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Are we letting social media destroy our young girls?

Girls have always felt pressured to grow up quickly, but social media is making them do it sooner, on a massive scale in front of an audience.
Models%3A+Victoria+Arrieta+%28left%29+and+Michelle+Duguay
Danny Diaz-Lujan
Models: Victoria Arrieta (left) and Michelle Duguay

Imagine you are scrolling though your Instagram Explore page and you come across a photo of a woman in a red, lacy, and almost see-through dress. She’s in a club-like environment surrounded by strobe lights and other adults. However, it turns out that “woman” is a 17-year-old girl named Alabama Barker, the daughter of famed Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and stepdaughter of Kourtney Kardashian. 

Alabama Barker is one example of a girl who has not only grown up on social media but has been under the limelight of Hollywood because of her celebrity parent. Throughout her nine years of activity on Instagram, she has faced immense backlash for the provocative way she dresses, the way she poses in her photos and the “grown” attitude she carries as a teen. But when it comes to kids cosplaying adults on social media, the question is, “Who do we hold accountable?” and “Why has this situation become an epidemic for young girls?” 

From “Sephora” kids to teen Instagram “baddies,” social media plays a significant role in the social development of young girls. According to Pew Research, 95% of teens have a phone and 45% of them are constantly on the internet. This has allowed kids and teens to access content meant for adults, such as cosmetic product reviews and sexually suggestive photos. Most importantly, they have access to the attention that comes with creating this content. The limelight has always forced girls to grow up fast throughout history. This includes Hollywood stars in the ’90s like Britney Spears who performed in suggestive music videos like “Baby One More Time” at 16 years old, and Drew Barrymore who found herself smoking and drinking alcohol with adults at the age of nine. But today with social media, these issues are happening at a larger scale with little to no restrictions.

From Innocence to Influence

When searching the term “Sephora Kids” on TikTok, tons of videos pop up. This includes adults complaining about their interactions with young girls in the store and kids themselves, as young as eight to 12 years old, doing a “get ready with me” using expensive skincare and makeup brands including Drunk Elephant, Glow Recipe and Rare Beauty. Some of these videos have up to 1 million views, along with comments criticizing the kids. 

Daisy Preza is a 25-year-old account coordinator in fashion public relations from Downey, California, who grew up with an early form of social media: Facebook. As a woman, she has witnessed her sister and other young girls growing up in this era of social media. As she shops at stores like Forever 21 and Sephora, she is met with grade-school kids filling their shopping bags with clothes and makeup.  

She thinks online commenters are being too hard on these “Sephora kids.” “I feel like there’s no issue with little girls being interested in makeup because I feel like growing up, we always had mama let us borrow her lipstick or her mascara,” says Preza. “But these 10-year-olds don’t need a 10-step [routine] like lotion, liquids, and stuff like that.”

One minute I’m too young, and the next minute I’m too old to be acting the way I’m acting.”

Kids from eight to 12 years old who want skincare products may not understand why they shouldn’t use them. They see it as a toy—a fun product that the cool, older girls get to use. For many who are concerned about the rising child consumerism of adult products, it is not a matter of shaming children, but rather looking out for their best interest.  

For example, skin care with “active” ingredients are harmful for the skin of children. Carol Cheng, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology, discusses the harm of salicylic acid, retinols and peptides found in skincare brands popularly used by kids.  

“They are more suitable for mature skin to target wrinkles or skin with specific concerns like acne. But for tweens and teens, these ingredients can do damage, irritate the skin and cause the reverse effects they are hoping to achieve,” says Cheng.  

The “Instagram baddie” is defined as a woman with a sleek and confident style who fits the beauty standards of today—big fox eyes, a small nose, large lips, a small waist and an hourglass figure. (Danny Diaz-Lujan)

Because of young children’s access to platforms like TikTok and Instagram, they are also influenced to desire clothing that is more suitable for teens. It has become common to see these kids shopping at popular stores like Lululemon, Forever 21 and H&M. Before this, stores such as Justice and Claire’s were the perfect “in-between” for the girl on the brink of teenage hood.   

