Social media is how blogger Alexa Espinoza shares the latest fashions and inspirational messages with girls and women in Milwaukee and beyond. It has helped her broaden her network and develop the confidence to use her voice.
But before social media became a confidence- and empire-building tool, it was a destructive force in the Alverno student’s life.
“I was constantly assessing and comparing my life to media-driven visions of perfection,” recalls Espinoza, who blogs under the moniker Midwest Lex. “Comparison is a very harmful drug. It triggers the feeling that you are never enough.”
For all the promise that a digitally connected world brings, it isn’t without its drawbacks, from instilling or reinforcing feelings of inadequacy to serving as a platform for bullying and cruelty. And, as this year’s report by Alverno’s Research Center for Women and Girls demonstrates, that power can prove especially dangerous to girls, who are already navigating a fraught journey through puberty and young adulthood.
The Alverno Report: The Status of Girls in Wisconsin 2018–19, published in January in partnership with Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast, compiles a host of state-specific and national data on all aspects of life for Wisconsin girls, from education and civic engagement to physical and mental health. (Download the report here.)
Among the report’s notable findings are data showing that, for the first time ever, Wisconsin girls are spending more time than boys on computers and/or video games. Girls’ usage of online-accessible devices is much heavier than boys’ usage, the report found, citing a national survey. Half of teenage girls report “near-constant” Internet usage, versus 39 percent of teen boys.
When considered along with a finding that twice as many Wisconsin girls than boys have experienced cyberbullying in 2017, these statistics raise questions about how we can better equip girls and young women to navigate media in a healthy way.
“We know that media has a huge impact on girls — their social networks, their self-identity, their self-worth and their body image,” says Jodi Eastberg, executive director of the Research Center for Women and Girls and an Alverno professor. “It’s important for parents, teachers and community members to be aware of this so they can help girls create safe spaces for themselves and their peers.”
For a recent class project, Espinoza, a marketing management major, interviewed five women between the ages of 17 to 27. Each woman said a major obstacle to reaching her full potential is “trouble with comparison and staying true to themselves through the pressures of society.” It’s no wonder, when a quick scroll through any social feed shows meticulously curated photos of sunny vacations, visually stunning meals and displays of material goods.
“In all of the interviews, each person said she believed the reasons for the lack of personal authenticity and the constant comparison stemmed from social media and the societal pressures that come with the expectations women are supposed to uphold,” Espinoza says.
Comparison breeds competition. The Status of Girls report shared that 86 percent of high school girls around the country believe that “most girls are in competition with one another.” Pressure to live an Instagram-worthy life can pit girls against each other at a time when they are in special need of strong peer relationships.
It isn’t realistic, nor is it fair, to ask girls and women to simply avoid social media and its pitfalls. Rather, there are ways to manage the deluge of information to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Espinoza, for instance, had to work on changing her perspective and strengthening her sense of self-worth in order to combat the feelings of inadequacy that often accompany social media usage.
“I had to push back and realize that I was enough and that my journey is my own. I am the author of my life. I can either sit around and mope that I’m not where I want to be, or I can get up and create the life I want for myself,” she says. “When you begin to change your outlook on what social media is really used for and the outlook on how you see yourself, that’s when you begin to realize there’s no need for the comparison.”
Whether she’s blogging at MidwestLex.com or talking with loved ones, Espinoza now prides herself on being a positive voice to help drown out the criticism.
“Anytime I hear my friends or family begin to compare themselves, I always refer to the importance of wholehearted living. It’s truly the only way you’ll learn to love yourself and stop comparing your life to others,” she says. “We are all called to do something extraordinary. It’s your responsibility to find what it is and to share that with the world.”
This article appears in the spring/summer 2019 issue of Alverno Magazine.