My Girls explores the overlooked yet transformative power of female friendship in a low-income Boston-area neighborhood. In this innovative and compassionate book, researcher Jasmin Sandelson joins teenage girls in their homes, at their hangouts and parties, and online to show how they use their connections to secure the care and support that adults in their lives can’t give.
Most of the news we read about the impact of social media on young people is highly negative. What made you look for the positive aspects of it?
I can’t say I went looking for the positive aspects of social media; I initially entered the field interested in peer pressure at school. But as I got to know the young women who would eventually feature in this book, I was really struck by how they used social media to support each other in different ways. This challenged a lot of the research on the topic, and defied the negative bias about how social media is toxic and harmful to teenagers.
The first thing I noticed was that social media helped girls keep in constant contact with their friends when they couldn’t hang out in person, like when they had to spend evenings babysitting young siblings or cousins. I also noticed how the young women affirmed one another online with their posts, likes, and comments.
Perhaps most remarkably, though, was how teens used social media in the aftermath of horrific local violence. While I was conducting this research, there were two separate shootings in which the young women tragically lost a friend. Both times, I saw how quickly the neighborhood teens shared information, faster than the police, in one case. But I also saw that they had poignant digital rituals to commemorate and celebrate their friends’ lives. These rituals were totally separate and even hidden from their parents and teachers.
So, although I hadn’t intended to write about social media, I saw that the young women used it to care for and support one another in countless ways, from managing daily boredom to coping with horrific loss.
What was the process of writing it like? How did you get these girls to open up to you?
I first met the girls at their school, where I volunteered once a week over the course of a semester. As the school break arrived, I told a few of the teens I had met that I was writing about growing up in their neighborhood, and I asked to spend some time with them to learn about their lives. Many of the young women grasped intuitively what ethnography entailed; they introduced me to their friends and family, and they brought me along to everyday activities like going to sports practices or the mall. Over time, we spent more and more time together, and they invited me to special events like parties, baby showers, Thanksgiving celebrations, and more.
The young women were warm and welcoming. I do think it helped that I was in my first year of graduate school at the time, just a few years older than they were. Social media also helped expedite and cement our relationships, as I describe in the book. Another thing that helped was moving into an apartment in the girls’ neighborhood. I conducted this research before Uber was popular, so moving nearby meant that I could join the girls for spontaneous hang-outs, and stay out late without worrying about the last train back to campus. Moving also meant that the girls and I ran into each other in places like the convenience store and laundromat, and helped me learn a lot more about their daily lives.
Why are the themes and topics of My Girls important today?
Ultimately, My Girls is about friendship. Social networks have been a top concern of sociologists since the discipline’s founding, but the nature and power of friendship often gets short shrift in research. Friendship, as queer theorists and feminist scholars have long argued, can be essential and even life-sustaining, but sociological research – as well as social policy and cultural tropes – often emphasize the importance of the family instead. Families are, of course, important for young people’s well-being, but I wanted to show the deep well of potential and power in bonds between peers. I also wanted to write about how contemporary friendships incorporated online interaction.
What outlook has writing this book given you on the future of social media and its effects on youth?
Throughout history, most new technologies have caused social anxiety; Plato, in the Phaedrus, famously worried that the invention of writing would ruin people’s memorization skills. That’s not to say that fears about the impact of social media on young people are baseless. Social media certainly can be harmful, and we should take seriously worrying reports about its effects on mental health.
But just like the written word, social media as a technology is neither innately good nor bad. I wanted to show how young people harness social media to strengthen their friendships and give each other care. This is not to dismiss social media’s potential risks and harms, but rather to call for greater nuance and understanding about how teens engage online. Recent data gathered during the COVID pandemic speaks to some of this complexity. Certain forms of digital interaction—especially one-on-one communication and funny online experiences—lowered teenagers’ stress and isolation. But many teens’ anxiety and self-comparison were exacerbated when the pandemic limited in-person socializing. It would be great if more research could dig into some of these contradictions and intricacies.