Psst -- did you hear?

  • Article by: JULIE PFITZINGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2012 - 9:20 PM

A chat with an expert on girls, friendships and new forms of bullying via social media.

In 2002, before social media exploded and added a new layer to the subject, the book "Odd Girl Out -- The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls," by Rachel Simmons, became a national bestseller. Since then, girl bullying has gone digital, says Simmons in the newly revised and updated paperback edition (Mariner, $14.95). She compares cellphones and computers to "a new kind of bathroom wall, giving users the ability to destroy relationships and reputations."

Simmons, who is also an educator and co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, was recently in the Twin Cities to talk about how social media have changed the lives of today's girls as young as 10 years old. In an interview, we asked Simmons to address some challenges faced by daughters and parents.

Q Why do you think Facebook, texting, Twitter and other forms of social media have such an impact on girls?

A Girls love social media because it's social. Girls are deeply connected to their relationships; there is a seamless integration between technology and relationships for teen girls. They will often say, "I don't exist if I'm not on Facebook."

The impact on boys is not the same. Boys tend to talk less -- studies show they use fewer words per minute than girls -- and text less often with each other than girls do. They are more likely to use social media for gaming and not as much for an outgrowth of personal relationships.

Q How has bullying and aggression between girls changed in the age of social media?

A Bullying has always existed, but we're paying more attention to it now than ever before. Social media have opened up new avenues for cruelty that didn't exist -- girls have more opportunities to hurt each other. They can do it in person and through technology. I also think kids are less supervised by parents who are having to work longer hours, so teens have much more time to spend online.

Q In your book you write, "Girls, ever respectful, tend to aggress quietly. They flash looks, pass notes and spread rumors," sometimes about girls they consider to be close friends. If parents suspect their daughter is being bullied by a friend, what should they do?

A When a girl is being hurt by a friend, she is less likely to talk about it with a parent since her biggest fear is that the parent will inhibit the friendship. Parents should communicate with their daughter if they suspect this is happening. Push past the "I'm fine," and ask more specific questions about the time she is spending with her friend, either as a pair or in a group. At the same time, you don't want to push too hard because you don't want your daughter to feel like every time she has a friend problem, she also has to manage her mom's reaction.

Q Why do you think the "mean girls" on scripted or reality television shows like "Gossip Girl" or "Jersey Shore" have become role models for young girls?

A The behaviors they exhibit are seen as a kind of confidence. These girls tell people what they really think, and they are often actually very cruel to others, but the girls who are watching mistake that kind of behavior for confidence and power.

Q How do you think growing up in the age of social media will affect the friendships today's girls have 20 years from now? How will it affect the way they interact in the workplace?

A Girls are savvy about friendships -- even if they have 1,000 Facebook friends, their best friends are still their best friends and I think they will always treat friendship that way.

One of the consequences could occur in situations where they need to be direct or assertive with someone in person -- they won't have those skills. Instead of confronting a boss face-to-face, they'll send an e-mail. They will know how to get around situations where they should negotiate in person.

Q As part of your research, you have spent many hours talking to girls of all ages across the country. What has surprised you most about them?

A I think what never ceases to amaze me is how articulate girls are about their relationships, even girls as young as sixth-graders. They feel very deeply, and they are so attached to their friends.

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

Have an idea for the Your Family page? E-mail us at tellus@startribune.com with "Your Family" in the subject line.

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