The amalgamated voices of 10,678 girls resounded at Community Day School, as Lisa Hinkelman, founder and executive director of Ruling Our eXperiences, shared unsettling and often unsurprising data from her recent study titled “The Girls’ Index.”
The research, which was conducted between 2016 and 2017, provides “a first-of-its-kind, large-scale, national survey designed to develop a deeper understanding of the thoughts, experiences, perceptions, beliefs, behaviors and attitudes of girls throughout the United States,” said Hinkelman, a former faculty member at Ohio State University.
She explained that although considerable material regarding economic or health trends, drug use or other at-risk behaviors exists regarding the fifth- through 12th-grade demographic, little is known about “what’s happening in girls’ lives that’s shaping them into the women they become” or the social and emotional states encountered by today’s youth, such as their feelings on “confidence, body image, friendships, pressure, leadership, career aspirations, school, academics, technology and social media.”
For more than an hour, Hinkelman unpacked her findings, as approximately 40 attendees digested the data.
Between fifth grade and 12th grade, the percentage of girls who describe themselves as confident declines more than 25 percent from 86 percent to 60 percent.
The ramifications for such loss are reinforced by additional numbers, as in fifth grade, 23 percent of girls feel that they are not “smart enough for their dream job,” but by high school this figure doubles to 46 percent. Even for those ninth- through 12th-graders who receive a 4.0 GPA or higher, 30 percent reported that they “do not think they are smart enough for their dream careers,” she said.
The decrease in confidence, which ultimately augments girls’ professional trajectories, is fueled by multiple factors, including puberty, but mostly pressure, explained Hinkleman, who noted that such duress stems from a desire to attain perfection, maintain particular appearances, achieve academic success and adhere to the demands of parents and friends.
The latter, specifically what Hinkelman termed the role of relationships, is critical, as, in contradistinction to confidence measures, the rate of conflict boosts between girls throughout the high school years, and “as relationships become less supportive and trusting, sadness and depression increases.”
We don’t help girls navigate healthy relationships. Communication, assertiveness, boundary setting, where are girls learning these skills?
Part of the problem is that “we don’t help girls navigate healthy relationships,” said the researcher before castigating cultural staples. “Communication, assertiveness, boundary setting, where are girls learning these skills? ‘The Bachelor’ is part of our social currency.” Shows that pit girls against one another in the hopes of attaining a stranger’s selection promote the message that you should “do whatever you can do to get that attention.”
There must be better means of introducing assertiveness; nonetheless, one cannot discount the volume of responses indicating that girls avoid standing up for themselves for fear of being seen as “bossy” or “people not liking them,” Hinkelman said.
While the researcher intermittently engaged her audience with brief biographical musings and semirhetorical inquiries, the digital elephant in the room remained.
“I had the luxury of finding my own identity absent the opinions of everyone else,” she said before tackling technology. “Social media is the pervasive element of the culture that can’t be isolated. We judge our appearances, our bodies, our relationships, based on what people are putting out into the world.”
Though not causal, there is a correlation between time spent with social media and depression, she said, as “girls who spend eight or more hours per day using technology are five times more likely to report being sad or depressed nearly every day.”
Additionally, increased use of social media is associated with a decrease in users’ likelihood to trust other girls, maintain supportive friendships and enjoy attending school, said Hinkelman prior to confronting the associated element of sexting, which she called “the new flirting.”
“The Girls’ Index,” reports that 30 percent of sixth-grade girls acknowledged that “teens their age send sexually explicit texts and photos to one another,” and “by 12th grade, this percentage rises to 75 percent. Girls report pressure to send nudes and say, ‘If you don’t send a picture, they’ll just ask the next girl,’ and ‘girls want to feel pretty and sexy, so sharing pics is the way that some girls do that.’”
Although fear of lasting implications has been widely employed to discourage sexting, society has not properly addressed the best means of dealing with such phenomena, said Hinkelman. There is an inherent irony when parents provide children with smartphones out of a self-described concern for safety only to discover that the device is often a tool for danger, she added.
For those who simply believe that the solution is “taking away” a child’s cellphone, the social impact could be devastating, as girls reported that if they are not engaged online, “they are invisible” to their peers and that “sometimes they just post so they are part of the conversation,” said Hinkelman.
“The currency is different,” she said. Social media is not going anywhere and “the exact skills girls need in real life are the same skills girls need in social media.”
In that vein, parents should strive to increase listening and avoid judgmental communication with their children, said the trained counselor before sharing a link to her research, which is available at bit.ly/thegirlsindexreport.
Confidence and trust can be gained through sensible discussion, she said. “Take the data and go ask your girls: Does this seem right to you?”
Social media is the pervasive element of the culture that can’t be isolated. We judge our appearances, our bodies, our relationships, based on what people are putting out into the world.
Although a subsequent question-and-answer session was negated in favor of allowing Hinkelman additional time to present, several parents remained to converse both with the presenter and among themselves.
The lecture was “informative but not surprising,” said Anat Talmy, whose twin daughters are 10.
Lydia Blank, whose daughters are 12 and 2, agreed.
“I’m not totally surprised by her findings,” said the Highland Park resident.
“It’s both troubling and revealing that there’s all this data,” said Jason Neiss, whose daughters are 11 and 9, “Every component of their lives involves social media. It’s different from when I grew up.”
Hinkelman agreed. Social media is the most significant difference between now and when the project first began nearly a decade ago, she said. “It is the one thing that overlays everything. It doesn’t discriminate based on socioeconomic status or school; it is so present in their lives.”
The topic was important to address, said Avi Baran Munro, head of school at CDS, who thanked the Jewish Women’s Foundation, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Jewish Family and Community Services for supporting the program.
It was a welcome pleasure, said Judy Greenwald Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation. “We’re happy to have this opportunity to educate our community about issues affecting women and girls.” PJC
Visit rulingyourexperiences.org for more information.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz