Giving girls the tools for an online world

Joan Goodchild/Cyber Savvy Mom

Most of us parenting tweens and teens today know that spending time online is a passion for many kids in this age group. A recent report by Common Sense Media finds U.S. teens spend an average of more than seven hours per day on screen media for entertainment, and tweens spend nearly five hours.

A lot of those hours are spent online – using social media and texting with friends. But research also finds time spent online and on social media may be impacting girls differently than boys.

A study published in the Lancet’s EClinicalMedicine journal looked at more than 11,000 14-year-olds in the UK, and revealed that girls who are depressed tend to use social media more than boys. The nearly 40 percent of girls who spent more than five hours a day on apps like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and WhatsApp showed signs of depression. That compared with just 14.5 percent of boys.

Mindful of this, and other impacts online media is having on young women, three of Worcester’s largest girl-focused organizations have developed a new program to help girls and their parents navigate the world of social media, texting and cyber-bullying. The program, called All about MEdia, is made possible by a $225,000 grant from the Fred Harris Daniels Foundation to the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts, Girls Inc. of Worcester, and YWCA of Central Massachusetts.

“We chose this age of girls to focus on because middle school is one of the toughest, but formative times for girls; coupled with the fact that we are living in a digital age and many girls are either already online or close to receiving their first phones or devices,” said Melanie Bonsu, a spokesperson for Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts. “Research has also shown that there is a real need for this program. The Investing in Girls Alliance’s 2019 status update on middle school girls in greater Worcester shows that online use for non-school activities has steadily increased as well as cyberbullying, depressive feelings, and lack of sleep amongst middle school girls.”

All About MEdia is free and open to all girls in grades 5-8 in greater Worcester. For girls who don’t have a prior membership to one of the three organizations, membership will be covered by the grant.

Girls who take part will attend an eight-week series where they will explore online advertising, cyber-bullying, and creating healthy relationships. Bonsu says the program was borne out of a need for girl-specific programming in this space.

“All About MEdia was developed due to the lack of programming around social media in greater Worcester, specifically the lack of girl-only programming. This program will address staying safe online, healthy use of social media, risky behavior online, and media reality while educating parents and guardians on why and how their girls are using social media and how to ensure their girl is staying safe online and what behaviors to watch for.”

Bonsu notes the message of the program is not about shaming or warning kids off of social media use, which is unrealistic in the digitally-fueled social life many teens are living today.

“The program does not use scare tactics to prevent social media use,” said Bonsu. “Social media is a major part of a girl’s life and is not going away. Instead we aim to have girls understand healthy relationships, build empathy, develop conflict resolution and coping skills, know that what they see on social media is a curated life of the poster, and practice safe, healthy behaviors that aren’t affecting their emotional well-being.”

Among some of the recommendations the group makes is for parents to get involved and develop a digital compact with their kids so everyone in the family has a clear understanding of what is acceptable and what is not.

“We felt really strongly in engaging parents and guardians in this program – from knowing what platforms their girls are on, and how to use them, why they’re always using them, to modeling healthy positive healthy behavior on their own accounts,” said Bonsu. “The social media compact is a way for parents and guardians to engage in a conversation with their girls about social media. Together they work on setting rules that they both agree upon, like no phones at the dinner table. A compact can be changed overtime, but it lays the groundwork for discussion and expectations of both parties.”

The kick-off meetings for several sessions took place in January. The program format is broken into several eight-week series during the school year, or one full week at camp during the summer, where the girls will work with a trained facilitator who will deliver two hours of programming each week – topics include reality vs. fantasy, boundaries, cyberbullying, safety, empathy, peer pressure, and repercussions – and all sessions include time for reflection.

The group has a website with resources for parents at Bonsu said it’s all about educating families to help girls make smart decisions about online media.

“It’s an intimidating world as a parent, and social media is only one area that can affect our girls -- and it’s always changing. The kids aren’t on the platforms we are so the mystery can oftentimes be scary. But the reality is, that’s how kids communicate these days. You’d be shocked at how many girls responded to our survey that they are well aware to not give personal information out online. We need to equip the girls with the tools to safely and positively exist online.”