YOUNG GIRLS AND PHONES
(December 5, 2010)
So why do 10-year-old girls want their own phones? By now, you can see that the answer to this deceptively simple question lies at the intersection of biology, technology, culture, and social influences. To do so, we will recall the main points of our previous discussions, and see if we can synthesize them into a coherent explanation.
Generally speaking, there are significant differences between boys and girls. Girls are more inclined to be verbal and to value connections to their peers, even to the point of wanting to talk and share their feelings many times a day. Boys, on the other hand, tend to be more competitive and aggressive with one another — talking and sharing much less often than girls.
These traits are due, in large part, to the qualities of the female and male brains, which are shaped — under the influence of hormones — during two specific times of great change in the life of a child. The first such watershed occurs before the child is even born. At about 8 weeks of gestation, a fetus's nervous system is exquisitely sensitive to the presence or absence of male hormones. Under the influence of testosterone, the fetus will develop a male nervous system. If there is no testosterone (which is the case for a baby girl), the fetus develops a female nervous system.
Thus, by the time a young girl is born, her brain is already primed for the second great change, which occurs at puberty. Puberty in girls normally starts anywhere from 9 to 13 years old and lasts about 5-6 years. During that time, a girl's ovaries begin to produce two hormones —estrogen and progesterone — which have significant effects, not only on the girl's body, but on her brain and her behavior.
These hormones stimulate the communication and emotional areas of the girl's brain that were established during fetal development. However, until the mental circuits stabilize, which takes a few years, pubescent girls are much more sensitive to stress than are boys. Moreover, the increased amounts of stress hormones girls experience sensitize them to pain, rejection, and conflict.
At the same time, pubescent girls become extremely aware of their feelings, to which they respond quickly and deeply. If you have ever spent time with such girls, you will know that they are highly sensitive to emotional nuances even when what they think they are perceiving is not necessarily true. ( "But Mom, if Jennifer can't stay over here on Saturday, she'll become best friends with Alesha and both of them will hate me.")
It is during puberty that girls first begin to experience their menstrual cycles, at which time they begin to live within a brand new, continually changing hormonal environment. Indeed, until a girl's cycle becomes regular, her hormones are not only changing, but fluctuating erratically. During this phase, young girls tend to experience disconcerting changes in how they perceive their feelings and their emotional needs: sometimes daily or even hourly.
To relieve the daily stress of living in such an environment, pubescent girls naturally begin to connect to their friends, spending a great deal of time talking about their lives, their thoughts, and their feelings. These activities are driven, not only by estrogen and progesterone, but by two other hormones. When a young girl communicates with her close friends, her brain produces dopamine, which stimulates her pleasure center and makes her feel good. At the same time, her brain also produces oxytocin, which creates a sense of intimacy, bonding, trust, and connectedness.
Thus, whenever an emotionally confused, stressed-out girl is able to use her natural, hormone-enhanced ability to connect and share, she will experience a surge of both dopamine and oxytocin, which will — temporarily — cause her to feel a sense of real comfort along with a palpable decrease in her stress level.
By now, it should make sense to you why young girls love to spend hour after hour with their friends, talking and sharing their feelings. You can also understand why, if a girl can't talk to her friends in person, she will still have a very strong urge to connect in any way she can. In such cases, she will use her phone to text or talk, usually many times a day. If she has Internet access, she may also use email, instant messaging, or check her favorite social networking site (such as Facebook) relentlessly.
Unfortunately, activities such as texting, talking on the phone, emailing, or social networking will never give these girls the rich, satisfying communication they really need. Why? Because there is just too much missing.
For young girls, meeting their biological needs requires them to see, hear and interact with other people in person.
For a young girl to meet her biological needs requires that she engage in a great deal of natural communication: the type of communication where the can see, hear and interact with other people in person.
When a girl talks with a friend in person, she not only hears her friend's words, she sees her friend's appearance, her body language and her gestures. She also hears the nuances of her friend's voice: the tone, the volume, and the rhythm. Moreover, she experiences a total environment: the location, the temperature, the ambient noise, the smells, and the presence or absence of other people, all of which is meaningful. We can now understand why communication at a distance — especially texting — will never meet a young girl's biological needs to connect: there is just too much missing.
Nevertheless, if young girls are to be mentally healthy, they need to spend a lot of time connecting deeply with their friends. So no matter how hard a girl may try — spending many minutes every day texting and talking on her phone — she will never satisfy her deep, biological needs. Nevertheless, the tiny surge of dopamine she gets every time she texts will induce her to try, repeatedly, to make herself feel good. Within a short time, she will become habituated. Indeed, many girls will become addicted.
To many older people, the thought of a young girl texting or talking on the phone excessively may seem cute and funny. I assure you, this is not the case. As I observed earlier, much of the awkward and irritating behavior people demonstrate when communicating in this way can be explained by the fact that they are fruitlessly looking for an outlet that technology cannot provide. This observation, of course, applies to everyone, not just young girls. However, when it comes to young girls, the lack of real satisfaction is especially profound, because their needs are so extreme.
As you know, when girls go through puberty they face a number of important problems. From our point of view, however, the most important problem is a lack of emotional maturity. In the remote past, puberty occurred a few years later in life than it does now, during adolescence. This meant that a girl's sexual maturity occurred at the time as her psychological development. Today (as we have already discussed in detail), young girls go through puberty several years earlier than used to be the case, before they begin to develop the maturity of early adulthood.
As a result, pubescent girls are unavoidably thrust into a problematic world, in which it is difficult for them to understand and deal with much of what goes on inside them and around them. In this way, young, inexperienced girls are called upon to deal with forces and temptations that are often beyond their mental and emotional maturity levels.
Consider the following. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is about two and a half weeks from her 14th birthday. Today, however, a mere 10-year-old girl would be at about the same stage of sexual development that Juliet was at 14. (Shakespeare wrote the play in the 1590s.) But, unlike Juliet, the modern girl would have the emotional maturity of a 10-year-old, which is certainly not adequate to make wise decisions about texting, phones, and Internet temptations. If you think Juliet got into a lot of trouble in 1595, imagine what it is like now for the millions of precocious 21st-century Juliets running around with their own phones, Facebook pages, and unattainable boyfriends.
I maintain that even a 14-year-old girl does not have the wisdom and life experience to manage the unfettered use of a phone with Internet access. If that is indeed the case, what will happen when we give such a phone to her 10-year-old sister?
Once a young girl gets her own phone, she will begin to text, talk, email, and check her favorite social networking sites. Nevertheless, no matter how much she engages in such activities, she will never be able to satisfy her deep, biological needs. Instead, the tiny surge of dopamine she gets every time she uses her phone will induce her to try, repeatedly, to make herself feel good, just like the rats who, back in 1954, learned to press a lever over and over and over in an attempt to make themselves happy.
© All contents Copyright 2023, Harley Hahn