The treacherous journey of friendship for girls

In primary school, social media really has no place at all.
In primary school, social media really has no place at all. 

In any list of things that make childhood great, friends would have to be right up there. For girls especially, the network of friendships they navigate among is crucial to their well-being.

Yet in recent years, it's often become a toxic mix, with as much hurt as help. If you sometimes despair at your daughter's friendship pain, then you are not alone. Friendship for girls has changed.

On talkback radio a few weeks ago, a caller gave this perspective. Her daughters ranged in age from 11 to 19. But her youngest's experience was immeasurably nastier and more destructive. Put-downs, exclusion and bullying in person and online were rampant.

In that one decade, she had seen girlhood change. That isn't just a fluke – those are the exact years we have seen girls' mental health decline across the Western world.

We believe there are two causes for this. The first is the one everyone focuses on: the rise of social media. It allows communication from a distance, so that nastiness can arise without seeing the harm it does. We don't see the sorrow and tears our words create, and it can easily become a game.

In primary school, social media really has no place at all.

And the "always on" nature of social media means there is no respite, and anxious checking of mobile phones goes on into the early hours. It's affected the sleep of millions of girls.

The second cause, though, is deeper. It's the disappearance of adults – especially older women – from the lives of girls. Mum, aunties, mum's friends, grandmothers used to feature daily in girls' lives. Now we are just too busy. So the peer group has taken over that need for affirmation and wisdom, and they just can't fill that gap.

We've abandoned our girls (yes, dads, too) and they have made the peer group more important than it should be.

The first step is to limit online/social media time. In primary school, it really has no place at all.


For many families, putting all phones on the chargers, in the kitchen, at seven o'clock, has become the choice, as they fight to get back their daughter's peace of mind.

Helping girls to navigate friendship is also important. In primary school, she will come home hundreds of times with friendship angst consuming her. She will come to see if you have time to talk. If you do, it will just be a matter of hearing her out, and staying calm and patient.

There are some friendship lessons every child must learn, such as that it's OK to not always go along with your friends. A friend can differ and still be a friend. And that compromise is important, but never compromise yourself.

They need to understand that you can't trust some people and that we all make mistakes.

In my book Ten Things Girls Need Most, I put friendship skills at No. 3.

Girls with inner strength who know they are loved will still experience pain on the path to learning about friendship. But they will fall back to knowing they are worthwhile, and not depend on the fickleness of their peer group, or worse – the approval of boys, or their hotness in the looks department.

Being a good human always wins through in the end.

Steve Biddulph is a psychologist and the author of Ten Things Girls Need Most. This is part of his weekly series for Fairfax Media.