New research published in Frontiers in Psychology provides insight into the complicated relationships between gender ideologies and motivations for social media use among adolescents in the United States.
The findings indicate that gender ideologies, which refer to clusters of attitudes associated with traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity, play a key role in explaining social media behavior — but these ideologies do not necessarily explain observed gender differences. Surprisingly, the study also found that adolescent girls and boys did not differ in their degree of identification with dominant masculinity ideology.
Understanding the psychology behind adolescent social media behavior is crucial for promoting healthy and safe online behaviors. Research has indicated that excessive social media use can impact adolescents’ mental health and make them vulnerable to cyberbullying. Studies have also shown that adolescent girls and boys tend to use social media in different ways, but little is known about the underlying mechanisms behind these gender differences and their potential outcomes.
“I’ve long been interested in understanding how cultural constructions of gender influence adolescents’ identity development,” said study author Adriana Manago, an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“In this study, I wondered if traditional gender ideologies (cultural beliefs and values for dominant masculinity and submissive femininity) influence adolescent identity development by shaping their motivations for social media use.”
For their study, Manago and her colleagues surveyed 309 cisgender high school students who were enrolled in a public high school in northern California. The participants were asked to identify the top three social media platforms they used the most. The most commonly named social media platforms were Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Girls were more likely than boys to name TikTok and Tumblr, while boys were more likely than girls to name Discord, Reddit, MMORPGs, and Steam.
Next, the participants were asked to consider why they used social media and rate on a scale from 1 (Not at all) to 5 (Very much so) the extent to which different objectives of social media use were relevant to them.
To assess gender ideology, the participants completed the Adolescent Masculinity Ideology in Relationships Scale and the Adolescent Feminine Ideology Scale. Those high in dominant masculine ideology agreed with statements such as “It’s important to act like I am sexually active and knowledgeable, even if I am not” and “If I tell people my worries, I would look weak,” while those high in submissive feminine ideology agreed with statements such as “I often change the way I do things in order to please someone.”
“My students and I collected survey data with a sample of Californian high school adolescents and tested whether their level of identification with femininity ideology was associated with their level of social media use for purposes associated with girls (social media for appearance-validation and emotion bonding) and whether their level of endorsement of masculinity ideology was associated with their level of social media use for purposes associated with boys (social media for competitive activity bonding, bullying, and social compensation),” Manago explained.
Both boys and girls ranked competitive activity bonding as the most highly favored use of social media. Competitive activity bonding includes using social media to do fun activities and to challenge close friends to see who is better at something.
Girls reported that they used social media more often than boys for emotion bonding (“I use social media to share personal thoughts with close friends”), appearance validation (“I use social media to see how my appearance compares to others”), and social compensation (“I use social media to find new friends”). Boys, on the other hand, reported that they used social media more than girls for competitive activity bonding. But girls and boys did not differ in their reports of social media use for bullying.
Adolescent girls were more likely than boys to identify with submissive feminine ideology. But they were just as likely as boys to identify with dominant masculine ideology.
Identifying with femininity ideology was linked to emotional bonding, but it did not fully explain why there were differences in emotional bonding between genders. Rather, both boys and girls who identified with femininity ideology tended to use social media more for emotional bonding. Similarly, identifying with masculinity ideology was linked to competitive activity bonding, but it did not explain why competitive activity bonding was more common in boys.
When it came to using social media to post attractive photos or compare oneself to others, the influence of masculinity ideology was stronger than that of femininity ideology.
“The main take away was that gender continues to be associated with variations in adolescents’ motivations for social media use, but the influence of gender ideologies is complex as adolescent boys and girls in the United States now seem to identify with masculinity ideologies to similar degrees,” Manago told PsyPost. “We found masculinity ideology was associated with social media for competitive activity bonding and appearance validation among both boys and girls. Femininity ideology was also associated with social media for emotion and activity bonding among both boys and girls.”
Many of the findings supported the researchers’ initial hypotheses. But several findings were unexpected, particularly in regards to gender ideology.
“I was surprised that girls and boys did not differ on masculinity ideology and that girls’ identification with masculinity ideology was strongly predictive of their use of social media for appearance-validation,” Manago explained. “We tend to assume that girls’ self- objectification on social media is about adhering to traditional femininity and our study suggests we may underestimate the degree to which their beliefs and values for power in relationships (masculinity ideology) drive this kind of gratification sought from social media use.”
The findings might even suggest that current measures of gender ideology are out of date. The measures were developed before the rise of social media.
“The biggest caveats are that the scales we used to measure adolescents’ identification with masculinity and femininity ideologies were not very stable with this sample,” Manago told PsyPost. “This suggests that conceptions of femininity and masculinity that were used to develop these measurement scales in the early 2000s might be less relevant to Gen Z adolescents. For example, submissive femininity was measured in terms of self-silencing, which may be less likely to be associated with femininity in the digital age of self-expression.”
“More research needs to be done to understand how adolescents in Gen Z are making meaning of masculinity and femininity during a time when traditional gender beliefs and values are being disrupted with growing LGBTQ+ visibility and increasing gender non-binary identifications,” the researcher added.
The study, “The contributions of gender identification and gender ideologies to the purposes of social media use in adolescence“, was authored by Adriana M. Manago, Abigail S. Walsh, and Logan L. Barsigian.