Girls and young women rely on a vast array of technologies to keep in touch with their friends and family and to explore the world and their place in it. Participating in the online world certainly lets them share their lives with each other but it also requires a significant amount of self-disclosure to others, simply as the price of admission. As a result, online social spaces provide opportunities for young women to create, expand and explore their own identities while at the same time constructing anew what it means to “be a girl”. Academic researchers like Derlega and Grzelak1 have found that self-disclosure is an important instrument of psychological development, providing opportunities for social validation, social control, self-clarification, self-expression and enhanced relationship development. And there is ample evidence from researchers such as Adams,2 Berson3 and Livingstone4 [add endnote] that girls use disclosure in online spaces to deepen existing relationships, express themselves, experiment with their identities, seek authenticity, and validate themselves to others.
While self-disclosure has a clear value for girls, other groups – including critical scholars and policymakers – have focused on a variety of other risks and opportunities that come with online participation. While critical scholars such as Koskela5 and Senft6 have argued that online social media offer girls an opportunity to challenge gender stereotypes and constraints, others suggest that girls participating online may reinforce existing gender stereotypes by reproducing them in the self-disclosing materials they choose to distribute (Durham, 2001;7 Seiter, 2002;8 Scodari, 2005;9 Allen, 200510). Policy makers have tended to focus on managing risks like the unauthorized collection of personal information, sexual harassment/predation, pornography and bullying that potentially come from sharing personal information online. Thus, we see that self-exposure is subject to a variety of competing frames arising in personal, policy and critical discourses. While there is little doubt that girls who participate in self-exposure online do so within a complex web of personal considerations, it is not necessarily clear that they are focused on either the kinds of social consequences focused on in the critical scholarship or the safety issues that are of primary concern to policy makers.
We will explore girls’ and young women’s perspectives on online self-exposure and ask about how their online participation is affected by their understandings of gender, privacy, equality and safety. We will compare these perspectives with those from policy makers and critical scholars in order to examine the fit between them. Our intention is to give voice to girls to allow them to contribute to policy and critical scholarly debate and to mobilize the results of this work in the development of educational outreach materials designed to support young women in maximizing online technologies in ways that enrich their participation in public life.
Our examination of these issues will be carried out in 5 streams:
Stream 1 Policy Process Review: We will review parliamentary debates and related materials to identify whose perspectives about girls and online technology are represented in policy discussions, and how the behaviour and experiences of girls and young women online are characterized. These characterizations will be explored with the girls and young women interviewed in stream 3.
Stream 2 Analysis of Critical Scholarship: We will review and summarize critical scholarly literature relating to online social interaction in order to identify the ways in which girls’ and young women’s online behaviour and experiences are characterized. These characterizations will be explored with the girls and young women interviewed in stream 3, and form the basis for the basis for the reflexive analysis in stream 5.
Stream 3 Interviews and Focus Groups: We will conduct semi-structured interviews and focus group sessions with young women aged 18-22 who live in Ottawa and rural areas near to Ottawa and participate in online social networking to explore their perceptions and experiences of online participation, with special emphasis on how gender is represented online, as well as issues of privacy and equality. We will conduct a second parallel set of interviews and focus groups with young women aged 15-17. During these sessions we will specifically ask our participants to comment upon some of the representations identified from the policy process and critical scholarly reviews in streams 1 and 2. We will code the results of these sessions to identify common themes related to online experiences and reactions to the policy and scholarly discourses.
Stream 4 Reflexive Analysis: We will compare the perspectives identified in the interviews and focus groups with the characterizations from the policy process review and the critical scholarship analysis in order to examine the relationship between perceptions of gender equality, privacy and risk within the scholarship and policy dialogue and the social meaning assigned to these concepts by our participants.
Stream 5 Outreach: We will develop educational modules (such as background materials, lesson plans, classroom activities, class handouts and teacher’s guides) incorporating new knowledge generated in streams 1-4 to assist girls and young women to explore the meaning of their online participation and to manage their online privacy.
1 Derlega, V.J. and Grzelak J. 1979. Appropriateness of Self-Disclosure. In G.J. Chelune, ed., Self-Disclosure: Origins, Patterns, and Implications of Openness in Interpersonal Relationships. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 151-17.
3 Berson, Ilene R., and Michael J. Berson. 2005. Challenging Online Behaviors of Youth: Findings from a Comparative Analysis of Young People in the United States and New Zealand. Social Science Computer Review 23(1): 29-38.
9 Scodari, C. 2005. You’re Sixteen, You’re Dutiful, and You’re Online: Fangirls and the Negotiation of Age and/or Gender Subjectivities in TV Newsgroups. In S.R. Mazzarella, ed., girl wide web: Girls, the Internet and the Negotiation of Identity. New York: Peter Lang, 105-120.