Every now and then I take a moment to pause and reflect on one of the few things in my life that causes me profound and unshakable gratitude: Thank God, or whatever benevolent force there may be in this universe, that Twitter did not exist when I was in high school.
Of course, this introspection isn't without cause. Every few months, there seems to arise a new chunk of evidence—or at least a new wave of think pieces—about how the internet is ruining the lives of young women. The latest comes from Katy Waldman at Slate's "XX Factor" blog, in a March 14 post partially titled "Social Media Makes Girls Hate Themselves."
In one new study, Waldman explains, plastic surgeons report an uptick in teenage female clients seeking surgery because they don't like their appearance in online photos. In another, 960 college-aged women were surveyed for disordered eating patterns, then split into groups assigned to either look at Facebook or research ocelots. The social-media-skimmers' incidences of destructive thinking around food increased. The ocelots, thankfully, were harmless.
In addition to the data Waldman presents in her piece, the media has produced plenty of other evidence to back up her assertion that social media is making young women more vulnerable to self-loathing. Similar studies and articles have been making waves for years, including one 2011 study that claimed the more time teenage women spent on Facebook, the more prone they were to developing a negative body image.
That study inspired a CNN essay, in which a college peer counselor noted that whenever she spoke to a sobbing young woman, "Facebook was being mentioned in some way in just about every conversation." In turn, this spawned a roundup of teen reflection on the web community Proud2BeMe, which included statements as terminally depressing as "People get positive attention in the world by losing weight" or, simply, "The less clothes you have on, the more popular you are."
And comparing your body to those of your social-media contacts is just the beginning of the damage. It doesn't even take into account the acute trauma inflicted by witnessing—or, God forbid, being at the center of—the online firestorms of intense personal criticism and harassment that seem to be disproportionately targeted at young women.
Consider the fate of 11-year-old Jessi Slaughter. When she posted a series of ill-advised YouTube videos in which she cursed and talked about "popping a Glock," users on various seedy sites retaliated by publishing her address and phone number in addition to posting a "guide" for the best way to torment her. (One helpful tip: "Tell her to kill herself.") Soon enough, Jessi's YouTube videos were less "profane bravado," more "footage of a young girl crying her eyes out."
Teenage MySpace celebrity Kiki had her home vandalized and was sexually assaulted by "fans." Multiple young women, including 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parson and 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick have actually committed suicide following online bullying campaigns. Being a teenage girl was terrifying enough when you could only be persecuted by your classmates; God only knows what kind of paranoia and self-doubt we're fostering in our young women by raising them in an environment where taking an unflattering photo or making a bad joke can result in international opprobrium and a flood of credible threats to their lives.