Has technology made mean girls meaner? Yes, says, Rosalind Wiseman.
Wiseman, whose blockbuster book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” formed the basis for the 2004 hit movie “Mean Girls,” tells me that thanks to the ubiquity of devices and the reach of social media, “the scope of the damage girls can do is wider. And there are fewer brakes on their behavior.”
The third edition of Wiseman’s book came out last month and the author has added a great deal about technology to her assessment of adolescent and teenage-girl life.
“Even if girls regret doing what they did the next day, they’ve already done something that violated trust. They may have humiliated themselves,” says Wiseman, in a way that has much further reaching implications than it used to.
Just consider the apology Wiseman suggests a girl might have to write if she gossips about a friend online. “To everyone in the ninth grade: Last week I forwarded information about Allison that wasn’t true. I shouldn’t have done it. I have apologized to Allison in person but I also needed to write to you so you would know it wasn’t true . . .”
Can you imagine a girl 30 years ago having to write a letter apologizing to hundreds of kids in her grade because of some note she passed in class? These days, a good parent has to be prepared for that possibility.
Unfortunately, all the warnings in the world aren’t going to stop this kind of behavior. There’s a meme going around social media that says, “Dance like no one is watching. E-mail like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.”
Wiseman says there’s a “cognitive disconnect” that adults can’t do much to counteract. Kids continue to insist that they want, and even that they have, privacy online. Sometimes, Wiseman says, you can show them this is plainly untrue. “You can’t hook up with someone behind anyone’s back anymore,” she tells girls. If you’re involved with someone, thanks to social media, everyone knows.
Wiseman has found that the parents she speaks with are often “overwhelmed” by the influence of social media on their children. “How can I teach my values when there is something there that will constantly make it harder? It is easier for my daughter to be mean and harder for me to have some supervision.”
Wiseman offers a few basic rules for limiting technological use. She says that devices shouldn’t be used at the dinner table. They distract from connecting with family. They probably shouldn’t be in kids’ rooms at night because they distract from sleeping. And she advises parents to collect phones before sleepover parties because, “Someone is going to send a picture of themselves naked to someone else.”
Finally, if your child has done something to embarrass herself, Wiseman recommends taking the phone away for a few days to shield her from the onslaught of nasty comments she may receive online.
Given all these ill effects, it’s rather surprising that Wiseman doesn’t suggest parents seriously curtail their kids’ use of technology or not buy them smartphones in the first place.
Why do they need to be on social media if it makes them so miserable? Why do they need a phone if it’s preventing them from having ordinary social interactions with their families? Why should they be texting all the time if it is filling them with anxiety?
Like many parents and other experts she cites, including technophile and (not coincidentally) Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd, Wiseman seems to see this as a losing battle. “No matter what experts or the hypervigilant parent in your neighborhood tells you, it’s actually really hard to know everything your child is doing all the time online.”
She tells me no one even asks her anymore whether or when to give their kids a phone. And the only middle-class kids who have flip phones instead of devices that can access the Internet are the kids “who have done it themselves, who have realized they are too addicted, that phones are making my life crazy.”
For the kids who don’t have that kind of self-awareness, though, maybe parents might want to give them a little help.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.