Ashley Qualls, at 14, built a million-dollar web enterprise from her room.
Yes, from her room. By creating MySpace page designs and offering them via her site, whateverlife.com (which now has a viewing of 250,000 unique visitors—mostly teen girls—each day), Ashley quickly became the teen CEO of a booming online venture. The MySpace page designs are free; the money comes via advertisers who are lining up to buy a spot in Ashley’s space.
Ashley is a prototype of the new tech-savvy teen girl. And Ashley’s not alone—either in her success or her savvy. When she launched a magazine to get more girls interested in creating web content, a thousand teens quickly volunteered to contribute.
Technology is opening up some special opportunities and challenges for girls, as well as those of us who minister to them. In this second article of a two-part series on girls, we explore some of the technological territory adolescent girls are traversing along their path to adulthood. [[To read the first article in this series, focused on girls and their bodies, please see http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/2008/09/see-jane-deal-with-her-body/. ]]
See Jane Cyberpioneer
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s research on adolescents’ online behavior, the primary creators of web content—including blogs, graphics, websites, and MySpace layouts, icons, and glitters-are girls. [[Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Teens and Social Media Report,” Dec 19, 2007.]] Looking back at Ashley’s story, she started learning web design when she was nine, began her company at 14 (with an $8 initial investment from her mother), and last year at age 17, Ashley dropped out of school for full-time business. She now employs several of her friends and her mom, for whom she bought a new house. “Pioneering” seems like a mild word to describe the trail she hacked through the online content creation business.
In a feature story on Ashley last fall in the business magazine Fast Company, writer Chuck Salter notes, “Ashley is evidence of the meritocracy on the Internet that allows even companies run by neophyte entrepreneurs to compete, regardless of funding, location, size, or experience—and she’s a reminder that ingenuity is ageless,” [[“Girl Power”, Chuck Salter, “Girl Power”, Fast Company (Sep 2007, also available online at http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/118/girl-power.html). You may have also seen Ashley featured on Forbes.com, Seventeen, CosmoGIRL!, ABC’s The View or CNN. Wow!]]
Among 12-17 year-olds, significantly more girls than boys create online content, with the exception of posting video files. [[Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Teens and Social Media Report,” Dec 19, 2007.]] This is being called “the feminization of the internet” by one researcher. [[“Sorry Boys, This Is Our Domain,” NY Times, Feb 21, 2008.]] Why do they do it? A recent Harvard study suggested that girls’ online behaviors tend to reflect their desire to express themselves, particularly their originality. One recent Boston Herald article, in describing this trend toward massive online expression, called current teens and young adults the “self-documentation generation.” [[Eric Adler, “Thanks to digital cameras and Facebook, a generation documents itself like never,”
http://www.bostonherald.com/business/technology/general/view.bg?&articleid=1118136&format=&page=1&listingType=tec#articleFull.]] The same article notes that while scholars are groping to keep up with actual internet use among teens and young adults, most now estimate that 80 to 90 percent of this age group have one or more social profiles online where they upload photos, videos, and seemingly endless details about their lives.
HOW WE CAN RESPOND
- Girls need us to help them think through what they should be sharing publicly and what they should consider keeping private (like photos of themselves nude or in their underwear, to name one of the most rampant trends). Online boundaries are nebulous at best, and girls need caring adults to help them navigate the flood of possibilities that await them as they learn to express themselves digitally.
- Girls want both to display their uniqueness and simultaneously to prove that they belong-that they are accepted by some kind of common group. These aspirations can be quickly tested and accomplished via social networking sites in which girls can receive quick—often instantaneous—response to their posts. Girls need us to teach and model for them that relationships develop in real time and must be nurtured in face to face interactions. This means we need to set our own boundaries on how much we post and respond to the posts of students in our ministries so we can set aside more time for conversation in person.
- We can actively tap into girls’ creativity and knowledge of web content creation and help them express that creativity in healthy ways. That may mean giving them outlets to use their web skills in ministry, and it may mean giving them offline ways to nurture that creativity as well.
See Jane Text
This one’s no surprise: text messaging is vastly changing the way girls (and of course guys) communicate, at a pace that’s nothing less than breathtaking. Teen girls now report spending more of their time texting than actually talking on their cell phones—and the top reason is so they can multi-task. Forty percent of teens would “die” if they couldn’t text on their phone, and 45% agree that their cell phone is the key to their social life. [[Harris Interactive, “A Generation Unplugged,” report released Sep 12, 2008.]]
A girl can be in touch with her friends anywhere, anytime, and in short bursts of gossip, affirmation, insult, or inspiration. Found in a social setting where she feels unsafe, stuck alone in her room, orOMGwith her family, today’s Jane can find instant relational salvation via her trusty cell phone.
Texting (now a verb) increased over 100% last year from the previous year, and shows no signs of slowing, especially among its primary home base of adolescent users. Teens and young adults who have mobile phones now send an average of 20 text messages per day. [[Knowledge Networks research, as reported by Fierce Wireless, http://www.fiercewireless.com/press-releases/new-study-shows-mobile-phones-merging-new-established-roles-communicator-shopping-aid. ]] An April report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that 44% of teen girls report texting every day or more. [[The Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Writing, Technology, and Teens Report” released April 24, 2008, 35.]] Judging by the girls in our youth groups, this figure is already a broad underestimate of reality.
