Having finally started to think about the online activities of girls as distinct from boys, researchers, public policy makers and the news media are still mostly getting it wrong.
That’s the consensus of panelists who participated at Taking Stock of Tech, a conference held in Ottawa to launch the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Law, Technology and Society.
“There is virtually no girl” in policy discussions about online media, said Jane Bailey, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said during the panel “Doing Girl Online: How Social Networking is Transforming Gender, Equality and Privacy.”
Most discussions talk generically about children.
And “they tend, particularly in policy discourse, to be caricatures of children.”
Those caricatures seem to be designed to support policy agendas and are often contradictory, Bailey said.
So on the one hand is the image of shrewd, media-savvy children who know more about technology than their parents, while on the other is the naive victim who often appears in discussions about Internet luring and online pornography.
And Bailey said the victims in these discussions tend to be small children, while teenage and “tween” girls are ignored.
She argued that it is this age group that suffers from hyper-sexualized images of young women and unrealistic body images promoted by advertising, fashion magazines and certain other media.
But Bailey argued that issue is underplayed while news media overemphasize worries like Internet stalkers deceiving teens via social networking sites and girls sending sexually suggestive messages – known as “sexting” – or posting explicit photos of themselves online.
While these things happen, she said, they aren’t as widespread as one might think from the attention they get, said Shaheen Shariff, associate professor at McGill University in Montreal, and it’s important to recognize the news media’s ability to “create moral panic.”
At the same time, she added, children need some encouragement to think about the effects of their online behaviour and how it might be perceived.
“It’s a more complicated picture than just girls being mean or girls being sexual or girls having eating disorders,” said Shayla Thiel-Stern, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
Research shows girls see the Internet as a place for experimentation, a place to try out personas, and they see it as a free, unsupervised space, Thiel-Stern said.
They may have some misconceptions about how completely a photo can be removed from a social networking site, she admitted, but “moral panic” about teens’ online behaviour is overblown.
Thiel-Stern pointed out that similar concerns arise with every new technology and social change.
Newspapers predicted trouble when young women were first allowed to go to dance halls unescorted in the 1890s, she said, and there were warnings that the arrival of the telephone would make it impossible for parents to control their daughters’ behaviour.
Valerie Steeves, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, outlined some differences between girls’ and boys’ behaviour online. Contrary to the stereotype of technology as a male world, girls are actually more likely to use computers at home than boys are, she said.
They also post more information about themselves on social networking sites – but are more likely than boys to limit access so that only their friends can see what they post.
And while boys tend to use social networks to meet new people, girls use them mainly to deepen relationships with the friends they already have, Steeves said.