Teens and Technology: A Feminist Issue

The media would like you to believe that every time you log on to Facebook or – god forbid – the evil black hole of narcissism that is Twitter, another nail is inserted into the coffin of your general ability to function as a capable, well-rounded human being. Every time you update your status, every uploaded picture taken of yourself on your macbook, every “100 Things You Didn’t Know About Me!” note you write, a modicum of self-awareness and empathy seeps from your pores. Essentially, the social networking sites that virtually our entire generation frequently uses are turning us into self-obsessed, unfeeling robots who will contribute nothing of worth to society.

Now, I don’t know that this is entirely true. But if I see one more teaser for the 11:00 news that goes something like, “Is the bullying epidemic caused by Facebook?” or, even better, “IS YOUR TEEN SEXTING? (GO CONFISCATE YOUR PROSTITUTE OFFSPRING’S PHONE AND LOCK THEM IN THE CELLAR IMMEDIATELY)” without the teen perspective represented, I’m going to down a bottle of Nyquil.

It’s true. Technology has presented us with some problems. Cyberbullying is probably #1 on the list of reasons why we could have done without certain technological advances – as evidenced by the experiences of Phoebe Prince and Megan Meier – which has already been given some media attention.

Also, the promotion of narcissism isn’t completely far-fetched. But it’s more complicated than the “everybody must be interested in what I’m doing and saying and thinking” mindset. This culture is actually an offset of the girl culture feminists have been examining for a few decades now. Think Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters or The Body Project.

When you’re on Facebook, you are putting on a performance. Between your profile, your photo albums, your status updates, even what you write on your friends’ walls (because you know other people can see those posts) you are cultivating an image of yourself that you have complete control over, and it does encourage us to think about ourselves. Excessively. But it’s also a source of competition and comparison.

By looking at other people’s profiles and pictures and apparent wealth of friendships, we automatically compare ourselves to others. We think “She looks like a model in her profile picture. Why don’t I look like that? I have to spend hours getting the perfect profile picture to compete with her.” We think, “So many people write on her wall. I need to write on a ton of peoples’ walls so that they write on mine and it looks like I have a ton of friends.” It’s less about over-confident narcissism and more fueled by the opposite – complete insecurity and need to over-compensate.

But this also isn’t all of us. There are some people who have facebook accounts, but really do use them to have real conversations with people  or to actually put up photos with the intent of sharing part of their lives with others. And, conversely, there are also people who are legitimately full of themselves (aren’t there always?). I know people who go on Facebook like it’s their job (they literally go on after school and stay on until late at night), dominate everybody’s newsfeed by posting on everybody’s walls whether they have anything to say or not (“REMEMBER. I’M HERE. I’M IMPORTANT.”) and one has even been known to update her status with high thoughts such as “I just filled my nearly empty tank completely full with gas!” If this sounds like you, then yes, you are probably a little bit narcissist.

However, while I am genuinely concerned about my generation, and I think technology is intrinsically tied into this concern, as a feminist I believe technology has the capacity to not only support feminist values but further the feminist cause. I believe that empathy should be a quality that is high up on the priority lists of our emotional capacities. Technology has the ability to connect us on a global scale more than ever, which ideally should not only open our minds and hearts to other cultures, but also give us some perspective about life in other parts of the world.

Yes, it’s easy to think that everything is just hunky dory when you live in a first-world country. But technology allows no more excuses for those same people to be ignorant about the plights of others. Don’t really know what’s going on the Democratic Republic of Congo? Haven’t heard about the systemic rape as a weapon of war that’s been going on there as you go about your daily life? Well, the New York Times online has reported about it in the past, and more information is just a google search away. There’s just no excuse anymore to be uninformed about the world around us. And with this knowledge generally comes the desire to help. Also, it’s hard to counter feminism with the claim that we’re all equal and everybody’s lives are great when faced with such information.

Technology also makes it more natural than ever for teens – especially teen girls – to learn the ins and outs of networking, something Gloria Steinem identified as a roadblock to workplace equity in the 70’s. We’re able to create groups and events on Facebook to more effectively support causes we believe in and get more people involved. I’m confident that this form of grassroots organizing that has become a part of our daily lives can only be positive.

So ultimately should we fear technology as the ultimate downfall of our society? No. Technology clearly has the capacity for good, it's just our jobs as feminists (and a society at all) to harness that good and try to eliminate the bad.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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