Teenage girls’ experiences on social media: A discursive exploration of institutional power and identity formation

Christina Farrell

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Abstract

Social media use among teenage girls has become pervasive in the last decade ( . Girls are using platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat to connect with their peer group, experiment with self-expression, and observe and be observed by others. Social media provides an environment for the girls to explore their own identities through self-presentation and self-disclosure in a public arena. These platforms contain built in functionality, providing girls with instant feedback on their posts and engagement online; the functionality of likes, followers, and comments act as a value system to potentially measure success online. The dominant current literature on social media and teenage girls has taken a primarily quantitative approach, focused upon Erikson’s identity theory,Goffman’s impression management theory and Festinger’s social comparison theory. There is a need to add to the existing literature and expand understanding by exploring not only girls’ actions online, but additionally, through the girls’ lived experiences, the role the platforms themselves play and the nexus of power that exists in this environment that consumes much of teenage girls’ daily leisure time. This qualitative study sought to explore how teenage girls self-present and self-disclose on social media, in order to understand dominant discourses and the role they can play in normalising girls’ subject positionings. A social constructionist epistemology was adopted, informed by the works of Michel Foucault and aligned with the gender performance literature of Judith Butler Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with 24 teenage girls aged between 13-17 years. The interview data was analysed using a Foucauldian informed thematic discourse analysis , from which the data shows girls presenting a sense of self that was both restrained and controlled, conveying a narrow subject positioning of this cohort of girls, heavily embedded in and influenced by dominant discourses of idealised beauty standards, dissatisfaction of the self, and conformity. The girls conveyed actions of extensive labouring on their self-presentation online, with content being carefully crafted and curated, in order to maximise likes and followers and reduce the risk of judgement. The girls were under constant surveillance of the self and others, constructing a subject positioning that was self-regulated, constrained, and self-critical. While identity experimentation was not evident within the cohort’s self-presentation online, internal conflict was, with the struggle of wanting to be successful online, while at the same time experiencing a perception of ‘not winning’, judging themselves as inadequate and falling short of expectation. The girls’ language constructed a cycle of aspiration, dissatisfaction, and self-improvement. Neoliberal capitalist ideology propagated a focus on the individual to solve the problem of dissatisfaction, with the platforms offering up self-improvement solutions for the girls. An Institutional to Individual model is presented in light of the data, illustrating how the sphere of institutional power, cultural ideology, dominant discourses and the systems, drive a focus on individual responsibility, constructing a circular process for the girls of aspiration, dissatisfaction, and self-improvement. The key outcomes of the model were a cycle of discontentment where the girls perceived themselves as not successful enough, apportioning self-blame and becoming self-critical, concluding they needed to work harder. This fear and risk management generated a strong need to conform which in turn limited the space for diversity and broader inclusion online. The thesis ends with a consideration of applications of the findings that go beyond a discussion of individualising and neoliberal approaches to change. These primarily focus on consciousness raising through education and knowledge building with parents, educators and those working with young people such as psychologists.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Fox, Rachael, Principal Supervisor
  • Given, Lisa, Co-Supervisor, External person
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publisher
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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