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16 May 2024

Are girls “growing up too fast” online?

Viral videos of pre-teens documenting their skincare regimes and “love lives” have sparked a moral panic.

By Sarah Manavis

We have slowly woken up to social media’s increasingly negative impact on young girls’ self-esteem. In 2019, an internal presentation at Meta found that Instagram, a social media platform run by Meta, makes “body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls”; other company-conducted studies from 2020 found almost the same number of girls blamed the platform for making them feel bad about how they looked. (Meta said it had developed a number of features to help people defend themselves online.) It’s not just Instagram: public health experts warned last September about the strong link between all social media apps and a rise in eating disorders among young girls, as well as the potential risk of suicide. This hard data and expert analysis aligns with the prevailing belief that social media poses risks to all children, and especially girls – the technology causes them to be hyper-sexualised, comparison-obsessed and overwhelmed by content that is too mature.

Last week, a young girl went viral on Instagram for sharing a story about a boy she has a crush on (whom she said had a crush on somebody else). In a “get ready with me” video – which has been watched more than 13 million times – the girl explained what was going on in her “love life” as she put on a subtle but full face of make-up from her bedroom. Throughout the clip, she mimicked the style of speech now ubiquitous among social media influencers to explain some benign playground drama. She looked like a young girl wanting to appear like a fully grown woman.

The clip was shared in a now-deleted post on Twitter to widespread horror, with hundreds of people saying how future generations were “doomed” if primary school-aged kids are already posting themselves online pretending to be adults. The girl was mocked for trying to appear ten or 20 years older than she really was: she turned off her Instagram comments. While this reaction may seem extreme, similar content has received a similar response. In December, a Christmas wishlist from an Australian schoolgirl went viral for including things such as high-end skincare, designer make-up and clothing from Kim Kardashian’s clothing and shapewear brand, Skims. The moral panic blamed TikTok for encouraging pre-teen and teenage girls to think products made for grown women should be hanging in their closets, or that they need anti-ageing beauty products.

Content like this – from girls this young – is undoubtedly jarring. But is it new? Online outrage fails to recognise that long before social media, even before anything resembling the present media landscape, young girls were already encouraged to grow up fast, to yearn for the trappings of womanhood. There are countless clichés of such behaviour: girls trying on their mothers’ heels, haphazardly applying their lipstick, playing dress-up as adults. As an American tween in the Noughties, I desperately wanted (and was denied) Victoria’s Secret loungewear and thongs, while girls as young as nine were sneaking make-up into school bathrooms. These are near-universal experiences – for many, they are a girlhood rite of passage. And it was happening before any of us spent any time online.

This is not a social media problem, but rather the logical conclusion of a deeply gendered and misogynistic society. By misattributing the issue, we obscure what is causing so many girls to want to appear older – what it is that makes them want to copy women in their twenties and thirties. The online element certainly creates safeguarding issues given that things once experimented with in relative privacy are now easily broadcasted publicly. But the internet hasn’t created this impulse. It has merely increased the visibility of something that has existed for decades.

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The harms of posting these experiments in womanhood online may be serious for some. For many others, they will be no greater than any of the other experiences of sexism and misogyny that affect all girls’ development. Perhaps social media provides much starker evidence of how much these forces still impact adolescent girls, despite claims of progress. And is this a problem that solely affects girls? Boys, from a very young age, often strive to appear more like adult men too.

Social media is changing how young people see the world, from the spread of alpha-male misogyny among boys to the beauty standards and traditional relationship dynamics promoted to girls. These are among a litany of social-media-driven ills, motivated by profit-hungry platforms happy for kids to serve as collateral damage. But by blaming social media for centuries-old social phenomena, we assign outsized harm to a magnifying glass rather than looking through it to see the real problem. Moral panic ensures time and time again that we hear alarm bells but fail to address what’s really setting them off.

[See also: “Gavin & Stacey, the sitcom New Labour built]

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