Dr Eunice Gaerlan-Price’s doctoral research focused on the lives of academically successful teenage girls from diverse socioeconomic, racial-ethnic and schooling backgrounds and examined how social media was adding a complicating layer to their lives.
Now a teacher educator, Eunice first became interested in the impact that social media was having on girls she was teaching at an Auckland secondary school.
“The idea that originally piqued my curiosity was this notion of ‘friending’ and ‘following’. I noticed specifically in the all-girls college I was working at, that the Year 13s, especially the prefects, were dealing with multiple friend requests from younger students, including those who were in my Year 7 and 8 classes.”
Eunice adds that she was intrigued by the notion that social media was providing the older girls with a sort of celebrity status.
“One of the prefects talked about a relationship she had with those younger people she had befriended through Facebook; with a one-to-many form of broadcasting (rather than actual networking or two-way conversation).
“The implication of this was a heightened scrutiny over these older girls’ lives by those in their networks and thus greater sense of needing to live up to expectations and feeling like they had little room to fail.”
At the time, Eunice says there was little in the way of resources or support because Facebook was fairly new, and the impact on teenage girls was just starting to be explored.
“I think schools were in a position of preferring to relegate social media to outside of schools’ purview; that it was generally being used outside school hours, therefore was not something to be too concerned about. This was, of course, before smartphones became a readily accessible and used device. Social media was still accessed through computers.”
In-depth interviews for Eunice’s post-doctoral studies were conducted with 19 high-achieving Year 13 girls. Eunice then drafted collective stories from the overall group.
The girls talked about social media as being both empowering and disempowering.
“If they saw empowering messages, they felt that it was fleeting – it didn’t create an imprint. The visual nature of things like Instagram seemed to have more effect on social esteem. It internalises that need for girls to feel like they have to work that extra bit harder.”
Reflecting on what she observed as a teacher, Eunice says tied up with expectations, was this pressure to show that you could be the complete package and that your social life was just as good as your academic grades, and just as good as how you looked, and that you were a contributor to society.
“I shared those stories with the participants and then we came back together with some of them a year later to unpack the stories, and also talk about the emerging themes that I had found and how that’s resonating with them,” she says.
Culture of busyness
Eunice also found that a culture of busyness begins from an early age and follows girls into womanhood.
Tall poppy and popular culture lead these high-achieving girls to shun intellectual identity for dispositional identity related to work ethic and all-round achievement.
“Intellectual identity often features ‘I’ statements: I am intelligent, I am gifted, I am an intellectual, I have high IQ. Dispositional identity features ‘I do’ statements: I work hard, I put in lots of effort,” explains Eunice.
With people wanting to distancing themselves from intellectual identity, it becomes better to say, ‘I worked hard and that’s why I’m successful’, rather than ‘I’m smart’, which ties into tall poppy syndrome, she says.
Eunice says that many of the girls she interviewed were striving to be perfectionists, which was affecting their quality of life.
“I had some girls talking about not sleeping or working until 2am and getting up at 5am. Many would have extra-curricular activities every single day and get home at 9pm when they would get onto their schoolwork. Then they would scroll on social media and realise they also need to have a social life, show a bikini body and have exciting holidays.”
Eunice notes that her research isn’t a comparative study between girls’ and boys’ experiences, but she says a lot of research has been done in the field of girlhood studies.
This article is reproduced with the permission of the Ministry of Education.