As youth workers working with young women and girls in Africa, we see how social media affects their outlook. Girls like Awino see their horizons opened up. They are exposed to new ideas, cultures and values that they have never discussed with their parents or teachers, and which we, as adults, may not be aware of.

Social Media Changes Outlooks and Aspirations

  • They may start to imitate online influencers. By dressing or behaving as their ‘role models’ they may find that others perceive them in new ways, both good and bad. They may not be aware of how dressing or acting in new, or sexualised, ways affects their safety or how others perceive and value them, especially in conservative African cultures. 
  • They may start to feel that their lives are small and insignificant. Their aspirations change, and they may feel overwhelmed by the challenges they face to reach their new goals. 
  • They may think studies aren’t worthwhile – many influencers online have gotten rich (or seem to be rich) simply from sharing photos and videos online. Some young people may see this as a quick route to riches, and give up on their studies, without realising how unlikely this is to lead to wealth and fame. 
  • Online everyone and everything is perfect. Young people may not be aware that the pictures that other people share are filtered, edited or staged. They can feel like failures compared to their friends, which can affect their body image – they feel ugly compared to other people’s pictures. 
  • They seek validation: many young women find their self-esteem linked to the amount of attention they get online – social media likes and views. If their pictures don’t get attention, they can feel forgotten or unloved.

What happens virtually changes reality

It’s important for us to realise that young women’s very identity is affected by what they see online. They may not understand why they feel upset, worthless, or frustrated, and we need to help them link these pieces together and find solutions for themselves, rather than tell them they are foolish.

Goal setting and confidence

When you are talking to young people about their dreams and aspirations, it’s important to be aware of the impact of their online world. You can ask questions like:

  • Why is that your ambition?
  • How do you think you can achieve that?
  • How likely is it that you could achieve that?
  • How will others perceive you if you do that?
  • Will that make you feel happy and fulfilled? 
  • Whose opinion really matters to you?
  • Who do you want to value you, and what do you want them to value you for?
  • How can we plan the steps you need to achieve to reach your final goal?

Asking questions like these helps a young woman reach her own conclusions through critical thinking, which is a much better model than being told she is wrong or foolish. We want young women to be able to negotiate these tricky questions throughout their lives and make good decisions when we are no longer there to support them.

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you noticed how social media has affected how young women in your youth club behave? 
  2. Does it affect their ambitions and aspirations?
  3. What new risks or opportunities does this present? How do you try to address them?
  4. How do you ensure that other youth workers know new trends and issues and the best way to address them?

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