The internet began as an almost exclusively male preserve. Now young women, from primary school age upwards, are now making it their own
When 12-year-old Clover Reshad gets home from school, she will have something to eat and say hello to her dog Hector. She might shout at her annoying brother and watch some television, then she will head upstairs to her bedroom to do her homework. This is when the computer goes on.
“I use the computer a lot. At least a couple of days a week to help with my homework and I keep an eye on [the social networking sites] Bebo and Facebook every day to see who’s on it,” she said. “I’ll check shops to see if I can buy things I want cheaper online or to make sure they have something in my size.
“I MSN [instant message] my friends. The computer also makes it easy to stay in touch with my dad because he lives in Los Angeles.”
Reshad sees her activity as no different from using a mobile phone or television. It is intrinsic to her life and friendships. “There are a few girls at school who don’t use Bebo and Facebook but it’s not because they don’t want to - it’s because their parents won’t let them,” she said. “I do feel sorry for them.”
Reshad’s activity in her bedroom in Godalming, Surrey, echoes that of millions of girls around the world. New research suggests it is time to rethink the stereotypical net user as a pasty-faced male geek in Joe 90 specs, or the furtive spotty teen looking for zeppelin breasts online. The most prolific net users are now girls and young women.
A recent study by the Pew Internet Project in America on teens in social media found that blogging growth among teenagers is almost entirely fuelled by girls, whom it describe as a new breed of “super-communicators”. Some 35% of girls, compared with 20% of boys, have blogs; 32% of girls have their own websites, against 22% of boys.
Girls have embraced social networking sites on a massive scale, with 70% of American girls aged 15-17 having built and regularly worked on a profile page on websites such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook, as opposed to 57% of boys of the same age.
John Horrigan of the Pew Internet Project says these figures are likely to be echoed throughout the West. “The internet is a very expressive medium and you’re looking at times in a girl’s life when they are very socially expressive; the internet, and social networking particularly, enables that need,” he said.
Figures from the UK back up Horrigan’s hunch. A survey done by Hitwise, an internet research company, in January found that almost 55% of all British users of social networking websites were women. Similar research by Nielsen Online shows that women aged 18-24 account for 17% of all users of the social sites, while men in the same age group account for 12%.
What has caused a phenomenon that one academic has hailed as “the feminisation of the internet”? Are girls really the new cyberpioneers? THERE is widespread agreement that the prime driver behind the enthusiastic uptake of the internet by young girls is their desire to gossip. Activity that used to take place on the telephone, to the frustration of many parents who were often hit with painful phone bills, now happens online.
“If you look at young girls, they do more communicating than young boys and that’s what they are doing on the web,” said Professor Anthony White, a lecturer in the school of computing science at Middlesex University. “It’s just natural for them.”
Few would disagree. Yet to stereotype these girls’ activity as all gossip and fluff would be unfair.
Anna McCleary is the editor of Slink, the BBC’s popular website for 13 to 16-year-old girls which receives 1m hits a day. She is constantly surprised by what catches her readers’ attention.
“I don’t dare to assume anything about the girls that visit the site,” she said. “Their interests are amazingly diverse – from dinosaurs to the Foals [a popular indie band]. We’ve had 1,000 unsolicited responses to a piece on first-choice schools in the past three days alone.
“What I do know is that we are part of their real lives.”
In this there is an observable difference between the sexes. Even at 12 Reshad has noticed it.
“Girls use the internet for gossiping and finding things out about friends and people you know. Boys use it more for useful things like games,” she said.
Matthew Bagwell edits a website for girls called My Kinda Place and Monkey Slum, a similar magazine site aimed at teenage boys.
“Girls consume online very differently to boys,” he said. “Monkey Slum forums are just dead; on My Kinda Place the forums are extremely popular. Girls will browse, take a real journey around the site. Social networking has really captured a young female audience.
“I put this down to girls being open to communicating, having longer attention spans and more widespread interests. We have to be inventive and diverse in our female content. Boys are easier, they will download pictures from galleries, viral ads and videos, but they’re in and out again.”
