In the age of social media, young girls are arguably more impressionable now than they have ever been before, largely thanks to constant internet access and the wide variety of content at their fingertips.
But recent research has highlighted the dangers of social media, and the negative impact it can have on the minds and self-esteem of young people.
In late 2020, Canadian company Edelman Data & Intelligence conducted a local survey in partnership with the Dove Self-Esteem Project, in which they spoke with 503 girls aged between 10 and 17.
They found that by the age of 13, 80 per cent of girls had downloaded a filter or used an app to distort the way they looked in photos, while 67 per cent tried to change or hide at least one featurebefore posting a photo of themselves.
During an already difficult transition from tween to teenager and primary school to high school, these girls are facing an uphill battle when it comes to expectations about their appearance and body shape, often comparing their lives to celebrities and famous personalities whose popularity, behaviour and looks are all validated by mass follows and likes.
Following more realistic role models can help
Another study conducted by Harvard University in 2017, in which 588 students at a public high school in the United States were surveyed, found that teenagers who were making negative comparisons between themselves and others online would find it helpful to be given regular reminders that people only typically post their life highlights.
But Australian social media expert Edwin Smith told the ABC that users can take a couple of steps further to take better control of the type of content they are exposed to in the first place.
“For all its flaws, social media and Instagram in particular use algorithms from trends in the way you use the app to work out what you want to see,” he said.
“So you can positively impact your feed by being strategic about whose posts you engage with, because the more likes and engagement you have with a particular account, the more you’ll see from them in your feed.
“On one hand, there seems to be a growing trend of people doing this and gravitating towards more authentic accounts, but there have also been developments in social technology that go against that and encourage people to use filters on Instagram stories that make their skin flawless or lips bigger.”
Female athletes could be the place to start
NSW Swifts co-captain and Aussie Diamonds squad member Maddy Proud has a strong link to this age group, given netball is one of the country’s most popular team sports.
As an athlete and author of children’s book Grace on the Court, she has built a following of close to 21,000 people on Instagram, and regularly interacts with young girls online and after matches on game day.
Now 27, Proud told the ABC there was a stark contrast in the way she and her peers used social media while growing up.
“It was so different back then, I didn’t even have a phone until I was in high school,” she said.
“I definitely see that side of things and when you see how much time young kids are spending on these online platforms now, it’s scary.
“The only comparisons I had when I was young was talking to friends about what they did on the weekend, but social media has expanded the influence that young kids get way outside immediate friends and family.”
During her 10 years playing at the top of her sport, Proud has received plenty of positive comments from parents about her leadership and role-model-like qualities.
But even she admits that she too has felt the pressure to portray a perfect version of herself online.
“Thanks to the speed and reach of the internet, we’re much more knowledgeable about what is happening around the world and that can lead to incredible learnings and opportunities,” she said.
“But if it gets into the wrong person’s hands too early in life, and they aren’t experienced enough to know what is real and what is fake, there are dangers of going down some deep rabbit holes when it comes to comparison.
“And as a netballer with a profile, once you get a few followers you can get caught up thinking, now is this the photo I really want to post, does something not look right?
“But I’m loving the recent trends that show Instagram vs reality and we have so many great people around us in netball and sport that you learn to only worry about the people’s opinions that actually matter.”
What makes them good role models?
Besides being well-rounded people that balance study and a career in sport, Proud believes female athletes — and in her case, netballers — provide a more balanced overview of life.
Dealing with failures and setbacks like match losses and injuries in the public eye, and embracing them as new challenges and learning experiences.
She believes sport also showcases examples of a range of body shapes and sizes, with a stronger emphasis on the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
“When it comes to body shape, we are strong and not necessarily women that are petite or that have curves in all the right places, because what we do is focus on making our bodies as functional as they can be so that they can work at their best,” she said.
“Even just seeing that we do lift weights and put effort into our fitness shifts the focus from physical appearance to playing sport with your mates and your well-being.
“When you’re playing sport, there are a lot of photos that fly around of you with very unattractive facial expressions, because you’re not focused on looking good, you’re giving everything you have in the moment to play well.
“If you have a look at mine, I’m sure in every single photo I’m sticking my tongue out or doing something ridiculous … so we are showcasing something online that is very real and that although everybody has flaws, we’re not going to let it stop us doing what we love.”