Are Girls Less Involved with Technology Because Parents Fear Online Predators?
5.6.10 | In the digital world, two things are often accepted as fact: 1) boys are more tech savvy than girls; and 2) the internet is a big scary place from which children need protection.
What is rarely considered, however, is that there may be a link between the two. It might just be that our efforts to protect children from online predators are overly focused on girls, which, in turn, leaves them more shy about engaging with the digital world in the way boys do.
In two recent studies, Northwestern University communications professor Eszter Hargittai has found that even when accounting for “digital literacy,” gender still matters when it comes to digital prowess. She has found, for example, that young women share less content (for example, video and music) online than their male counterparts, and that men consistently perceive their technical skills to be greater than most women judge their own to be.
The same patterns were borne out in her most recent study, “Digital Na[t]ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses Among Members of the ‘Net Generation.’” Hargittai studied male and female freshmen at the University of Illinois at Chicago and found that young women were significantly less varied in the content they viewed online. They also lagged behind when it came to time spent on the internet, number of places they accessed the internet and in self-reported skill scores.
Why the difference?
“I wish we knew,” Hargittai says.
She does offer some possible reasons, including the moral panic about safety online.
“Are parents more strict about limiting their daughters’ access to certain sites or services? That could be going on,” Hargittai says.
Another possibility is related to self-confidence. Anonymity allows people to be cruel or rude to those who write on blogs or post videos online. Girls, she says, might avoid sharing content out of concern that they will receive negative feedback.
Whether or not either explains the numbers, Hargittai notes that we can learn lessons from the data about how to address gender differences.
“It’s really important in the family or in the classroom that we encourage everybody, and that we’re not freaking them out,” says Hargittai. “It’s important to educate kids about being careful, but it’s not reasonable to put more of that on girls. It’s about educating parents about the realistic risks – but also about the benefits.”
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