Preza recalls her time as a tween with a love for fashion, which was flamboyant and appropriate. “We would wear funky, bright colors. We would wear bright pink with a monkey and checkered pants,” says Preza. 

This trend led to the closing of Justice in 2020, which was known for selling sparkly clothes, accessories and play-makeup. Because high-end brands are marketing to children online with a more mature and minimal style, the tween brands are ending. 

And the harm isn’t just the cost of these products, the pattern of obsessing with these online trends can lead down a dangerous path. It starts with young girls bonding with friends—following their favorite influencers on TikTok, shopping for Drunk Elephant with their mom and posting their routines online. But that can quickly lead to the exploitation and pressure of becoming a teen influencer. 

Teen Dreams, Adult Themes

As kids are influenced to purchase products, teens are influenced to modify their body and personality. This includes clothing, makeup and fitting in with an aesthetic. One of the most popular aesthetics on Instagram is the “IG baddie.” This is defined as a woman with a sleek and confident style who fits the beauty standards of today—big fox eyes, a small nose, large lips, a small waist and an hourglass figure. 

Different body types have trended over the decades, but the Kardashians’ promotion of the “slim-thick” body figure still has influence on teen girls today. This has led to teens feeling pressured to change their bodies to fit a standard on social media.  

According to the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, nearly 400,000 teens between the ages of 13-19 underwent cosmetic surgery in 2020. The most popular cosmetic surgeries today are lip injections, Botox and buccal fat removal.  

Teen influencer Alabama Barker faced controversy after her 18th birthday for posting a photo on Instagram where the audience assumed she had a Brazilian butt lift (BBL). Although it is not confirmed whether she has had one or not, it sparked debate on social media and influencers’ roles in girls growing up too fast online.

It starts with young girls following their favorite influencers on TikTok, shopping for Drunk Elephant with their mom and posting their routines online—leading to the exploitation and pressure of becoming a teen influencer. (Danny Diaz-Lujan)

Malu Trevejo, a former Musical.ly star and TikTok dancer, is an influencer who has been publicly open about her cosmetic surgeries. She started posting dancing videos at the age of 14. When she turned 18, she began an OnlyFans account where she shared sexually explicit content and posts discussing her journey with plastic surgery. 

These girls turn to cosmetic surgery to fit the standards online but then face immense criticism for those choices. Similarly to the young girls who shop at Sephora, teen girls face backlash for their natural desire to look and dress older. This can lead to depression, anxiety and emotional dependence; it’s a vicious cycle. 

People from every generation criticize the generation after them for growing up too fast. For example, older people were critical of JonBenét Ramsey and other pageant kids who were forced to wear makeup and model for audiences in the ’90s. But with social media, the phases of teens rushing to grow up today are being broadcasted for the world to see. With millions of eyes watching them on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, teen girls are bound to experience significant pressures—body image, symptoms of anxiety and depression and emotional dependency on internet attention. 

According to the National Center for Health Research, “35% [of adolescents] report using at least one social media platform ‘almost constantly,’ and 54% say it is difficult to ‘give up’ social media.”  

Especially when kids start going online at an early age, they build habits of needing to be on social media constantly. Social media adds on to the natural need to fit standards, by giving girls an audience who watches their every move. 

Priscilla Ramos, a 23-year-old senior account coordinator for celebrity relations, shares the difference between her and her sisters’ teen years. “I worry for my sisters, posting selfies and cute stuff,” says Ramos. “I would hate to see anybody give her any hate or [see her] endure what’s said to a lot of people who are famous on social media.” 

An example of a controversial teen influencer who endured backlash for everything she did online is Danielle Cohn. Since the age of 13, she posted dance videos and skits on “Musical.ly” which is now known as TikTok.  

Recently, she came out with a YouTube video titled, “I FEEL LIKE I AM MISUNDERSTOOD…” At 20 years old, she explains how she’s felt about the criticism she faced for the minimal clothing she wore, the amount of people she was in a relationship with, and for presenting herself in a provocative way throughout her social media career.  

“It’s not fair at all to constantly feel like you have to prove yourself to people and prove you’re not this girl they make us out to be,” says Cohn. “One minute I’m too young, and the next minute I’m too old to be acting the way I’m acting.” 

