What do Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Beyoncé all have in common?

Well, aside from fame, wealth, and a glittering lifestyle, they have among the biggest Instagram followings on the planet.

Together, they appear in many millions of social media feeds a day. But the impact following a limited range of people can have on young people’s health and wellbeing is a growing cause of concern.

The problems social media use has been linked to – from eating disorders and negative body image to anxiety and lack of self-confidence – are well documented, but research to date has largely focused on limiting exposure and online safety.

A new project soon to be rolled out to kids across the UK is aiming to change that.

Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg arrives to board the Malizia II boat in Plymouth, Britain.
Image: REUTERS/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Schools are being shown a study for which teenage girls were asked to follow at least four inspirational women. Some of them were famous, like lawyer, writer and former first lady Michelle Obama, climate change activist Greta Thunberg, and tennis star Serena Williams. Others were less well-known, doing inspirational work in science, engineering or the arts.

Those participating in the study, Disrupting the Feed, overwhelmingly said their self-esteem had improved and their horizons expanded, setting themselves – and achieving – higher goals.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

A more diverse feed

The study cites research into 2 million teenage social media accounts by data science company Starcount that found most girls limited their social media interests to beauty, fashion, and reality TV. Boys, meanwhile, had an average of 12 different interests.

By following new and inspiring people, teenagers can set their digital footprints on a new path, with social media algorithms showing a more diverse feed as a result.

Introducing more positive role models into teenage girls’ feeds resulted in more positive actions in the offline world, with girls having higher and more focused personal and career aspirations. But it also prompted more positive interactions with social media overall. Girls in the study chose to adopt healthier practices such as taking breaks from social media and rethinking who they followed, and removing those who had a negative impact on their self-esteem.

So, who do I follow?

Here are some of the positive role models suggested by the Female Lead, the charitable organization behind the study.

Callie Thorpe celebrates women’s bodies in all shapes and sizes. She promotes a positive attitude and acceptance and tries to help others overcome their insecurities.

Jess Megan also promotes body confidence and has worked as an ambassador for organizations such as breast cancer charity CoppaFeel to help normalize women’s bodies of all kinds.

Sophie Radcliffe is an endurance athlete and fitness blogger, who encourages young people to be active. She set up TrailBlazers, an initiative which aims to empower and build confidence in young girls.

Katherine Grainger is the most decorated female British Olympian of all time, and the chair of government Olympic and Paralympic investment agency UK Sport.

Kimberley Wilson is a chartered psychologist specializing in a “whole body” approach to mental health. She writes about the impact of eating well and lifestyle on mental wellbeing.

Stemettes says it wants to inspire the next generation of girls to get involved in STEM subjects, showing them that “girls do science, technology and maths too”.

For other suggestions of who to follow, click here.