By Mukta Chowdhary, Amelia Rance
Throughout the last 30 years, teen girls have grown up watching adults play high school students in films and on TV. But the tide is turning, and teen girls are seeing a more authentic depiction of themselves on their screens. Indeed, the rise of teen artists like Billie Eilish and Hunter Schafer is challenging traditional norms of what it means to be a teen girl in America. Along those same lines, teen activists such as Greta Thunberg and Emma González are leading social change and inspiring this younger generation to make a difference in the world as activists.
These role models highlight a shift in the media toward a gen Z portrayal of teenagers, which is helping teen girls come into their own and become leaders for tomorrow. Unlike any other generation before them, gen Z teen girls see their peers as activists, artists, creators, and, of course, teen girls.
Fullscreen's latest report "Teen Girls: Coming into their Own Today to Blaze the Future Tomorrow" reveals these trends. The study, in partnership with research firm Talk Shoppe, took the pulse of 1,500 respondents ages 13 to 37, with a nationally representative quantitative survey. It also conducted 11 qualitative interviews across the gen Z and millennial generations, as well as three sub-groups including teen girls ages 13 to 17.
The report explores the evolving identity of teen girls and uncovers several truths about this demographic that touch on self-expression, female representation in the media, and social media. Today's teen girls are feeling their power. In fact, the top two attributes that teen girls used to describe what it means to be female in America were "powerful" and "empowered," according to the survey. Brands can connect with this young generation by understanding their complexity and helping them explore their identity, because to know their truths is to win their hearts.
Embracing Many Identities
When analyzing teenage identity, terms like American, athlete, and gamer showed up as top descriptors among both teen boys and girls. However, teen girls were much more likely to identify with underrepresented voices, such as persons of color and LGBTQ+ descriptors. In fact, they were nine times more likely than teen boys to identify with the LGBTQ+ community — illustrating that at a very early age, teen girls are embracing their many identities.
What's more, they are more likely to identify as artists compared to their male equivalent and older female counterparts. "Artist" shows up as the third descriptor with teen girls but then moves to fifth and 10th with "cusper" girls (19- to 25-year-olds) and millennial women (23- to 37-year-olds), highlighting a crucial moment of artistic self-expression among teen girls. Almost three-quarters of them acknowledged creative expression as an important part of their lives.
While teen girls prioritize self-expression, it also causes a lot of stress for them. Teens in general identified academics and relationships as top stressors; however, "identity and self-expression" ranks fourth, at 16 percent for teen girls — twice as high as teen boys.
The study also found that teen girls don't feel comfortable openly expressing all sides of themselves to everyone. Instead, they are intentional about what they share and with whom. For instance, nearly 60 percent of the respondents agree that they feel limited expressing certain parts of themselves with specific people or groups. As a result, they favor formats that allow a 1:1 connection. And the top format for teen girls to express themselves is direct message (DM) — more so than millennial women.
Teen girls gravitate to this medium because they control who is on the receiving end and it's the safest space to share their feelings, opinions, or interests. After DMs, teen girls favor reposting content which enables them to share aspects of who they are but with the protection of being written by someone else.
Empowering One Another
More than two-thirds of teen girls feel that female representation by brands and the media needs improvement. Despite the surge in body-positive campaigns in the last several years, teen girls believe that media representation of the female body has gotten worse. In rejecting traditional media imagery, teen girls are instead finding representation elsewhere — in digital creators.
Teen girls today follow digital creators at a rate three times higher than two years ago. Six of the top 10 creators followed by teen girls are (or include) other teen girls, such as Haley Pham, Flippin' Katie, and Emma and Ellie. More than half of teen girls said that they follow digital creators because they are relatable and speak their language.
Brands can be a proponent of self-worth and confidence by partnering with influencers who encourage teen girls to lean into their power.
The Positive Effects of Social Media
Contrary to the general assumption that teen girls are depressed, lonely, and anxious, teen girls are feeling inspired, connected, and empowered on social media. They are more likely than other cohorts to say that social media has a positive effect on their close friendships and that it is a place where they can foster connections and relate to their peers. Nearly three-quarters of teen girls agree that the content they see on social media makes them happy, the survey says. These positive emotions are in turn leading them to spend more time on social channels than any other generation, at 50-plus hours a week.
In addition to building connections online, teen girls are craving connections in real life as well; more specifically, they are connecting with each other to be change agents. When interviewed, teen girls felt strongly about making an impact in the world. One teen, for example, explained how she used to post trips to the mall but now reposts content about global events, and more than one-third of the cohort plans to become more involved in politics in the next year. While they cannot yet vote, they are giving some of their most valuable commodities — their time, money, and voice — to effect change for a better tomorrow, more so than teen boys.
Brands can be allies to younger people by helping them take a stand. Nearly 60 percent of teen girls prefer to buy products that give back to good causes. They care about what is happening throughout the world and want to make a difference. Brands can play their part by speaking on issues that align with their ethos.
Winning Their Hearts
As the content teen girls are creating and consuming is evolving, so is the manner in which they use social. The truth is that — despite being double-tap happy — teen girls are not loyal consumers. Their brand loyalty has decreased within the last two years, and much more so than teen boys and millennial women.
Brands that want to break through must understand the complexity of teen girls. They are feeling empowered but also self-conscious, inspired but also afraid of the future. They consider themselves creative but, with age, that feeling tends to diminish.
Today's teen girls are in a moment of empowerment. Generations of women have blazed paths for them to put their whole selves forward and they are uniquely positioned to figure out who they are without having to hide behind stereotypes.
By learning about the evolving identities of teen girls, brands can connect with this generation more authentically and help augment their voice as they lean into their role as change agents.
Mukta Chowdhary is director of strategy and cultural forecasting, and Amelia Rance is director of measurement and insights, both at Fullscreen, a partner in the ANA Brand Activation Partner Program.