Start a conversation about gender norms and stereotypes in the media.

In today’s media-saturated world, teens are inundated with gender-specific messages that often cement harmful stereotypes and gender norms. These messages not only play out in popular culture and mainstream media, but also in peer interactions in online communities and on social networking sites.

To help combat the pervasiveness of these powerful stereotypes, we've released a white paper, “Boys, Girls, and Media Messages in a Digital World.” The paper provides suggestions for parents, educators, and policymakers who want to help teens navigate these complex interactions where unwritten rules and fear of stigma often influence how teens believe they are supposed to behave.

“Most kids begin engaging regularly with cell phones and social network sites during early adolescence – a time when they also become increasingly preoccupied with image and friendship,” the authors write. This is especially striking given that 90 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have used some form of social media.

Yet mainstream media creators continue to reinforce materialistic values—especially in media marketed at young women—by celebrating those who meet specific beauty standards and treating girls as sexual objects from an early age. Many times, young women can detect this too. According to the Girl Scout Research Institute, 86 percent of teen girls agreed that reality TV shows “pit girls against each other to make the shows more exciting.”

Researchers noted that women are also subject to an onslaught of double standards that transpire online, for example celebrating men for the same behaviors that earn women scorn. This is just one of the many factors that contribute to a narrow set of superficial expectations and behaviors that teens may feel compelled to comply with because they perceive them as social norms.  This is all the more hazardous because teens are at an age when social status and acceptance is of great importance. As the report notes, the nature of these social pressures is far less understood and potentially more complex for kids and teens of color.

Social networks and other online interactions add another layer of complexity to the messages. Messages and pressures are often more nuanced or subtle online. Facebook comments or the number of “likes” specific photos receive can become social capital and encourage teens to chase certain stereotypes or images.  “Online misogyny also takes the form of Internet memes and social network site fan pages about rape, domestic violence, and ‘slut-shaming,’” the white paper explains. “No matter how lighthearted the intentions behind these remarks, they have the potential to disempower and silence women of all ages – perhaps even more so than the sexism we see in traditional media.”

This is especially relevant considering that teen girls use social media more frequently than boys, according to the study. Forty-five percent of girls said they worry about others posting ugly photos of them online, compared with 24 percent of boys. More than three times as many girls than boys claimed they’ve edited photos of themselves before posting them online.

While the internet has introduced more complexities for teens to navigate, like managing online identity through social media profiles, it also creates new opportunities for students to access alternative viewpoints and connect with peers who share their opinions.  “Thanks to the Internet, kids and teens can discover role models who are not represented in mainstream media – ones who challenge the status quo,” said the study authors. “They can make an effort to not perpetuate gender stereotypes in the videos, images, comments, and messages that they share. They can actively promote cultures of kindness, empathy, and respect in their online communities. And they can leverage the power of social media to develop their own positive media messages – through campaigns, articles, videos, images, and more.”

However, kids need exposure to a variety of media—created by different people with varying experiences—for this to happen. Professor of learning technologies and director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University Kevin Clark detailed the importance of diversifying media in a recent post for the Fred Rogers Center blog.

"Just as a healthy diet requires eating different foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins, a healthy media diet should include diverse characters, perspectives, formats, approaches, and interactions," wrote Clark. "Why is that important? Because diversity in children's media can have a positive impact on a child's identity development and academic achievement."

We agree. The gender codes that teens experience online, in social communities, and elsewhere, powerfully inform their sense of what’s normal and influences how they develop their identities, express themselves, and socialize. Teens who don’t think critically about gender stereotypes can be misinformed about how the world perceives them and their opportunities for the future.

For parents, researchers recommend helping kids choose age-appropriate material and develop value for things beyond appearances and superficial qualities. Encourage kids to explain their motivations too. Ask them why they chose to share a specific picture, or why they are trying to portray themselves in a certain way. In doing so, parents can help kids develop internal motivation for their social media behavior, rather than submitting to what they think makes them attractive to others. Educators can then continue this conversation in the classroom, and talk about where online gender stereotypes come from, how we learn from them, and create opportunities for students to produce their own media. We also have a specific toolkit that addresses these issues, with even more tips and classroom lessons to accompany the conversation.

Kelsey H.

Kelsey Herron is a freelance journalist with HiredPen Inc. She blogs regularly about national and local trends in technology and education.