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15 January 2013

Does social media harm the self-esteem of girls?

I've always been taken by something that Danny Thomas said to his daughter Marlo: “I raised you to be a thoroughbred. When thoroughbreds run, they wear blinders to keep their eyes focused straight ahead with no distractions... they just run their own race. Don’t listen to anyone comparing you to anyone else... run your own race.”

Comparing oneself with others can be fraught in the brave new world of social networking. Whether we like social networks or not, one thing is certain: they're inexorable. It's almost impossible these days to do whatever it is you do, without interacting online with others.

I know many bright and talented women and am connected with most of them on social networking sites. These women lead regional business units, instruct yoga, raise kids, argue court cases, fly airplanes, start businesses, buy property, publish novels. They're brilliant. If I wasn't a relatively well-adjusted person, I might feel inferior as their status updates flood my inbox and dazzle me. (Okay, I admit it. Sometimes I do.)

Here's the thing about online interaction. It's selective. I'm less likely to advertise my failures and insecurities. That means that if we're connected via social media, you're probably getting a pretty flattering snapshot of my life at any given moment (and I'm getting the same from you).

We tend to put our best selves forward on the web, and we probably should in most cases. But in aggregating all of the best news and information from friends - and let's be honest, many acquaintances - are we raising the bar of expectations to unrealistic levels? Might these carefully vetted, rosy swathes of other people's lives have some unintended consequences on how we view our own lives and selves?

You might be as surprised as I was to learn how gender and emotion shape (and are shaped by) social networking behaviour.

Christine_R_Blog_PhotoIt was something I hadn't thought much about until I took a seminar with this week's guest blogger, Christine Rosakranse. 

Christine is a PhD Fellow at Stanford University in the Communication Department. She currently studies emotions, interfaces, and social networking as part of the CHIMe Lab (CHIMe stands for "Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media.")

Of course, I peppered her with questions over lunch about whether she had come across any gender differences in her research. She had - and I found these differences fascinating. I asked Christine to guest blog with her observations and some pointers on how to mitigate some of the less constructive effects of social media.

If you (or your daughters, sisters, girlfriends, etc.) use social media, read on.

- Dale


"Our interpersonal expressions of emotion are shaped by biology and by our culture.  What is considered appropriate for a woman to say is not the same as what is considered appropriate for a man to say, for example, when the topic concerns one’s emotions.  Evolutionary biology had a great deal of impact on why women would be more comfortable with talking about and expressing emotions.  They were responsible for keeping track of kin relations, and the rearing of children.  However, culture also shapes and maintains how each gender interacts with their peers. 

Social norms follow certain “display rules”.  This term was first introduced by Ekman and Friesen, whose work defined three types of display rules: the tendency to express more positive emotions, the tendency to mitigate negative emotions, and the act of replacing one emotion with another

An example of replacement may be smiling in a culture where negative emotion expression is not considered appropriate.    

Studies have also shown that women are generally higher in empathy than men.  Of course, as with any "advantage," this can be a double-edged sword.  This increased level of empathy may be the very thing that produces detrimental effects when combined with social networking and display rules. 

If we only see and hear about those positive aspects of another’s life, we tend to discount the amount of negative emotions that other people feel.  So much so, in fact, that we then become lonelier and experience greater feelings of isolation over time (“Misery Loves Company”, Jordan et al.). 

While this has not yet been directly tested in online communication, evidence exists that suggests that similar effects occur when “tweenage” girls go online (Nass & Pea, 2011).  A correlation was discovered between higher levels of using social networking and lower levels of self-esteem.

The role of social networking in shaping culture has yet to be fully determined, but we can see that language constrained to an online format is different than how we naturally speak.  From abbreviations to emoticons, new slang to meme references, language is changing every day at an accelerated rate, but display rules place certain constraints on the way we interact.  This in turn shapes culture in a cyclical manner.  With several iterations, we may find that these display rules are magnified, exaggerated, or completely replaced by new norms.

What we have to be constantly aware of are the insidious effects of long-term use, especially for individuals higher in empathy. 


One solution may be the paring down of one’s contact list to only include those that we truly care for, close friends and family members.  When our list only consists of those individuals, we can experience true sympathetic joy at their accomplishments, instead of jealousy, as can happen with non-close acquaintances. 

Another intervention might be realizing that other people have unhappy moments, just like us, but that they would never admit to that through social networking.  Realizing that this medium is like a pair of rose-colored glasses may be the way to defy any blows to one’s self-esteem and to remind us of our common humanity."

--Christine Rosakranse


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I'm fascinated by this topic and would love to read more on this. I've observed the effects on self esteem firsthand in my 18 year old daughter and the insights from this blog will provide a good discussion topic with her.

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