HOW WE CAN RESPOND
- We can help girls discern the values and challenges of text messaging, and how it actually changes the nature of communication. We need to help girls (and guys) be aware of when “real talks” are often needed (hint: nine times out of ten, conflict resolution does NOT play out well over a texted conversation).
- We also have the chance to directly address the issue of multi-tasking and the ways texting feeds into that practice. We can help girls process the pros and cons of multi-tasking when it includes things like talking to your parents (or God) and texting at the same time, and help them understand their parents’ frustration with having to constantly ask them to put down their phones.
- As youth workers, we also need to develop a healthy set of guidelines for ourselves when it comes to texting kids. While students who text us may initially judge our care and concern for them by the immediacy of our replies, that can quickly lead to life without boundaries. Talk with your ministry team (and your friends or spouse) about setting healthy boundaries for when you will and won’t return texts, and communicate these clearly to students in your ministry.
- We should determine boundaries for if/when it’s okay for students to text while in youth group, worship services, on trips, etc. Try involving students in coming up with some sort of group covenant about texting and other mobile behavior as a way to help them own the decision as well as consider their phone dependence.
- We can tap into girls’ love of writing by helping them learn to express themselves in more than just a text. A recent report found that 49% of teen girls keep a journal (as opposed to 20% of guys) [[Pew Internet “Writing, Technology, and Teens Report” released April 28, 2008, 30.]] How can we help writing to be a positive part of girls’ spiritual journey by creating space where they can process the half-thoughts they’re writing all day in texts?
See Jane Game
NEW RESEARCH [[Research in this section is summarized from comScore Media Matrix (see http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?id=1006553 and http://www.comscore.com/), as well as the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics,” released September 16, 2008. See www.pewinternet.org.]]
Gone are the days of the male-dominated video game. Recent research points to a growing trend that girls are gaming more than ever (up 55% over last year among 12-17 year-old girls), to the point that 94% of teen girls report playing video games regularly.
Jane seems most interested in puzzle-oriented games, those that feature racing, and games based on rhythm (Guitar Hero tops the list for both girls and guys). In an interesting twist, far from removing girls from social circles, a recent report indicates that gaming typically involves social interaction and is even connected with civic engagement. In fact, most teens say gaming is an important part of their overall social experience, and a majority game with others or around others. Those who play games with others in the room seem to be more engaged in civic awareness and participation (volunteering, giving to charity, political action) than others who game primarily alone.
Unfortunately, parents seem to be relatively out of the picture when it comes to teen gaming. Sixty-nine percent of parents report rarely or never playing video games with their children. [[Pew Internet & American Life Study, “Teens, Video Games, and Civics,” released September 16, 2008, 37-38.]]
HOW WE CAN RESPOND
- Jane is most likely to play games on—you guessed it—her cell phone. Related to texting, we can think about how to help girls set boundaries for themselves on cell phone gaming such that they are able to periodically set the phone down and enter into a conversation or a non-digital activity of some sort (maybe even a game!).
- Given the importance of parent-child media viewing and even gaming together, we can look for ways to educate parents and encourage cross-generational interaction related to video games. Try challenging families to spend at least an hour a week gaming together for a month and then host a parent-teen panel talking about what they discovered during that time.
- Rather than seeing gaming as either all-bad or all-good, we can begin to think more theologically about gaming and its role in teen girls’ lives. What, if any, are the positive spiritual outcomes of gaming? What might be some negative outcomes? We can begin to help girls process gaming in light of their life with God and its impact on their discipleship journey.
Helping Girls Hang On to the Rudder
Jane is more wired than ever. In addition to all of the findings mentioned above, girls are also more likely than boys to be “multi-channel teens”, meaning they consider talking on a cell phone, texting, searching the Internet, instant messaging, blogging, and online social networking as important pieces of their digital lifestyle. As the Pew Internet & American Life Project notes, “These highly wired and connected teens are notable for the intensity with which they use connective technologies, layering new technologies over old, while sustaining an overall higher likelihood of daily use of all technologies.” [[“Teens and Social Media Report”, Dec 19, 2007, 27.]]
So even though you may not have an Ashley Qualls in your youth ministry, you’ve certainly got girls who may want—and need—you to help them navigate the choppy waters of their technological world as they struggle to hang on to the rudder.
- Of the above recommended responses, what most resonates with you? What one response can you incorporate into your ministry this month?
- Do you agree that the trends highlighted in the research above apply to the students in your ministry? If not, what do you think the most pressing issues are related to technology for girls in your context?
- Gather your ministry team or meet with another youth worker and discuss this article. Identify together some of the primary ways the girls in your ministry are being impacted by shifts in technology, as well as the ways families and your ministry are being impacted. Work to nail down concrete ideas to target the emerging needs of girls based on these shifts.
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