Teenage Girls Wade Into
On-Line World's Waters
By JOAN INDIANA RIGDON
June 16, 1997

What do girls want from technology?

A lot of companies would like to know. With almost all of today's video and computer games aimed at boys, marketers figure there's a gold mine for the first company to truly tap the girls market. Several companies have invested millions of dollars in studying the issue.

Purple Moon, a Palo Alto, Calif., spinoff of billionaire Paul Allen's think tank Interval Research Corp., queried hundreds of girls all over the country about what they liked or didn't like about technology, computers and software games. Brenda Laurel, Purple Moon's co-founder, says the first thing she learned when studying the girls is that having been a girl herself didn't help her at all in understanding the new generation. She wouldn't disclose detailed findings, but says the study debunked several myths, including the stereotype that girls are too social to use computers, and aren't competitive.

To discuss these issues, The Wall Street Journal convened a panel of six experts: three adults who have studied girls and technology, and three girls who live it.

The experts are Ms. Laurel; Roberta Furger, who has interviewed hundreds of girls for a book she is writing about girls' interest in computers; and Karen Mayfield-Ingram, an educator and coordinator of Equals, a University of California-Berkeley program that seeks to provide equal access to math and science education for children of both genders and all races.
 

Ashley Green
The girls are each 12 years old and, by coincidence, big users of the nation's biggest on-line service, America Online Inc. Ashley Green, a San Rafael, Calif., seventh-grader, says that when she and her friends talk on the phone, they sometimes dial up AOL as well to look at the same site at the same time. Ashley also faxes letters to her friends -- while on the phone -- and carries on e-mail correspondence with people she meets on-line. For a while, when she sat next to a friend who had the same model Casio personal digital assistant that she did, the two used infrared technology to beam notes to each other during class. She wants to be a teacher or work with small children.

Whitney Satin, a Walnut Creek, Calif., seventh-grader, doesn't have on-line access at home. She recently used the Internet from school to research a report on polar bears. Other times she goes to her friends' houses to chat on-line. She wants to be a movie star.

Lauren Rettberg, a Walnut Creek, Calif., sixth-grader, plays racing, speed and trigger games on a PC with her older brothers. She also likes on-line chatting. She wants to be a doctor or a lawyer.

The girl talk began with games they like to play. But it soon became clear that girls are mostly interested in computers for one thing: communication. They like chatting with friends and strangers, over e-mail or in chat rooms. As the following edited transcript suggests, coping with unpleasant characters is one of the first skills girls must learn.

The Sociable Myth

The Wall Street Journal: Are girls too social to enjoy computers? Do you have girlfriends who use computers a lot? Are they popular?

Ashley: At my school they don't judge people like that -- "Oh, he's a computer geek" or whatever. Because they don't know what they're really like at home.

WSJ: It's not a bad thing to be?

Ashley: No, because a lot of people in my school have computers at home, and they use them on the Internet or for games or whatever.

Ms. Laurel: Is it more like an appliance -- like a telephone or a TV? Or is it a gee-whiz big deal to have a computer at home?

Ashley: I think it's kind of both. A lot of people have it, but there are some kids who don't.

Whitney: On the part about girls being too social, I think a lot of girls mostly use the computer to socialize now. So, I don't really agree with that statement. And also being a computer nerd: We don't really talk about, "Oh, I went home yesterday and I spent all afternoon on the computer." We just don't say that.

WSJ: Even if that's what you did, you wouldn't say that?
 

Whitney Satin
Whitney: You wouldn't say that. I don't think it's something to be proud of and bragging about that you were on the computer all afternoon, unless you just got a computer and it's a really big deal. I think there are other things we talk about like, "Oh, yeah, I went shopping and I got this new outfit." You wouldn't be, "Yeah, I got this new computer game." Because it sounds more impressive [to get a new outfit], I guess.

WSJ: So when you socialize, is it mostly on chat?

Ashley: Yeah, the chat rooms, and sending e-mail and faxing and all that stuff.

WSJ: Do you spend a lot of time in the chat rooms?

Whitney: I don't have [on-line access] at home. But I know when I go to my friend's house and she says do you want to go on the computer, I say sure, but we think of the computer as going into a chat room. We don't say, "What games do you want to play?" You just automatically think about going into a chat room because that is what a computer has now become.

