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The secret lives, likes and language of teenage girls

They take endless selfies, can’t be separated from their phones and speak in tongues. Ailin Quinlan asks what’s really going on with young women in 2016.

Published 05/05/2016

Lives online: Vivienne Ellis and her puppy Morgan and Kelly Harte taking a selfie. By 15 or 16 years of age some 90% of teenagers have a social media profile
Lives online: Vivienne Ellis and her puppy Morgan and Kelly Harte taking a selfie. By 15 or 16 years of age some 90% of teenagers have a social media profile
Selfie help: social media likes can build confidence in teenagers

It allows us broadcast our every thought - not to mention our latest selfies - to an eagerly waiting world. No wonder we're addicted to social media.

Many kids have a social networking profile from the age of 11 or 12, despite the age-restriction of 13 on many, and by 15 or 16, 90% of teenagers have one.

Children are growing up in a society awash in social media, which, research shows, is particularly attractive to girls. And it's changing not only how they communicate with one another, but the nature of their relationships. It's also, experts say, having a major impact on their self-esteem.

The selfie phenomenon and the burgeoning range of social media platforms and apps - Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and many more - offers a culture of cyber-girlhood complete with rules, customs, nuances and excitable, hyped-up language, much of which is incomprehensible to parents.

"I always say something is 'amazing' - lovely just doesn't sound right," explains 19-year-old Kelly Harte. "I use words like 'stunning', 'fantastic', 'fabulous' and 'gorgeous'. In comparison to them, 'lovely' sounds dull.

"On Facebook, everything's hyped-up. On Facebook, you tell a person you love them. They're your BFF, the best thing in your life. You wouldn't necessarily say any of this face-to-face."

Parents may laugh, but it's perfectly normal and understandable, according to psychotherapist Stella O'Malley, author of Cotton Wool Kids.

"Their emotions are so heightened that the hyperbole in their language is natural. The two things are exploding in their brains.

"They don't give a damn about each other, but it's all about widening their social network through complimenting someone and being popular with people."

Girls instinctively relate through relationships, so for them social media is highly competitive and all about their peer group status.

"They continuously get into photographs so that they will be tagged. They also tag people in the photos they take so that other people will reciprocate and give them a mention," adds O'Malley.

"This is a culture with its own language and its own rules; it's complicated and sophisticated, which is why parents are lagging behind.

"Parents tend to dismiss it as silly. It's not silly at all. It's actually very complex and sophisticated."

Social media is about loyalty and support, too, says Vivienne Ellis (20): "If a friend put up a picture and only got, say three 'likes' in the space of 10 minutes I'd 'like' it."

Friendship with one person can also determine whose pictures you choose to "like", or ignore, says Kelly.

"If one of my friends doesn't 'like' something someone puts up, because she doesn't like the girl, I might not 'like' it either, out of loyalty," she adds.

Selfies are hugely popular - particularly the ubiquitous "duckface" pout, which no self-respecting teen would be seen without.

"I don't know how it started but it got very popular, because it makes your face look slimmer and your lips look bigger," says Kelly.

"Girls do it because they generally think they look nicer that way."

Shannon, a fifth-year secondary school student, says: "You've got girls who'll post pictures of themselves several times a day.

"A lot of younger girls will hype-up their photographs to get attention and increase the number of 'likes'."

It's a worrying trend - one-in-three teens feels under enormous pressure about their body weight and shape, according to leading cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken.

She has expressed concern over the pressure that young people were under in terms of how they presented themselves online, warning that they can create a profile that is essentially a "highly curated and manipulated artefact".

"Apps or filters can be used to create better skin, shinier hair, whiter teeth, or to appear five pounds lighter," she said, adding that this "cyber self" can become increasingly distant from the real world self - and harder to live up to.

Some girls will post stunning selfies of themselves in flawlessly applied make-up, but only from the neck up, because they're not out; they're still at home and in their pyjamas.

There can be peer pressure to post flattering selfies, agrees Kelly.

"It shows you're on trend with the Shellac nails, the Michael Kors bag, the knee-high boots; there's pressure if you allow the pressure and if you want the likes.

"I know a group where every single one of the girls posts comments, status and pictures on a regular basis."

If a picture doesn't get the hoped-for amount of likes, younger teenagers will accentuate it with filters, song lyrics, or even quotes from movies to attract attention. If a girl has posted a picture and it doesn't get the hoped-for number of likes, she'll delete it.

"It's about expectations - to look good and feel good. With a lot of people they're looking for a response," says Kelly.

At the end of the day, the key to success is about establishing a supportive online network - highly socially successful girls can put up genuinely "awful pics", but they'll still get 500 "likes", because they're popular.

"The more 'friends' you have and the more popular you are, the more likes you will get," Kelly explains. "It's about being well-known.

"Some girls build themselves up on Facebook. They may never meet the person who's liking them, but they'll put up these pictures of themselves and attract all these likes.

"You might say you're not looking for likes but if you get the likes, you're pleased with yourself."

And they all acknowledge, just as in real life, cyber girl culture has its downsides. Girls can have very public rows on social media. Even without mentioning names, they can make it obvious who they've fallen out with.

"Everyone comments -they're saying 'talk to me, hope you're okay'," says Vivienne. "They can talk about someone on Facebook with another friend, without mentioning the name, but you know who it is and girls can get really upset."

Ouch.

 

BAE: Before Anyone Else

A shorter version of Babe, meaning you come first for whoever has dubbed you their BAE. Lately, however, it's become downgraded with people using it to express their love for a cat or dog.

On Fleek/On Point

A term of strong approval meaning something has been done perfectly. Originally described girls who drew in their HD (high-definition) eyebrows properly.

SMH

Originated in text messaging; stands for "Shaking My Head". Denotes that the person using the acronym is shaking their head in disgust or shock.

LMAO

Originating in text-speak and instant-messaging, this acronym signals that something is extremely funny by implying the sender is "Laughing my a** off".

Emojis

Whole sentences consisting of emojis. For example, someone could use an emoji of a dog, a person walking, a love-heart and a sun to show that they're walking their dog and loving life.

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