Because of Cohn’s social media presence since 2016, nothing was ever private. Almost every relationship, family problem, and controversy has been broadcast to millions of people online. Going through all of this during the age of 13 to 20 years old has negatively affected her mental health. 

On a smaller scale, Ramos experienced the pressures of having an online audience as a young teen. “I wanted to conform to please the viewer’s eyes. I’ve deleted all my Instagram photos at one point and made sure I was un-tagged on all my photos,” says Ramos. “I didn’t want to see people go stalk me and look at all my tagged photos because I need to keep this relevant, ‘cool girl’ aesthetic.” 

With all the time and thought spent on how they come across on their Instagram feed, teenagers are prone to developing mental health problems. A study conducted by psychologists Chris Davis and Helen Thai involved reducing the screentime of participants who were experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety to understand the effects of prolonged time on social media.  

“After just 28 days, people reported fewer symptoms of depression, decreased levels of anxiety and improved body esteem,” says Davis.  

As teenagers’ brains are not developed enough to understand the long-term effects of their actions online, they also can’t handle having a large audience which could lead them to having mental health issues.  

It doesn’t matter how old they look or act, they are kids at the end of the day and the damages caused by social media can be long lasting.  

Pointing the Finger

On the flip side, there are positives to being on social media as a kid or teenager. That includes self-expression and the ability to learn how to experiment with makeup and fashion. But with social media, the guidelines and protections for children are not enforced enough. For example, it is required for users to be at least 13 years old to have a TikTok account. But the common loophole used for kids under 13 is the “account managed by parent” in their bios, when that isn’t always the case.

I do feel like parents should educate their kids, like everything on social media is not real. It’s pretty much a reality TV show.”

With millions of eyes watching them on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, teen girls are bound to experience significant pressures—symptoms of anxiety and depression, body dysmorphia and emotional dependency on internet attention. (Danny Diaz-Lujan)

Additionally, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Meta, defends teenagers’ “right” to be on social media but with safety. “Yes, we default teens into a private account so they can have a private and restricted experience,” says Zuckerberg. “But some teens want to be creators and want to have content that they share more broadly and I don’t think that’s something that should just blanketly be banned.” 

There are a lot of grey areas with these restrictions as they don’t fully protect kids. Underage teens and parents can easily find loopholes to stay on social media. 

Kids and tweens are at an exploration stage, and the trending products are like toys. The same goes for teenage girls who are simply experimenting with fashion and are looking at older women as a model or guideline. The kids themselves aren’t to blame for their behavior—either for what they consume online, or for contributing to these patterns by posting their own content. 

The shame against girls needs to stop, as it only riles them up, causing them to be defensive and fight back against criticism. The shame also leads to low self-esteem and more emotional problems. 

In the end, it is up to the parents to have proper conversations with their children about how to navigate social media in a safe and healthy way.  

I do feel like parents should educate their kids, like everything on social media is not real. It’s pretty much like a reality TV show,” says Preza. “Some of it is scripted, some of it is like raw footage, but a lot of it is scripted and they practice it before they even post it.” 

Critics on TikTok can be harsh with their words towards Sephora girls and the Alabama Barkers of Instagram. Obviously, adults shouldn’t knock kids down and prevent them from experimenting and expressing who they are. It should be about encouraging them to do it in a safe space, away from the eyes of millions. 

One organization known as “Wait Until 8th,” encourages parents to hold off on giving their children a smartphone until eighth grade. Their goal is to prevent parents from feeling pressured to give into buying their elementary aged kids a phone. Ultimately, their mission is to allow kids to be kids by enjoying their childhood instead of spending a lot of time online.  

“Once you grow up, there is no going back,” says Preza. “Don’t follow social media and all the trends. You shouldn’t be following other people’s steps to take your own path and [find] whatever makes you happy.”

 

 

Taken from the Summer 2024 print issue of Inside Fullerton. Read it here.

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About the Contributor
Arianna Pastrana
Arianna Pastrana, Managing Editor
Arianna is pursuing a degree in public relations and a certificate in digital marketing. She aspires to work in public relations and be a freelance copywriter on the side. When she’s not writing or editing, she spends her time making music and traveling with her family.

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