‘Reviving Ophelia’ co-author talks about new challenges for adolescent girls
Author SpeaksSocial Media and Today's Teens

‘Reviving Ophelia’ co-author talks about new challenges for adolescent girls

Anxiety prevalent among today's teens.

Author Sara Pipher Gilliam described social media's harm and challenges faced by today's teens. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Author Sara Pipher Gilliam described social media's harm and challenges faced by today's teens. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Twenty-five years after the book “Reviving Ophelia” called attention to problems facing adolescent girls, author and psychologist Mary Pipher returned to the subject with an anniversary edition of her landmark work. Joining her in updating the text for a 21st- century audience was her daughter Sara Pipher Gilliam, a writer, editor and activist, who visited Pittsburgh last week.

“As we approached the 25th anniversary, or birthday, of ‘Reviving Ophelia,’ my mother and I recognized that we couldn’t just slap a new cover on the original book, but that we really needed to make the content of the book for a new generation of girls,” said Pipher Gilliam at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall on Feb. 20, at an event sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and Jewish Women’s Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Through focus groups and interviews with students, teachers, parents, guidance counselors and clinicians, the two authors discovered today’s adolescent predilections differ from those of 25 years ago.

“The teenagers we talked to all said that they feel really uncomfortable maybe making small talk, even at the grocery store with someone, or talking to their parents’ friends,” said Pipher Gilliam. “A lot of girls, for example, said that they had maybe dated someone, but what dating was was texting and talking online. They’ve never been on a date and the idea of going on a date in person was terrifying to them.”

Whereas adolescents in the 1990s largely socialized outside of the home, today’s teens are more inclined to connect with friends via social media. Pipher Gilliam, who was a teenager when her mother wrote the first edition, compared her own adolescent experience to that of the girls they interviewed for the update.

“I would have been miserable to be home on a weekend night,” she said. “The only way you would not be home on a Saturday night would be if I were grounded. Otherwise we were out as much as possible at parties, sleepovers or concerts.”

Sara Pipher Gilliam. Photo by Adam Reinherz

She made similar observations earlier in the day, in other visits throughout the Jewish community.

“In 1994, my era again, girls were at a low in terms of happiness … and then between 1994 and 2007 happiness scores were on the rise.” The numbers began plummeting, however, in 2007, “which, coincidentally, is the year that the iPhone debuted,” she pointed out. “We believe that social media causes parts of or some of this depression by isolating girls from their true selves, and even helping them to substitute a virtual self for a real identity,” she said. “While the virtual self grows prettier, more popular and more interesting, the true self shrivels. When this happens, girls’ feel insecure, confused and lost. We posit that depression and suicide rates reflects girls deep sorrow about their disconnect from their authentic selves.”

Despite many “prominent therapists” terming today’s teens “the loneliest generation of girls,” all is not lost, explained Pipher Gilliam.

Parents can help.

“The biggest investment that parents can make in their kids is just helping them learn to develop real human relationships,” she said. “The low-hanging fruit for families is to be that house that teenagers are welcome to hang out at. Invite them over, pay for the snacks, pay for the drinks. You may have to walk your child through what it looks like to have people over. You may be starting at that level of square one at that place.”

The other thing parents need to be cognizant of is the “social media piece and the real importance of actually seeing and looking at what your children are doing online,” she continued. “You wouldn’t trust your child to go spend time with someone that you hadn’t met and sort of vetted in whatever way you choose to as a parent. We’ve got to give that same attentiveness to the time that they’re spending online.”

“Real-world challenges are beneficial for teenagers,” said Pipher Gilliam.

“Encourage part-time work, encourage volunteer work, encourage activism and advocacy in the community. If you have a girl that loves animals, have her go volunteer at the animal shelter. If she’s an introvert, have her go shelve books at a library. Whatever that is, it looks different for every kid, but find a way to get them out of their own adolescent headspace and off of their devices and out engaging with the world.”

Attendees, many of whom stayed to chat with Pipher Gilliam after the event, praised the author’s insights, including the major differences between the generations, such as the “different patterns of socialization,” said Debby Gillman of Squirrel Hill.

“What she’s written about the state of younger people is shocking,” said Lesa Rosamond of Regent Square. “I read the original book and it’s a different ballgame now.”

“Parents need to understand the impact of social media on young people,” echoed Angi Yucas of Blawnox. “So many issues are stemming from social media.”

Parents can curb the effects of social media by helping children physically connect, reiterated Pipher Gilliam.

“The real work of adolescence is identity building, and it’s figuring out who am I, who do I want to be, what do I care about, and a lot of that happens when you sit around with your friends and you talk,” she said. “I had a summer before my senior year of high school where my group of friends and I went every night to this playground by our houses, and we sat on the swings and talked till 2 in the morning about dream college, dream job, dream life, all the places you want to travel. If kids aren’t doing that then they’re really not doing that work of building their identity that has to happen in adolescence.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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