Girls, it’s not rocket science. It’s brain science, silly!

Why our girls need social drama…and boundaries

“Streaking” meant something else when I was young. If you are from the late baby boomer or early Me Generation era, you likely remember the popular trend of young people running buck naked across football fields and college campuses. Historians now attribute that behavior to a country in the grip of social unrest. It seems a logical conclusion that at least some young people associated with the “counterculture movement” chose to push the boundaries of social mores by dropping their drawers and sprinting through big crowds. Their public exhibition may have even been a statement about historically biased social justice practices. Others were probably pretty happy running around naked just because … !

Dr. Michael Gurian, a psychologist and leading brain researcher, recently introduced an aging, socially dated me to the current meaning of “streaking” at the annual National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs Conference. These days, adolescent girls “streak” by getting into a constant, unbroken stream of social media posts. Gurian’s reference to modern-age streaking came in the midst of his central message to mental health care providers and educators: the male and female brain are inherently different; obscuring these differences because of societal ideology that compels us to see everyone as the same places the healthy development of our youth in peril.

As I was breathing a sigh of relief that there remains a scientific imperative to continue to better understand gender differences even in the midst of a (very appropriate and called for) resurgence of discourse on gender equality, I was stuck on this streaking thing. Think about it. The heightened emotion of receiving likes and dislikes or experiencing the power of doling them out in rapid succession, opening oneself up to a cascade of bullying or the possibility that the dynamic shifts in midstream and the bullied becomes the bully, all extended over a marathon of frenetic online activity. Meanwhile, the brain science shows the developing girl’s brain activity in scans, lit up like a city skyline at night, under siege in every corner of its functioning. Yikes.

Thought about within the context of its developmental implications, news of this societal trend lit up my own brain, reminding me how we must treat, educate, and parent teen and pre-teen girls.

Girls discover where they begin and end and learn how to connect to others by first experiencing what it is to smash up against social and emotional boundaries. Exploring and pushing these boundaries without restraint, however, is dangerous. Streaking in the 70s might have led to a nasty case of frostbite; streaking today has more serious implications for female mental health and brain development.

It’s hardly news that we have a growing population of depressed and anxious girls. As Dr. Gurian’s scans demonstrate, the female brain is already exponentially more active than the male brain, which should portend terrific adult functioning. But that same developing brain is vulnerable to overload. Too much multitasking, too much technology — particularly of the type that creates intense emotional reaction and the capacity for endless cycles of rumination — exposes that vulnerable brain to toxic levels of stress before it’s sufficiently developed to manage the overload.

While societal boundaries for girls and women should be eradicated once and for all, brain science shows us the usefulness of embracing male and female differences and the need for developing boundaries designed to serve and protect the developing female brain. Dr. Gurian’s recent remarks served to confirm perhaps the obvious that my generation’s version of streaking was far less boundary-pushing and risk-filled. Less obvious is the take-away that less is more. This generation of girls desperately needs educational and therapeutic (and family) systems and settings that promote internal and external boundaries, develop emotional self-regulation and anxiety management, cultivate healthy relational skills, and teach limited, productive technology and social media use.

About The Author

Sarah McMillan, Ed.D.