Teenage girls present a different image to the world online than they do in person, a new survey shows.
A national survey of more than 1,000 girls ages 14 through 17 found that many downplay certain aspects of themselves online – namely qualities such as intelligence and kindness. While 82 percent of girls said they come across as "smart" in real life, and 76 percent said they were "kind," the most common words girls used when talking about their online personas were "fun" and "funny."
The study was conducted on a nationally representative sample of teen girls by the Girl Scouts of the USA (the survey was not restricted to girls who were Girl Scouts).
"Girls say they come across as more well-rounded in person than they do online," said Kimberlee Salmond, senior researcher at the Girl Scout Research Institute. "One of the hypotheses is that perhaps those other qualities aren't necessarily the online currency that gets traction. The things they think will get approved are the fun, funny aspects. It might just not be the right forum to display every aspect of their personality."
This difference between online and real-life personas was stronger in girls who measured lower in self-esteem. (Researchers measured self-esteem by asking the girls how happy they were with themselves and with life in general.)
While 18 percent of girls with high self-esteem said their social networking image doesn't match their in-person image, 33 percent of girls with low self-esteem admitted to this disparity.
The girls researchers identified as having low self-esteem were also more likely to claim that the image they portray online is "sexy" (22 percent versus 14 percent of high self-esteem girls) and "crazy" (35 percent versus 28 percent).
The survey asked the girls a variety of questions regarding their experiences with social media. Among all respondents, 91 percent use Facebook regularly, although most still said they prefer face-to-face interactions.
Many girls admitted there are definite downsides to using social media. For example, 68 percent of girls reported a negative online experience, such as bullying or having someone gossip about them.
They also recognized that some of the available online content about themselves wasn't flattering and could have negative repercussions in the future. For example, 42 percent are concerned they won't get accepted into their college of choice because of information about them posted online.
Additionally, 40 percent think they could miss out on a job opportunity or get in trouble with parents and teachers because of content posted about them online. Thirty-nine percent of girls are worried friends and family could lose respect for them because of their social networking content.
Salmond said there was a gap between how well girls understood the potential hazards of Facebook and other social media outlets, and whether they actually did anything about them (for example, removing embarrassing photos or making their profiles private).
"They're not unaware of these potential consequences, but they're still doing it," Salmond told LiveScience.
Social media safety
The researchers were excited to learn that 85 percent of girls have talked with their parents about safe social networking behavior (although 50 percent of the girls admit they are not always as careful as they should be).
Salmond said it was important for parents to educate themselves about these sites to best help their children navigate decisions about their online personas.
"I would say that social networks are here to stay, but they're not necessarily the devil," she said. "As a parent, you shouldn't adopt the attitude that they're completely negative – that will be counterproductive."
Instead, Salmond suggested, parents should consider jumping on the bandwagon – including creating their own Facebook profile and learning about the site's privacy settings. By understanding the types of interactions going on, parents can stay in touch with the challenges their kids are facing online.
Ultimately, the survey did reflect some positive benefits of using social media for teens. Of girls surveyed, 56 percent said that social networks help them feel closer and more connected to their friends, while 52 percent have gotten involved in a cause they care about through a social network such as Facebook.
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