This article is part of ‘Being 13,’ a project that examines what life is like for teenage girls in the age of social media.
As family lore goes, an unrecognizable child woke up in my bed the day I turned 13. The new me was moody and mean, according to my mother, and she stuck around until my 18th birthday, give or take. I had forgotten most of my adolescent experiences — thanks to time and repression — but then my own daughter crossed over into teenland.
I had been warned about the difficulty of raising a teen, of course, but no one told me that it would bring back memories of my own middle school years: the awkwardness, the tantrums, the feeling of being grown-up but also childlike.
My kid’s experience at 13 is different from mine in two notable ways, though. She and her peers started middle school after two years of online learning. And, almost all of them have phones with TikTok and Snapchat and Instagram — at 13, they are legally allowed to join social media platforms.
I grew up with a vague sense that the popular kids were doing cool things without me, and can only imagine what it feels like to see videos and photos of them doing so. But phones and social media are now a part of growing up. Ninety-one percent of 13- and 14-year-olds in the U.S. said they had smartphone access, in a 2022 Pew Research Center survey; more than half used TikTok and Snapchat.
I admit that my daughter is one of them with a little shame. My husband and I gave her an iPhone and said yes to Snap and Instagram, even though we know how stressful and addictive the nonstop notifications and scrolling can be. We’re bombarded with countless headlines about how phone use and social media affect young people: “Groundbreaking Study Examines Effects of Screen Time on Kids”; “How Social Media’s Toxic Content Sends Teens Into ‘a Dangerous Spiral’”; “Surgeon General Issues New Advisory About Effects Social Media Use Has on Youth Mental Health.”
There’s also evidence that teen girls are particularly vulnerable. “At age 13, an influx of negative messages about their bodies is coupled with, for a lot of girls, suddenly feeling socially left out,” said Donna Jackson Nakazawa, the author of “Girls on the Brink.” Teen girls often look for a “deeper, more intrinsic sense of who they are, what they’re good at and if they matter.”
So when The Wall Street Journal published leaked documents showing that Facebook knew Instagram was toxic for teen girls in 2021, the revelations sounded alarms with many parents of daughters.
But very few studies and stories got at what it is really like to be a young teen girl with a phone. What happens when apps and smartphones collide with puberty, self-consciousness, angst, sexuality, gender identity — and eighth-grade geometry? That’s the question my colleague, Jessica Bennett, set out to answer over a year ago.
The Well desk put out a call for teens who, with their parents’ permission, would let The Times follow them. Of the hundreds who responded, three girls from three states — Addi, Anna and London — became our subjects. They kept diaries for us, sent text messages and recorded voice memos about their days. Perhaps most important, they let Jessica see what was on their phones — the videos they watched, direct messages and texts they exchanged.
For a while, nothing much happened. But then one of the girls was accused of fat-shaming a friend on Snapchat. Another was grounded after her parents found out about her relationship with an older boy she had met on TikTok. All of them experienced anxiety and sadness. Except during the weeks when it was quiet again or they just did normal kid things.
The result is a rich interactive story that not only includes Jessica’s reporting. It starts with 75 notifications — each a real example of what the girls see on their screens. We have voice memos in which they shared their struggles, like a clip about how much Addi needs her phone to get through the day. You can get lost in their lives by reading text conversations and seeing photos and videos the girls took with their friends and families.
What we learned is that being 13 is as chaotic and confusing as it has always been. The stakes are just higher now because these teens are living on so many planes — IRL and on multiple platforms.
Addi’s mother summed up 13 perfectly: She sent Jessica a photo of Addi, at an upscale salon, getting her hair dyed while drinking a Capri Sun.
“Half adult, half child,” the mom said. “Eating a Lunchable while at a fancy hair appointment.”
For other parents who, like me, may read about Addi, Anna and London — with a mix of relief and validation, and anxiety and terror — we have tips from a dozen other teen girls about how adults can help them foster a healthy relationship with their phones, and an exploration of how technology affects the adolescent brain. I certainly plan on using both pieces to reinstate rules with my daughter that we may have relaxed a little too much. If I am anything like my mother, I will be the one who remembers this time in her life the most.
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