• American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers

    By Nancy Jo Sales, 2016


    Nancy Jo Sales is an award winning Vanity Fair writer, who crosses the country and talks directly with teens about their experiences on and off line - confusion, fears, new sexual norms, sexism and Internet porn. 

    In a world inundated with nude and pornographic images of women and girls, what is it like to be a girl growing up in America today?  This book answers this question in an alarmingly direct manner. It is not for the faint of heart.  Some of what it written below may be offensive, but I believe that what is most offensive is that this is happening every day to our children. 

    Much of the information below is either a direct or indirect quote.  Sheila's comments are pretty obvious.  I will forewarn you that this book will upset you; however, Sales' findings correlate directly with what students at Drake are telling me in the confidence of my office.  Our girls (your children) are sharing the exact same types of stories about what is happening.  They are alarmed, curious, confused and overwhelmed. 

    Instagram, Whisper, Yik Yak, Vine, YouTube, Kik, Facebook, Ask.fm, Tinder, porn hub - Sales looks into these forces in the lives of our youth.  I put a post it on almost every page of this book.  I do not consider myself a prude, yet I often had to set this book aside, as much of what is happening to our youth left me feeling nauseous.  The prevailing theme of much of these sites is sex: people posting about it, wanting it, filming it, etc.  Kids are blunt in their communication (i.e., DTF - down to f**k?).  It can be disturbing to read, but given the fact that many Drake students are well aware of, and participating in, this type of communication, it is worth consideration.

    College campuses are rampant in terms of sexual imaging.  Syracusesnap recently featured pictures of kids in dorms doing drugs and having sex, with references to the football team thrown in.  It was an odd melding of pornography and school spirit meant to makes Syracuse appeal to the masses. 

    UCLAyak had sexually explicit photos and videos cycling every few seconds.  These videos and photos go viral, young people feel they are missing something if they don't view them and then there is a wildfire aspect of these racing around on line. Then the girls involved get "slut-shamed."

    These Yik yak and Snapchat accounts are called "fun at college" and glorify drug use, pornography and sexual exploits, some involving physical violence against girls. 

    For most teens, social media is where they live.  They are on line 24/7.  They are involved and influenced by social media to a larger extent than many adults can fathom.  Most teens will admit to a social media addiction, and a feeling of loss if they are not constantly connected to their phone.  For most girls, the pressure to be considered "hot" is felt on a nearly continual basis online.  

    Social media sites do not glorify any female accomplishments, other than looking "hot."  According to the American Psychological Association, this chronic attention to physical appearance levels fewer cognitive resources available for other activities.  While it discusses at length the fact that American girls are consistently viewed as objects of sexual desire, Sales wants to explore what she considers a damaging reason for this objectification: online porn.  Some studies report that kids start seeing online porn a young as age six, and the majority of boys and girls have watched if before 18.  The percentage varies from 40-90% of teens - significant.  (A recent Ted Talk about online porn suggested that finding a control group of teen boys who have not seen porn by middle school is no longer possible.) 

    Much of the online porn seen by teens is characterized by what appears to be violence against women, as well as domination and control by men. The words of the porn industry are disturbing: I am not quoting them here as they are incredibly offensive.  Suffice it to say, women are not treated with respect or kindness or a modicum of civility.  The idea that girls can be treated like objects has no doubt led to the high numbers of college rape victims (see CNN's The Hunting Grounds for more detailed information and specific campus statistics.  Upwards of 110,000 college students are raped each year, the vast majority of them female.)

    Girls tell Sales that social media is destroying their lives, but they can't turn it off, as then they may have no life. Kids stay up into the wee hours of the night texting and posting on social media.  Then they get up, drink a Red Bull or some other energy drink, and head off to school. It is alarming how many students arrive at school exhausted, and it is not just from homework (which is generally done with the phone sending and receiving a steady stream of texts). 

    The stories of many young girls who become online performers on YouTube and then attract advertisers are described.  Many of these girls end up so enthralled with their online persona that they drop out of regular school, take online classes, and spend the bulk of their time generating followers in order to make money through advertising.  Their friends...all online.

    The book goes through each year in the life of teens, from 13 through 19.  Sales interviews girls at each age throughout the US and reports on what is happening at each age level.  From mid-afternoon parties with drugs and alcohol and hookups, to a steady stream of online videos of sexual content, to some girls realizing that they are only 17 and have already had multiple partners (too many to name), to college students who decide to delete all of their online accounts, as they are completely washed out from their partying, this book tells it all. 

    Girls talk about how disgusted they are with much of the online content, but they also share their fears that, if they don't participate and watch the videos, they will be seen as afraid, prudish or missing out.  