There's one [room we go into] that's about teen life, where you just talk about what's going on. I think it's still kind of cool to say, "Is there anybody who's not in the U.S.?" and talk to someone who's in New Zealand. You don't get to do that very often. But sometimes we wonder what these other rooms are. There's one that's the lesbian and gay room, and we'll go on to see what they're talking about. And we're like, "Oh my gosh. Why would anyone waste their time [there]?"

Lauren: A lot of times those are just people who are curious what's in [the rooms]. Also, a lot of people I think fake what they're talking about.

Playing With Identities

Ms. Laurel: Do you guys make up different people when you go on the Internet?

Whitney: Yeah, sometimes.

Lauren: When you say you're, like, 17, you get really sick things and usually I say, "Bye." You say, "Hi," and you're just flooded.

WSJ: So when you say you're 17, guys mail you and say nasty things?

Lauren: Uh-huh. And I say "bye" and hit "cancel" or whatever. Sometimes I actually turn the computer off.

Ms. Furger: That's getting to be more and more the case. It's becoming a sort of virtual dating. It's all about what do you look like. What are your stats? And everyone is either blond and blue-eyed or six feet tall. There are very few times [the stats] are very realistic.

Ms. Laurel: My daughter, who is your age, and her buddies will spend a lot of time coming up with elaborate biographies of people they aren't, and they'll go in a chat room and try out a personality.
 

Roberta Furger
Ms. Furger: In a way, that can be a really good thing, though. Because there's been a lot written about grade-school girls and how they need to try things out. Who are you and what are your interests? That's when you're learning all about yourself. So if you can do that in that relatively safe zone, it's anonymous. There's no one who's going to say, "What??!!" Or maybe there is. But you don't have to see them the next day.

Lauren: There are people who volunteer to call you or something.

Ms. Laurel: You guys all know about that, right?

Whitney: Yeah, you lie about where you live, also. If they ask you where you live, you say California. And if they say "where?" you say San Francisco [as opposed to the name of the exact suburb].

WSJ: Ashley, you were saying you go in a lot of chat rooms. What kind of chat rooms do you go into?

Ashley: I try and go into the kids' chat rooms because they're more mellow, but they're really not. I go into a lot of the teen chat rooms and they're just like broadcasting. They're all, "Male, 15, wants to talk to girl, 15," or something like that.

Ms. Laurel: Does it get boring after a while?

Ashley: Yeah, it does.

Whitney: Because they don't talk about anything except what you look like.

Ms. Laurel: If you could design a chat room that would be interesting for you, what would it be like? What kinds of rules would you have? What kind of people would you invite?

Lauren: If you started talking about one thing, and then someone talked about something else, you'd tell them they're stupid and get out.

Ms. Laurel: So bad manners would be punished by ...

Ms. Furger: Disconnection.

Ashley: On AOL, they have an ignore box so you can put in their name and it can ignore them so you don't have to listen to what they have to say.

Whitney: You can also [ask an AOL representative to] kick people off. Sometimes people kick you off just for the fun of it, and it's a pain because you have to go through the whole thing of signing back on. It's kind of nasty because a lot of adults come into the teen thing and try to get talking. The adult males are talking to these younger girls. They're acting like pigs. I mean they're disgusting.

When Girl Meets Boy

WSJ: Have you ever made friends, like pen pals, in the chat rooms?

Ashley: I have.

Lauren: If you find somebody in there, and they say, I like you, and you start talking to them.

Whitney: If they seem interesting and not totally weird.

WSJ: Who are some of your pen pals?

Ashley: I've talked to some people in San Diego and Hawaii.

WSJ: Girls or boys?

Ashley: Both.

Ms. Furger: You take it to e-mail after that?

Ashley: I met one person through my cousin. He just started [e-mailing] her. He lives in Mississippi. It's kind of interesting to hear what he has to say. He sounds really nice. And he doesn't say the kind of derogatory and nasty things that [other] people say.

Ms. Laurel: Have you ever gotten into an e-mail correspondence and had the person turn out to be a jerk?

Ashley: Yes.

Ms. Laurel: And then what do you do to get them to stop sending you e-mail?

Ashley: I kick them off of my buddy list [an AOL feature that allows subscribers to see when certain other subscribers are on-line] so I don't know when they're on or not.

WSJ: But they still know when you're on.

Ashley: I started talking to my friend's cousin down in San Diego. He started asking for pictures of me. He was kind of like a friend, but he got upset with me because I wasn't interested in him like that. He was like, "OK, see you later." And I'm like, "Oh, OK."