Indeed, the YouTube phenomenon, where users share video material, is still used more by boys than girls – the Pew report found that they were twice as likely to post videos online.
Yet women are starting slowly to make inroads. One of the top 50 most popular contributors to YouTube is Bryony Matthewman, 24, the British artist and graphic designer who is better known to her millions of fans as Paperlilies. Her video sketches of impressions of damaged celebrity fodder such as Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears have brought a celebrated female face to the site.
“It is still quite awkward to admit to making videos online as a woman,” said Matthewman.
“People’s immediate thought of a girl in an online video is ‘porn!’ so it’s taking a while to get away from that stereotype.”
However, stereotypes are being thrown away every day in different digital areas. A recent poll by Game-Vision showed that 30% more women bought computer games in the six months to July 31, 2007, than in the same period in 2006. The survey also found that there were more female owners of Nin-tendo’s handheld DS console in the UK than men (54% against 46%).
Blogging used to be the preserve of men with obsessive interests in particular subjects, notably sport, cars and politics, but young women are increasingly entering this arena.
Kelly Needham, 21, a student in Newcastle, started posting her thoughts online in her teens. She said that for her, as for many other young women, the blog was a means of getting her opinions heard more easily. “It’s a way of publishing who you are. In the real world a lot of people are inhibited. They can be more confident online with their opinions,” she said.
“My personal blog gave me a lot more of a chance to express myself. It was the most freedom I ever had.” YET while they are becoming the primary consumers and producers of the internet world, young women are not yet translating this dominance into financial gains.
“The majority of people behind the web, who programme sites and create the new technologies, tend to be men for whatever reason,” said Matthewman. “Those are the people at the back end of the web, who control it and who stand to make money from it. More women may be using it now but they aren’t making the money from it.”
There are, of course, exceptions. In Britain, Martha Lane Fox, the co-founder of Lastminute.com, and Natalie Massenet, who set up the popular shopping site Net-a-Porter, have both become multi-million-aires through their web-savvyness. But many new internet opportunities in the current so-called Web 2.0 era require real IT expertise and in this area women still lag behind their male contemporaries.
Figures for female enrolment in IT degree courses remain low. While not as pitiful as admissions for engineering, in the 2005-6 academic year there were 75,360 British male home students on computing courses at university, compared with 23,370 women, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
This is a figure that depresses Sarah Blow, a 26-year-old software engineer who is better known for her popular Girly Geekdom website and blog.
“Even though both my parents worked in IT I was told to look at marketing and law by my school careers adviser,” she said. “[But] the message is slowly getting across to girls that the industry isn’t all about that clapped-out stereotype of geeky guys with glasses.”
Among the youngest girls there are signs that the message is working. A recent survey by Tesco, which has a voucher scheme to provide computers for schools, found that from as early as seven years old, girls are beating boys when it comes to using computers. The research found that 44% of girls aged 7-16 were able to create a networking profile on the internet compared with 35% of boys; and 52% of girls knew how to download photographs from the internet, compared with 44% of boys.
On the computer courses that he teaches at Middlesex University, White says that women are beginning to outperform men.
“In actual fact [the courses] are oriented towards what women like doing. They just don’t know that before they enrol. The last time I checked the figures, female students were doing better than men in the courses,” he said.
He also noted that the proportion of female student numbers was improving as well. “There would not have been any female students doing computing 20-30 years ago,” he said. WITH a new generation of young women who have grown up with computers these figures will surely continue to rise. Yet still there are entrenched attitudes to be overcome.
Back upstairs in Reshad’s bedroom she is giving her Bebo page another makeover and uploading more photographs for her father to check out in LA. She says she feels comfortable with technology.
“I understand a lot about computers because I spend a lot of time on them,” she said.
However, this does not translate into an ambition to generate the software that is so essential to her life: “Girls are creative, they are more into history, English and art – it’s the boys who are more into the techie things.”