For years now, social media has been the villain du jour for spiking rates of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem among Gen Z girls. Apps such as Instagram and TikTok, we’re told, make us miserable and self-loathing. But do they also draw out a darker side with regards to how we treat other people?
Earlier this month, the Times reported a rise in bullying between teen girls. It referred to a government study of 10,000 students that found boys aged 15 and 16 are less likely to be bullied than a decade ago, then a survey from Notting Hill and Ealing High School that reported girl-on-girl bullying is getting worse.
Female cruelty is, of course, age-old. There is research that shows girls are no less aggressive than boys: we simply favour more indirect methods of aggression, waging war through gossip, passive aggression and social exclusion. Whether it’s our evolved psychology or socialisation, any all-girls school survivor will vouch for our uniquely vicious ways.
These days, though, it’s easier than ever to be toxic. Online, girls are constantly encouraged to exclude, judge and compete with each other. In fact, all the typical tactics of female bullying – gossiping, reputation destruction, passive aggression and social exclusion – are tapped into and magnified by social media.
Consider relational aggression, for example – a predominantly female bullying tactic intended to ruin relationships and reputations. From anonymous Instagram hate pages to full-blown teenage cancel culture campaigns, today’s girls can drag each other down in all kinds of creative ways. Then there’s passive aggression, today personified by the subtweet, the “soft block” (where you block and then unblock someone in quick succession, so they no longer follow you), the read receipt; even a public tag in an unflattering photo.
Social exclusion is easier still: we can unfollow, unfriend, post Instagram stories displaying private get-togethers, cut girls out of group chats and even switch on our real-time Snap Map location to fuel the Fomo (fear of missing out). And then there’s our tendency to compare and compete – stoked today by editing apps, face-morphing filters, as well as public scores of likes, comments and followers. It’s clear that these features are terrible for our own self-esteem – but easy to forget how they’ve become a metric to measure the worth of others.
These bad behaviours now turn a profit, too. Girls’ insecurities are a lucrative market – but so too are our toxic traits. Where would the new chart-topping app NGL, which is based around anonymous messages, be without bitchy girls, for example? Tragically, companies today don’t just rely on making girls feel insecure; they simply hand us the tools to make each other feel insecure. “Ever wonder why your friends’ selfies look so good?” asks a recent ad for Facetune, a selfie-editing app. It’s no coincidence that the ad is reportedly being targeted towards girls under 25 on Instagram; it taps right into our competitive psychology.
Is the rise of toxic teens really that surprising, then? Our world is one crafted by software engineers, steered by algorithms and almost perfectly designed to make mean girls of us all: shallow, toxic consumers who spend hours obsessing over the looks and status of others. The conditioning is constant. When editing apps nudge us to out-edit other girls, Instagram reminds us to select a coterie of “close friends” and create cliquish secondary accounts, Snapchat erases the evidence of our messages, and TikTok promotes trends pitting us against each other, are girls really to blame?
Female bullying isn’t new, but today’s girls are the first to grow up in a world that encourages and profits from these indirect forms of antisocial behaviour. It’s a world that exploits not just girls’ vulnerabilities – but draws out our deepest vices, too. If Gen Z girls really want change, then, it’s time we confront not only how social media is making us feel, but who it’s encouraging us to become.
[See also: Social media’s consent problem]