‘Pretty and a little bit sexy, I guess': How stereotypes affect online social networking for girls

Posted on Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Be pretty, be a little bit sexy, but not too sexy. Many girls know all too well the pressure of trying to conform to stereotypical female roles. This type of experience, which reflects the tendency to treat girl's bodies in public spaces as more exposed and open to criticism or approval, is also rampant online. A study co-led by uOttawa professors Valerie Steeves of the Department of Criminology and Jane Bailey of the Common Law Section found that girls often must choose between playing a pre-determined and highly stereotypical role online, or facing a high degree of negativity and harsh judgment.

As part of the eGirls Project, a research partnership investigating the relationship between gender, privacy and equality in online social networking, team members conducted a series of interviews and focus groups with young women between the ages of 15 and 22 who use interactive online social media sites as a regular part of their social lives. Their findings indicate that social media can be an especially hostile environment for girls who don't conform to certain stereotypes.

“When we started the study, we expected to find examples of a wide variety of roles girls and young women could play online — scientist girl, sports girl, fashion girl, etc. … but we found that there was only a very narrow range of behaviours available to them,” explains Steeves.

Girls who presented a carefully crafted type that one participant described as “pretty and a little bit sexy, I guess,” received positive feedback (e.g., a high number of “likes” and positive comments), but girls who missed the mark, by “trying too hard,” not conforming to the stereotype or being too provocative, were subjected to negative judgment.

In addition, the business model for social media sites is to provide free access to users in exchange for the site's ability to collect and use their information to tailor users' online environment, which allows for the promotion of certain kinds of consumer attitudes and behaviours.  The researchers noted that participants felt the presence of media stereotypes in the advertising and marketing material that floods online spaces, which limited the way they could present themselves online.

“Our study suggests that this model places a significant strain on girls, who are overwhelmed by the perceived need to conform to media stereotypes,” says Steeves.  She notes that this type of pressure predisposes young people to certain kinds of conflict, which creates an environment where cyberbullying flourishes.  

“Rather than using zero tolerance policies to punish young people who are trapped in the resulting conflict, our study suggests we need to re-examine the corporate model behind social media platforms and create policies that promote online equality and tolerance,” concludes Bailey.

Steeves and Bailey will be presenting at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted at the University of Ottawa.  A book they co-authored, eGirls, eCitizens: Putting Technology, Theory and Policy Into Dialogue with Girls' and Young Women's Voices, published by the University of Ottawa Press, will be launched on June 3rd.

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