Helping Girls Take Control of their Digital Lives: A Conversation with Mary Pipher

by Sagar Jethani, Director of Marketing, Digital Futures Initiative

In 1994, Mary Pipher published “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.” Through her work as a therapist and clinical psychologist specializing in women, Pipher’s practice in the 1990s was swamped with girls struggling with serious problems. She gradually became aware that many of these problems lay not just in the specific circumstances of each girl’s life, but also from contemporary American culture.

Reflecting back on the 1990s, Pipher writes: “American culture was poisonous to teenage girls.”

Last year, Pipher and her daughter, Sara Pipher Gilliam, published a long-anticipated update to “Reviving Ophelia” marking its 25th anniversary. We had the pleasure of speaking with Mary Pipher about social media, the impact of technology on kids, and how being a girl in America has changed over the past 25 years.

Sagar Jethani:  “Reviving Ophelia” made a big impact when it was published in 1994. Why did you decide to publish an update 25 years later?

Mary Pipher:  A lot has happened since then to the culture in which teenage girls live. I have five grandchildren, and two of them are teenage girls. I’m deeply invested in teenagers, and I realized I wanted to plunge back into the world of adolescent girls and understand their lives today. Technology has changed virtually everything.

Jethani:  One of the biggest changes since the 1990s is the introduction of social media. You write that it impacts adolescents in fundamentally different ways than it impacts adults.

Pipher:  Social media affects every aspect of adolescent development, including physical, sexual, cognitive, relational, and maturational identity formation. One of the things that happens is that girls spend a great deal of time creating a false self online—a persona, or virtual self. And while they’re developing this virtual self that is more attractive, more popular, more interesting, more lovable, and more fun, their true selves—which should be developing in this time period—are neglected. Their true self is being lost to the creation of a virtual personality as they strive to keep up with the images of all those happy, popular girls with perfect bodies they see online.

Girls quickly find themselves chasing external validation on social media, searching for likes and followers. This leaves them prey to whatever pops up next on their screen. But this frantic hunt for approval keeps them from developing and reaching their true potential precisely because adolescence is such a crucial developmental window.

Jethani:  Are adolescent girls unique when it comes to how they use social media?

Pipher:   Well, for starters, adolescent girls check their phones an average of eighty times a day. They spend six hours online per day. This is more than any other demographic group we’ve studied. And when a girl goes online, childhood ends, and what replaces it isn’t healthy. One girl we interviewed for the book told us: “You are a child and then wham, you are a sexual being.”

And girls know social media is making a big impact on their lives. Prior to writing the new edition, we invited girls around the country to read the previous edition and share their reactions with us. They all agreed that social media had changed the landscape. Every girl wrote in nearly every chapter, “Include social media.”

Jethani:  You describe some of the broader themes that have taken place in America, and how social media is just one of the factors affecting kids’ well-being.

Pipher:  The New York Times recently published a study about fear in America. They found that the happiest time was in the 1920s before the Great Depression. It was a time when people lived in communities. Families were often nearby. There was a variety of work to be found. Then they found that people felt most sad during World War II, which makes sense because there was so much sorrow about the loss it caused.

But the really noteworthy thing they found was that fear levels had increased constantly across the 20th century leading up to the last year of the study, which showed fear to be at an all-time high. This is one of the big factors that has been happening over the last 50 years, and it gives more context to what we see happening with social media.

Jethani:  One of our key themes at DFI is teaching kids how to feel empathy because empathy is closely linked with healthier, more fulfilled lives. You discuss this as well.

Pipher:  Teens and young people have 40 percent less empathy now than they did in 1979, according to a study done at the University of Minnesota. Part of this is a reaction to being bullied, yourself. There have always been bullies, but girls today experience more mean, obnoxious behavior online because it’s easier to communicate hate when you don’t have to look your victim in the eyes. All this bullying increases girls’ feelings of victimization and decreases their ability to empathize with others.

Jethani:  You refer to Jean Twenge’s iGen in your book, and how her research spanning teenage life over more than 40 years shows some of these changes.

Pipher:  Yes. She examines everything from suicide and crime rates, to time spent watching TV, being online, and reading books. By comparing generations on hundreds of dimensions like this, she helps show just how much times have changed. One of her findings was that between 1994 and 2007, girls’ mental health improved in nearly every dimension. Then, with the invention of the iPhone, these indices plummeted.

This kind of research is sometimes criticized for being correlational, not causal. But one has to keep in mind that we’re studying a large demographic group over time—one that has new media constantly being introduced to it, so you’re very limited in the kinds of controls you can use. It’s impossible to do any kind of research except correlational. So the actual issue is: how do you unpack the connections between the striking emergence of social media and the plummeting indices of girls’ mental health? That’s exactly what we tried to do in this book.

Jethani:   Far from simply listing the problems affecting adolescent girls today, you provide several practical tips for parents and others who care about the well-being of adolescents in their lives.

Pipher:  One of the best ways adults can support teens is to help them be together face-to-face. That includes sports, theater, or other structured activities that involve real contact. Research shows that teens who limit their use of social media to one hour a day are probably the healthiest right now. Parents, of course, should set firm guidelines regarding screen time because it really works. For example, we have friends who collect all the family cell phones at 9 o’clock and put them in a charging station with limited access. Nobody gets a cell phone back until after breakfast the next day.

Jethani:  Concerned adults sometimes come up with lists of what not to do. I like how you flip the script and encourage adults to help enrich kids’ real lives.

Pipher:  It’s important to figure out not just how to control social media, but to introduce adolescents to the non-digital world. For example, my daughter-in-law and I go to a retreat center once a year and talk about the year before and the year to come. It happens to be at a place where you can’t get cell phone coverage. Se we get three days a year where we read and take walks and talk to each other. We took my granddaughter along one year and she loved it. She had never experienced that before.

One girl we interviewed in the book said that she preferred not to control her social media but, rather, give herself assignments of what she would do each day. Things like reading a book, going jogging, having a phone conversation with a friend, or practicing her flute. She found that if she actually did those things, she didn’t have much time left for social media: her day was already filled up doing positive things she wanted to do.

Jethani:  I want to let all of our members know they can purchase your book through our Reading List. I just finished reading it, and it’s fantastic. The insights you provide are so powerful and applicable to anyone trying to help adolescents develop into healthy, happy adults.

Pipher:  Thank you very much. DFI does so much good and important work, and I’ve enjoyed speaking with you.


Learn more about how you can help teens and kids take control of their digital lives with DFI’s free in-class curriculum.

Digital Futures Initiative (DFi)

DFi’s mission is to empower educators, parents and communities with informative, useful resources and solutions to help guide today’s digitally-connected youth on making better decisions, mitigating digital threats and using the power of digital, mobile and social media for their benefit.

DFi provides the necessary tools and training programs for educators, law enforcement (SRO’s) and parents to help them instruct kids on safer, more responsible internet and mobile use, and to better manage specific problems that can arise—including cyberbullying, sexting, online predators, substance use, loss of emotional intelligence, distracted driving and more.

Digital Futures Initiative (DFi) was created to deliver digital life skills to students and parents in an innovative, consistent way. Lessons are designed by curating the best and most current content available in the world and the curriculum is made available for FREE to any school, county or group who needs it. The program includes all of the self-paced online training, powerpoints, images, videos, presenter’s notes, and in-class activities that are needed to start teaching digital citizenship in your classrooms today.

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