For a generation of students already dangerously inclined toward isolation, shuttered schools are a disaster across the board. The pandemic-induced closures, however, present particular difficulties for young women, alienated from the regular social learning opportunities and in-person relationships they need, forced to connect with pixels instead of peers.
Take it from Girls Inc., a feminist educational nonprofit, which emphasizes on its website that “social and emotional learning is essential for girls to thrive.” According to Girls Inc., their research demonstrates that social and emotional learning “does indeed play a critical role in girl development,” confirming what most of us know intuitively.
“Not only do social-emotional skills correspond with higher levels of diligence, perseverance, leadership, standing up for one’s beliefs and fairness, social responsibility, and self-regulation,” the group notes, “but educating girls in social-emotional learning also produces higher academic performance.” That is enormously difficult to replace with virtual experiences.
I see my seven-year-old granddaughter every Sunday. Her twin brother misses school, and misses his friends, but not like his sister. She tends to be more of a talker. When the twins were relegated to virtual learning in the spring, she spent a great deal of time looking at all of the messages the kids sent to the teacher while her brother simply followed instructions and submitted his work. She really needed to see her classmates. She missed the social interactions.
Girls are, of course, outpacing their male counterparts in academic achievement, enrolling in college at higher rates, and earning more bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. As Christina Hoff Sommers documented extensively in “The War Against Boys,” our education system has slowly been shaped to serve girls better. That may be less true now that girls are cut off from the in-person learning opportunities that help them thrive.
Consider also that today’s young people are dangerously isolated, putting students forced to learn entirely from screens this fall at risk of plunging deeper into the digital abyss. Research indicates young women are bearing the brunt of these shifting social habits, leaving girls especially vulnerable during school shutdowns.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, three times as many 12- to 18-year-old girls report being harassed online or by text message than boys. What’s more troubling is that researchers have found cyberbullying is frequently perceived as worse than in-person bullying.
As Profs. Robert and Paris Strom observed all the way back in 2005, “Harmful messages intended to undermine the reputation of a victim can be far more damaging than face-to-face altercations. Instead of remaining a private matter or event known by only a small group, text or photographs can be communicated to a large audience in a short time”
Another researcher, Juliana Raskauskas, noted one year later that cyberbullying means “vulnerable children have virtually no refuge from harassment. It’s a non-stop type of harassment and it creates a sense of helplessness.”
Fifteen years later, social media is much more pervasive and hostile, and girls are suffering. Distance learning exacerbates this severely.
Just last summer, Time reported on a new study in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, which analyzed survey data collected from 13-16 year-olds in England. “In girls, frequent social-media use seemed to harm health when it led to either cyberbullying and/or inadequate sleep and exercise,” the outlet summarized. “But these factors did not seem to have the same effect on boys, and the study didn’t pick up on specific ways that social networks could be harming them.”
Results from another survey of 10,000 14-year-olds in the U.K. found “that three to five hours of social media per day was linked to a 26% increase in depression scores in girls, vs. 21% in boys, compared to kids who just used it from one to three hours/day,” as Forbes documented. “For more than five hours/day of social media, the increase in depression score rose to 50% for girls and 35% for boys.” Distance learning means girls will be forced to connect through social media more than ever before, spending all those hours previously reserved for in-person learning glued to a screen day in and day out, with fewer options for socializing when they’re done with class and homework anyway.
Jeane Twenge wrote “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us.” She points out that “college students in 2016 (vs. the late 1980s) spent four fewer hours a week socializing with their friends and three fewer hours a week partying—so seven hours a week less on in-person social interaction.”
She adds, “That means iGen’ers were seeing their friends in person an hour less a day than GenX’ers and early Millennials did. An hour a day less spent with friends is an hour a day less spent building social skills, negotiating relationships, and navigating emotions… the time has not been replaced with homework; it’s been replaced with screen time.”
Not only do girls benefit immensely from in-person social learning, they’re also more vulnerable to the consequences of digital socialization. For them, shutdowns mean more screen time and social interaction through “social” media, which we know is causing more cyberbullying and more mental health problems. Tik-Tok is a terrible replacement for the lunch table or the coffee shop.
Keeping an alarmingly isolated generation learning from screens at home for months on end will wreak havoc on this generation of students. It’s painful to imagine our young women struggling through another semester of collaboration over Zoom, relegated to cruel online spaces populated with filtered faces and anonymous accounts.
My granddaughter is back at school this fall. Already her mood has improved, and she’s more cheerful and animated. She’s one of the lucky ones.