By Christine Cupaiuolo
A pre-teen girl creates an avatar with pouty lips and large anime-style eyes, giving herself a flirty, feminine look in a virtual world. A teenage boy asks a girl in his class to text him provocative photos, knowing he can use them to gain cred with his friends.
Digital spaces can be inventive worlds, where children stretch the limits of imagination and identity. Yet online interactions and social behaviors often reflect and reinforce stereotypical gender norms, or codes -- acceptable expressions of masculinity and femininity that both shape how young people develop their identity and influence their thinking about the roles and opportunities they see available to themselves and others.
It’s hardly surprising that young people would replicate behaviors and assumptions in online spaces. Despite conscientious attempts to raise awareness among girls about damaging beauty ideals, for example, and among boys about the limits of the macho persona, educators and teens say that the pervasiveness of the mass media, which traffics in gender stereotypes, trumps these isolated efforts.
“A lot of times we talk about bullying and eating disorders but we don't talk about the root of the problem, that media can be a bully, too,” said Alice Wilder, 17, a senior at Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, N.C., and a member of the activist group SPARK (an acronym for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge), where she blogs about the media, including challenging Teen Vogue to publish unretouched photos of its models and to include more women of color.
As young people have become media creators, many end up reproducing the same damaging tropes perpetuated by the online games they play, the ads they see, and the lyrics they hear. Can media literacy education break the cycle?
That’s the thinking behind the series of lesson plans Common Sense Media is launching this month. “Girls, Boys, and Media: A Gender and Digital Life Toolkit for Educators” teaches students from elementary school through high school how to deconstruct media messages, particularly the kinds of messages that fuel negative and potentially harmful behaviors.
A New Toolkit for Educators
Developed by educators, researchers, and cultural critics, the lesson plans draw from real-world experiences to examine how gender codes are used. The goal is to turn young people into active media critics and creators and, by extension, into responsible and respectful digital media users, said Kelly Schryver, education content associate at Common Sense Media.
Promoting good digital citizenship is a complex learning process; it requires more than a list of acceptable and frowned-upon behaviors. Creating online profiles, interpersonal communication, sexting, harassment -- all are rooted in ideas about gender norms, so experts would like to see education start early, before kids join social media networks.
For a new book due out in 2013, psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair, who consults with schools and parents on topics related to children's social and emotional development, interviewed more than 1,000 kids about the impact of technology on their lives and world. During the process, she said, one thing became clear: “The internet has amplified some of the worst gender stereotypes that have been around for the ages."
"If you don't teach children throughout their development how to deconstruct very narrow, very harmful codes -- codes that are harmful within their own gender identity and harmful for how they perceive the opposite gender, for transgender people, or gender-confused people -- you're setting them up to be hurt and informed by ideas and values and constructs that can be profoundly anti-social and psychologically harmful,” said Steiner-Adair, who reviewed the Common Sense Media toolkit for content.
Teaching About Gender Stereotypes Should Start Young
The toolkit lessons, including videos, discussion questions, and group activities, align with Common Core State Standards and are currently being tested at pilot schools across the country.
Students in Grades 3-5 discuss how digitally altering photos can distort perceptions and affect self-image and analyze how advertisers alter photos to help sell products. Middle schoolers can analyze how girl and boy avatar options reinforce gender codes, and learn how to connect stereotypes of men and women on “The Real Housewives” series with teens' perceptions of digital drama (reacting to situations with an excessive amount of emotion). High school students take on mature subjects, such as exploring the risks and responsibilities of carrying out romantic relationships in online spaces.
Lea Sweitzer Pence, one of the toolkit’s teacher reviewers, said the materials make it possible for students to think about gender codes as a cultural problem instead of a personal one.
"It asks them how the world approaches gender rather than how they should feel about something they see, which I think are two different questions,” said Pence, who taught English to middle school and high school students and now tutors students in those age groups. In that way, it takes the responsibility off a teen girl who wants to be pretty -- a normal desire, she adds.
The materials also allow students to assume the role of expert in class discussions, as they share what they know and relate it to cultural issues. “I've always found effective, meaningful discussions about social culture almost need to be presented as though the adult in the room is an idiot: ‘Why do people do that?’ you ask, and kids will be like, ‘Oh, OK, you want to know what that is, I'll tell you what that is.’ They love that! And then, boom, they're off and running,” Pence said.
Why Gender Is A Crucial Lens For Digital Literacy Education
Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News and author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV,” said gender should be part of every digital literacy program. A frequent speaker on college campuses, Pozner notes that girls experience online harassment in different and more complicated ways than boys.
"Taking a gendered lens to digital and media literacy education can help girls and women develop not only the skills they need to decipher and debunk sexism in online spaces,” she said, “but to arm themselves against being pushed out of those spaces.”
Pozner argues that more than a decade of reality TV has advanced a very specific set of stereotypes, including the idea that women are catty, vindictive, and cannot be trusted -- especially not by other women -- and they have no agency in romantic relationships, and no value outside of them. These stereotypes play out in digital as well as in real life spaces. In addition, shows such as “America’s Next Top Model” have influenced how girls pose for and manipulate digital photos posted online.
Many teens know what it’s like to always want to post the perfect picture or add the perfect comment. Wilder, the high school senior, said she deactivated her Facebook page for a month to take a break from the pressure to maintain the facade of living a perfect life and sought out people who shared her interests.
Now editor of her school paper, Wilder credited girl-positive New Moon magazine and online feminist sites such as Rookie for helping her find friendly, supportive spaces. (Rookie founder and editor Tavi Gevinson, 16, has said in interviews that she started the 1-year-old Rookie to make up for the lack of magazines aimed at teenage girls that respect their intelligence). Still, said Wilder, she wishes gender codes and media literacy had been discussed in school. Those conversations would have provided her and her classmates -- boys and girls -- with the tools early on to think critically about the messages they internalize daily.
Among teenagers, she said, that’s a much-needed “survival skill.”