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Gossip in an electronic world

Young teenage girls (ages 12-13) are more likely than any other group to have negative experiences with other teens on the Internet according to a recent study published by the Pew Research Center. About 33% of these girls report that their peers gossip, spread rumors, engage in bullying behavior, or are just generally hurtful and unkind on social media sites. Only about 9% of boys in that age group report those same experiences.

The words most commonly used by these girls to describe their online peers were “rude, mean, fake, crude, and over-dramatic.” What is also noteworthy about his research is that these young girls are less likely than other kids to seek help from their parents. When confronting problems in their electronic worlds, they reach out to their peers for guidance, whereas older teens are more likely to speak with their parents.

What’s so special about this age group?  My experience has been that these girls are extremely sensitive and insecure. Thirteen year-old Alexis once told me how hurt she was by something I said in a session several months ago. After much encouragement, she finally disclosed that I had complimented her on a shirt she got for her birthday.  She felt that was really a subtle criticism, as she thought she dressed nicely every day!

Many girls in this age range also perceive seeking parental advice as a sign of weakness. As they navigate their transition to young adulthood, they often fear that speaking with their parents will result in restrictions on their internet use rather than helpful guidance.

If you are a parent, teacher, or other adult who interacts with young girls, how can you help them?

1. Engage young girls in conversations about their electronic worlds. Be careful not to overreact to what they say.  Many times these kids just need to vent in the presence of a caring adult and work out things on their own. Ask lots of questions and reflect back to the teen what you think they are saying or feeling.

2. Label gossip as a trust-terminator. The gossip, bullying, and hurtful teasing that may be common with young girls continue beyond junior high. Help your kids understand that they shouldn’t be friends with anyone who treats other people in such hurtful ways. I advise kids not to trust anyone who gossips or bullies, as such people can treat them in similar ways.

3.Be a great role model. The good news is that many kids continue to look to adults for guidance, and this gives us a tremendous opportunity to influence how our children manage hurtful behavior from others. More than anything else, children will continue to look and learn from how we treat them and others.

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