Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Andrea Leverentz

Second Advisor

Leslie Wang

Third Advisor

Chris Bobel


Opportunities for social, cultural, and political inclusion available to the modern American girl are significant. Yet profoundly rooted cultural ideas about how a girl should behave and how she should look endure. The tension between girlhood empowerment and disempowerment has resulted in an American girlhood defined by competing cultural models of “innocent girls in need of protection” and “girl power.” Because tween girls between the ages of 10 and 14 are among the top users of social media sites (Hall 2015; Orenstein 2016; Sales 2016; Simmons 2018), this research uses frameworks from the sociology of gender, body politics, girlhood studies, and digital sociology, to investigate how these competing cultural models inform tween girls’ lived experiences in a context of their social media participation. Through a multimethod qualitative study of tween girls’ videos in the Pretty or Ugly YouTube trend, and 26 in-depth interviews with 10- to 14-year-old girls, this research illuminates the nuanced and complex meanings tween girls give to social media, and how they use social media in myriad ways as a significant part of their daily lives. This work seeks to deepen existing sociological knowledge surrounding girls on social media. Current research has typically bifurcated the impacts of social media use on girls, whether positive or negative, in a context of adult-centered fears and moral panics that frame broader public understandings of girls’ social media use as a primary cause of gendered social problems such as low self-esteem, negative body image, and bullying. This study provides a more nuanced understanding of the role that social media plays in tween girls’ lives, and suggests that social media, and how and why tween girls are using it, is not the cause of these social problems, but rather a reflection of the constraining social conditions that have historically and continually structured American girls’ lived experiences as well as a tool that girls use to navigate, and potentially subvert, those conditions.


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