    A discussion of nude photos of school girls in which they are treated like baseball cards shows up, as well as stories of kids who have felt no recourse but suicide after someone has shared nude photos of them.  This book illustrates the myriad ways that our kids are being damaged by social media, but many parents remain "in the dark" about how their children are using their phones.  The fact that many apps for porn or online photos can be hidden from parents shows the lengths the industry will go to in order to increase business. 

    Sales also talks with boys, who feel at ease demanding nude photos from girls and asking rude questions about whether girls they have never met in person want to engage in oral, vaginal or anal sex with them.  These boys admit that they are not interested in a girl for her personality and that they certainly are not interested in sexual encounters that result in mutual fulfillment.  They are interested in girls who are hot, have great bodies, and will be there merely to fulfill their sexual desires. 

    Several girls discussed their anxiety, their visits to therapists for anxiety and stress, and the relation that social media played in their diagnoses.  

    There really is too much information here for me to do it justice, so I will say that it is imperative for parents to become informed as to what is happening, stop assuming that it is everyone else's child who is sexting or posting or receiving sexually degrading images, and start having some very frank conversations with your children about healthy relationships that include sexuality and what a mutually fulfilling and caring relationship looks like.  

    The girls in this book were so excited to talk about what is happening - and finally have someone listen - that they shared a great deal of insight into how and why they are being harmed.  Kids today are subjected to images (on TV, social media, music videos) that perpetuate the victimization and brutalization of women to a far greater degree than some adults can imagine.  There are 300 more pages of girls and boys being open and honest about photographing themselves nude or partially nude and being involved to a far greater extent in social media at younger and younger ages than I thought possible. 

    I started to take note of sexual content on non-cable television while reading this book, and was sadly alarmed by how often women were depicted as "whores" who exist solely for the sexual gratification of males.  It was also alarming to hear so many sexually degrading acts described and defined on television shows that air before 10 pm.  I doubt I would have taken note of these had I not been in the throes of this book, but there were things that I found so offensive, that I cannot even imagine how I may have reacted as a teenager?!?

    I am going post a few quotes:

    It's like Apple has a monopoly on adolescence.

    I'm a teenager.  These are my 'ho' years.

    Young women and men are unhappy with the way things are and the sex they are having.  It really seems to empty them out.

    The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what is expected of them.  Everybody is becoming a sex object, a sex toy.

    What happens at parties? Drinking, drugs, smoking pot. Cheap liquor, beer, and Molly.

    Strong, intelligent privileged girls who saw themselves as future doctors don't feel they can speak up when being sexually harassed at school.

    Without realizing it, I've spent the majority of my teen life addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance. 

    Something about social media is making girls more submissive to boys. 

    In March 2015, a 19 year old girl was gang-raped in broad daylight, videotaped as hundreds of spring breakers watched.  She remembered nothing about it.

    Porn of "passed out girls" getting gang-raped is not uncommon.

    Rape is not an uncommon theme in popular rap (explicit lyrics quoted in book).

    Why don't boys date in college?  We don't have to.  If I'm with a girl with dirty standards, I might as well get a few friends in on the action.

    Social media is a nightmare. 

    The conclusion focuses on having a national conversation about online porn and its effects on kids.  Porn isn't going away, and children have phones and access at a much younger age each year.  But the violent porn is getting worse, and girls are being denigrated more each month (When I began this book in May, the New York Times ran an article about passed out girls being gang-raped in dorm rooms as the trending teen porn to watch.) 

    Now more than ever, girls need feminism, critical tools to evaluate their experiences, adults who respect them to provide guidance and a focus on their value, not as sexual objects for men, but as equal human beings of value who have much to contribute to society.  At the core of feminism is respect - for self and others.

    One girl talking about family dinner on Friday nights as something that is making a huge difference for her.  Talking and sharing with family is a rarity, but something her family is prioritizing, with no electronics from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

    While I wish the conclusion had been longer and provided more concrete suggestions for parents, I do think that conversation, listening and modeling healthy relationships - sexual or otherwise- is a good start.  We need to find a way to navigate our children away from the cyber world and back to a world of relationships based on respect and caring.  It is not going to be simple or quick.  It will take massive effort, and the ability to monitor or take away online access when our kids are in danger.  

    There are several other sources you can turn to on brain development which will demonstrate the fact that kids are often too young to monitor their own online use, as their brains are not yet fully developed (The Deadly Wandering for example).  Giving younger and younger children access to content that they cannot decipher for themselves often does them more harm than good.  Phones have been likened by some experts to drugs.  The likes, comments and texts your child gets provide a hit of dopamine much like the one drug addicts feel.  Many of your kids admit this to me in my office. They feel that they are trapped and don't know how to extricate themselves from the web of online connections that cause them undue anxiety.  I will keep listening and encouraging them to reach out to you, their parents, for more guidance and support. 

    Posted 10/04/2016 by Sheila Souder.