Ms. Laurel: Does it make you feel sad? Are you upset about it? Or do you just brush it off?

Ashley: I just brush it off, I guess.
 

Brenda Laurel
Ms. Laurel: The first week my daughter was wandering around the Web, I was in her room and saw an envelope addressed to somebody I didn't recognize. She was sending her picture to some guy. Even though we'd had the conversation over and over again. She's not a stupid kid. I went ahead, talked to her about it, I looked at the e-mail. It was all very reasonable. But it does sort of make your blood run cold. And her response was, "But I trust him, I've talked to him, I know this person." And it took her another couple of weeks being on-line before she realized that people fib about who they are. And what their goals are. And then it hurt her feelings a lot. So I was just curious if you had sadness around it.

Ashley: Well, I think it was kind of easier for me to talk to him, because I knew that he wasn't like some freak pervert because this was my close friend's cousin. So I think I was a little more comfortable talking to him. And he was polite and everything. But then I scanned a picture of me and my brother to him. And he always said he would scan me one of him. It was like he was my friend. But then he got mad at me and I didn't like him.

WSJ: So you actually sent him the picture.

Ashley: Yeah, I scanned him my picture.

WSJ: And when did he get mad at you?

Ashley: I was on [AOL] one time with one of my guy friends, and we were just talking to each other. And he thought that I liked this other guy.

WSJ: Jealousy!

Ashley: Yeah! It was funny.

Ms. Mayfield-Ingram: That seems like the normal thing that happens at this age level. It would normally happen at the show, or the mall, this social kind of dynamic where he sees you with someone else. But now you've got this medium where you can have these conversations on the Internet.

WSJ: Did you ever have that happen in person? Where there's some guy who likes you and he gets jealous because he sees you physically with somebody else?

Ashley: No.

Real Boys

WSJ: Do you have friends who have boyfriends? And are they really into computers?

Ashley: I don't think it affects them as much. Because they spend their time on the phone, talking to them.

Whitney: Yeah, right. Most of the time is consumed by talking to the boyfriend.

Lauren: I don't think they talk much to other people because that's all they talk about.

WSJ: Do they send e-mail to their boyfriends?

Ashley: It depends if they have a computer or not. If the guy has a computer they would go on the Internet.

Whitney: I think it's actually both because parents are more protective of their kids, and don't want them necessarily having boyfriends and spending all their time with them. If you do it on the computer the parents can't hear the conversation.

That's what my friend does. She'll call and say, "Let's go on AOL." And they'll spend hours talking and her parents will be calling, saying, "What are you doing?" "I'm working on the computer." And they say, "OK." If [she said], "I'm talking on the phone," [her parents would] say, "Well, whom are you talking to?" So then they get out of that kind of thing. A lot of times they don't want their parents to even know what's going on.

WSJ: A lot of parents are worried about what the girls are talking about. Do you girls feel like you've got it under control? Or do you need some help from your friends? Would you ever tell your parent or a teacher or some older friend if you were having trouble with somebody on-line?

Whitney: I tell my parents everything. They always help me out. I'm glad I tell them, because they tell me how to get out of a situation.

Ms. Furger: Have you ever felt uncomfortable about any of the stuff? To the point where you thought, "Oh, this is creepy," or, "I should tell my mom or my dad"?

Whitney: Sometimes you don't feel that comfortable. But then you just forget about it. If you tell them to stop, if they have any class at all, they'll stop. You say, "Hey, I'm scared, stop it, and I don't want to talk to you," and they either won't talk to you or they'll say "I'm sorry."

Are Computer Users Cool?

WSJ: I'm interested in what you said earlier, about how if you did go home and spend all afternoon on the computer, you just might not mention that to friends. Why? Is it not cool?

Whitney: It's not something that I wouldn't talk about.

Ms. Laurel: Nobody really cares.

WSJ: Whereas shopping is something to talk about.

Whitney: Yeah, because you get new clothes, you get new stuff.

Lauren: A lot of people can relate to [shopping], too.

Whitney: Going on the computer is now not such a big deal. I don't want to sound like I'm trying to be cool or anything. But it isn't cool to talk about. The computer. I don't think that's cool.

Ms. Furger: I went to a couple of computer camps last summer, and I got into this conversation with a group of girls. And it's something that really stuck with me. They got into this conversation about how we would never tell our friends we were at a computer camp. One girl in particular was like, "They would just write me off. I would never in a million years say that. That would be a geeky thing to do." It was really interesting to me. These were 12- to 14-year-olds.

