that making sure boys have a distraction-free environment is more important than a girl’s learning,” concludes Bay Area student Rhea Park, who’s 15, as she reads from a thread on Twitter. In the thread girls post outfits they’ve been sent home for--like a t-shirt that shows some collarbone. Teenagers have been fighting dress code policies forever, but students haven’t always had social media to make the case.
“If one person talks to a school administrator, I feel like they’ll blow it off, be like, ‘Oh, it’s just one kid complaining.’ But once you get it on social media and it’s more public, then it becomes more urgent, and the school might want to do something more about it,” said Park.
Such as actually changing the dress code guidelines. Which is what happened at one high school in Kentucky, after a student’s YouTube video about their dress code policy got more than 300 thousand views.
Here’s the thing: As a teen girl, there are all sorts of situations we can’t control. Like a mean comment on Instagram, or the embarrassing experience of getting sent home for wearing the wrong outfit. When we take our story to social media, sometimes we manage to turn shame into empowerment.