Most nights, I put my children to bed. I sing to them. I rub my youngest daughter’s back. After they have drifted asleep, a sense of concern inevitably wells up in my mind. This is parenting: every moment of joy is often followed by a moment of dread regarding the various dangers they might confront and how best to equip them for their future. I, like many parents or caregivers, sometimes grapple with how best to approach discussing scary topics with my kids. How much is too much?
Apart from my own kids, I spend most of my days with middle and high school girls, their teachers, and communities across America discussing national security. Just as a parent can detect their child’s illness before onset, adults like me are observing the onset of disturbance among girls. Importantly, girls across the United States are carrying about with them a great weight of fear, the kind of fear that comes from unknowing, the kind of unknowing that arises when the adults are also unknowing. In an effort to better understand how to empower girls for a surely different future, I ask questions in an effort to better understand what girls fear and why and how they overcome their fears.
With respect to their personal security, girls’ typical fears include rape, murder, some physical intrusion, or loss of family or a loved one. Yet there are new incarnations of existing threats affecting girls’ personal security and capturing headlines. Girls know about the risks; they just don’t know what to do about them. As one middle school girl recently said to me, “We feel like we’re drowning.”
This category of threat emerges at the intersection of society, technology, and national security. It involves often gendered threats that exploit girls’ online engagement and impacts their personal security: disinformation and fake news, increasingly toxic online communities such as the involuntary celibate movement (“incel”) — which was recently labeled “America’s newest domestic terrorism threat” by leading national security experts — deep fakes, and AI bias. Girls begin receiving inappropriate imagery online during early adolescence, see and share disinformation on their social media networks, and have repeatedly (and at first glance unknowingly) seen deep fakes.
From government mavericks to tech “boy geniuses,” for a generation that relies primarily on Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube for news and content — all highly visual platforms — optics matter.
Importantly, the manner in which this threat category is affecting girls is being used as predictive of how these threats will affect the masses. If it can happen to girls, it can happen to any of us. By failing to reinforce girls on the frontlines with proactive efforts, we repeat the sins of our past both by failing to actualize a whole-of-nation approach our national security requires while also depriving our nation of the benefits of girls’ powerful agency in security.
What makes matters worse is that a set of disempowering practices and behaviors foster concern among girls regarding various national security risks to their personal security, without context of risk probabilities or engagement tools. These practices include a lack of public education. Girls simulate worst-case scenarios in their minds and are unable to accurately assess their security concerns. In a more typical personal security scenario, for example, fear of an intruder, girls seek comfort from family and friends, at home in their rooms, or on an iPhone. However, the national security context is unique: neither friends nor parents can necessarily provide adequate assurances about foreign interference by Russia or a domestic terrorism incident, a phone might present the risk, and girls feel vulnerable and insecure. Disempowering practices also include the type of fear-based language long associated with national security but exacerbated by a lack of public education about national security threats uniquely affecting girls and women.
Disempowering behaviors include continuous all-male representation and depictions of the national security industry on panels, news stations, and film. From government mavericks to tech “boy geniuses,” for a generation that relies primarily on Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube for news and content — all highly visual platforms — optics matter. A lack of public education coupled with these disempowering behaviors sends a message to girls that although they are experiencing the actual impact of national security threats to their personal security, they are not capable of problem-solving as girls or decision-making as women in national security.
As was the case with the many frontiers that have come before in history, national security is women’s endeavor. This is also girls’ endeavor, and they are on the frontlines. Certainly, a teenage girl versus a foreign government is not a fair fight, but the risk of not empowering them with education and tools is too grave for a generation of Americans that relies so heavily on technology for information, security, and importantly, identity.
Empowering girls in their personal security at the intersection of national security necessitates securing them with the information they seek. This demands greater public education and transparency from government and industry on behalf of its constituents and customers. It requires enhancing domains of empowerment such as agency, autonomy, and leadership to consider these challenges. It requires more proactive efforts to highlight the role of women in national security across sectors. It demands a decisive shift in societal beliefs that relegate girls and women comfortably in the negative spaces of security and defense. Finally, it requires proactively cultivating a positive valuation of girls’ security through political and industry leadership, mission, messaging, and practice.
As a parent, I understand the risk-reward calculation of broaching scary topics with kids. Importantly, girls are agents of their own security every day by being girls, but their personal security is at risk in new and unforeseen ways. Empowering girls today, at this pivotal moment in time, will mitigate risks to women’s advancement across sectors and generations.
Lauren Bean Buitta is founder and CEO of Girl Security, a nonpartisan, citizen sector non-profit empowering girls in national security and building a first-of-its-kind pipeline for women in national security. @Lbuitta @GirlSecurity_