Ms. Laurel: With people who are younger than these guys [Ashley, Whitney and Lauren], it's going to be a no-brainer. It's going to be a nonissue, because it's so pervasive the closer you get to when they're younger. The closer you get to teens, at least in my experience, it gets more and more difficult [to get girls interested in computers]. But it's very interesting how much small age differences matter.

Ms. Mayfield-Ingram: Do you find that's still true despite differences in class or ethnicity -- particularly in class?

Ms. Laurel: In general, our finding is there was much less difference in [who was interested in computers] in terms of ethnicity and class among preteen girls than among adults. And so I would say the same trend is true. The difference gets noticed more in older kids. I don't know whether that's because it comes into their consciousness more as they get older, or because of the incredible leveling effect of mass culture on young people. But it was a pretty strong finding for us.

Ms. Furger: I think you're right. Lots of girls I talked to -- ages eight, nine, 10, 11 -- had no qualms about being greater at whatever the computer thing was and announcing that to anybody and everybody who cared to listen. Whereas a lot of high-school girls who were amazingly adept at programming said that was just not something that they cared to brag about with anyone else.
 

Karen Mayfield-Ingram
Ms. Mayfield-Ingram: I often wonder if, given that in certain areas the adolescent age is coming down more, we'll find [a computer stigma] in age 10 and 11 girls. There's this dynamic that happens around adolescence. All of a sudden, you hit this time where there's supposed to be this social aspect of being female. And one of those things about being female is that the math and the science and the technology stuff don't quite go with being female, with being popular.

Ms. Furger: It's interesting. One girl in particular said to me that it's not the boys she's worried about -- boys thinking she was not cool. It was that girls would berate her or call her a geek or uncool. Her take was that they would be insecure about her abilities, and worried she'd get attention because she had this talent, which was computers.

But she said it could be singing or anything else: If you're really good at something, other girls are jealous of that, and one way or another they're going to find a way to make you feel bad about what you're good at. It was amazing to sit there and listen to this 14-year-old say this.

Ms. Furger: My sense is that computers and math and science have a double whammy in some respects [for girls]. Because it's a male domain to start with, and being good at anything can be a liability.

Whitney: I agree: If girls are really good at chess or in computers, then other girls would tend to shun them because they wouldn't really want to be near them, because [the other girls would] think that they're kind of geeks. But I don't think it would be that way if they're good in sports or in music or in acting and stuff. I think they'd want to have them included in their groups to make them look better.

Ms. Laurel: So girls don't feel threatened by another girl who's really good at soccer?

Whitney: Right. There are some girls at our school who are really smart, but they aren't as popular. But there are others who aren't very smart but are really good at sports. And they are more popular.

Ms. Laurel: Being good at sports when I was a girl was just as bad as being good at math.

Ms. Furger: Me too.

Whitney: Now, the more sports you do, the better off you are because you're more ... I guess interesting to be around, or more popular.
 

Lauren Rettberg
Lauren: When the girls are more popular, they usually care more about boys and stuff so they don't spend their time on computers.

Ms. Mayfield-Ingram: We do a series of classes at the [Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley]. There were two girls in a group of about 15 or 18 kids. It's a really cool thing, where you program, where they do racing, or you can create this kind of machine, a Ferris-wheel kind of thing.

One girl dropped out because of a schedule thing. This was a six-week or eight-week class, and [the other girl] hung in there for about a week or two past when the friend was gone. Then she just dropped out, from lack of interest.

The other thing we noticed was the kinds of things students built. The boys tended to build the race cars, and they tended to build things that used speed and were competitive.

And then [my colleague] made a class that was only girls. All of the girls stayed. And the things the girls made were much more creative. They created a Ferris wheel where it would stop at particular stops where someone could get on. They had it programmed with music. And there were three or four girls working on it together.

Something about the setting and environment said it was sort of an OK thing to do. But it didn't happen in an environment where they were truly the minority.

Ms. Furger: There's one thing you girls said that I'm curious about: that by using computers for schoolwork or by playing a game now and then, you were going to be ostracized. But where was the line drawn?

Ashley: Given a choice, we'd probably rather go outside, or hang out with friends, or do something. But I usually go on at night time when I'm kind of inside already and settled down. It's not really an alternative to doing something else. I'd probably choose [something else] over that.

--Ms. Rigdon is a former staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's San Francisco bureau.

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