BAD news travels fast, and a sharp decline in happiness among girls certainly qualifies as gloomy tidings. Smartphones and social media are taking the blame, but as usual the headlines don’t tell the full story about young people’s relationships with technology.

An editor seeking a positive line from the same survey, by the Girlguiding organisation, wouldn’t have had to look far: The number of girls aged 7-10 who enjoy studying information and communications technology (ICT) has more than doubled in a decade. This must be a good thing, surely? Girl coders, girl tech geeks, girls running the world(wide web)?

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But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch when it comes to technology and girls.

As recently as 2011, the Girls’ Attitudes Survey made no mention of social media pressure when asking about sources of stress, but in 2018 this ranked second only to exam pressure (which was cited by 69% of young women aged 11-21, compared to a massive 77% in 2011). It would be easy to conclude that logging off social media is the answer – and it’s easy for those who didn’t grow up with it to smugly suggest so.

“Why do we use our phones so much when sometimes they make us feel upset?” asked 14-year-old Emma Stevens in her excellent contribution to The National’s Year of Young People series earlier this month. She described using the technology every day, many times a day, to keep up with friends, follow celebrities and get fashion tips ... but all the while recognising that viewing “perfect people with perfect lives” can have a negative effect on her mood.

“Your phone, your finger on the ‘off’ switch” was the swift and unhelpful response from one reader on The National’s website, who presumably in her own youth didn’t concern herself with such things as friends, celebrities or fashion. Yes, switching off is an option (as Emma mentioned, naturally, in her article) but it’s much easier said than done, particularly when your entire friendship circle is still plugged in.

Going offline means missing out – on conversations, invitations, private jokes, daft memes. It means restricting your social life to the people you see “IRL”, and even then being half in, half out. The concept of online-only friends might seem strange or even sinister to older generations – especially if they base their understanding on Channel 4’s bizarre new reality show The Circle, in which none of the contestants meet or speak to each other and several are duping or “catfishing” the other – but to young people it’s natural to communicate with people all over the world who share their interests.

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There’s an obvious tension between two of the most prominent current narratives around girls: the moral panic around their use of the internet; and the push to get more of them interested in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

The former manages to blend concern and contempt with legitimate fears around grooming and sexualisation, merging into tuts of disapproval at the vanity of selfie culture and the rise of “influencers” with feminine interests such as beauty, fashion and celebrities (as opposed to acceptably masculine ones such as gaming, sports or pranks). The latter is about challenging all of the subtle cues that tell girls “these subjects aren’t for you” – an invidious process that begins at birth. But is a beauty blogger not a woman in STEM? Is a shopping app a less valuable creation than a shoot-em-up video game?

The National:

From Kirstie Allsopp smashing her children’s tablets to the World Health Organisation warning of gaming disorders, the notion of “screen time” as inherently harmful to children seems intuitively correct to many parents – especially those who didn’t have a mobile phone, let alone a smartphone, laptop or robot-driven home entertainment system when they were growing up. But in a world driven by technology, would it be fair or even ethical to impose a no-gadgets regime, or curb internet use in the same way that penny-pinching parents once set limits on their children’s landline calls?

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Earlier this year the UK Culture Secretary Matt Hancock urged parents to set limits on their children’s internet use and called for more bans on mobile phones in schools – fair suggestions, but accompanied by rather dramatic warnings about “very serious risks”, “growing concerns around the impact on children’s mental health” and the conclusion that medical evidence “backs up every parent’s instinct: that children must be protected”. But the evidence to support a link between online activity is weak, with Andy Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University telling The Guardian that “99% of a child’s wellbeing has nothing measurable to do with screens”. Of course the instinct of parents is to protect their children, but a fully protected child would never climb a tree, or play sports, or acquire coding skills during their primary-school years. Despite all of the focus on (and stress about) formal education, tests and exams, these skills could easily prove to be more valuable to them than a handful of Highers when they enter the employment market. “Digital natives” enjoy studying ICT long before they know what that acronym means.

Wrenching smartphones from the hands of unhappy girls is not the solution, but talking to them might be. Face-to-face, in the real world, and asking: “Are you OK?”