I recently finished reading “American Girls: Social media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers” by Nancy Jo Sales. Sales, a journalist and mother of a teenage girl herself, spent over two years traveling the country to speak with over 200 girls ages thirteen to nineteen about their lives. And a big part of teenage girls’ lives now includes social media. Some might say their lives are lived ON social media. The book offers an insight into their lives and minds, and how social media is having an impact on their self-esteem, confidence, mental health, and relationships.
While it did take me a while to get through the book, I am glad I read it.
As I do when reading a book that I plan to review, I started highlighting important portions that I wanted to revisit. Soon I realized I was highlighting at least 50% of the text. Much of what I read had me feeling alarmed and nervous as a parent raising a daughter in the age of selfies, likes, and apps. Is it really that bad out there for teenage girls?
There is a lot of information in the book’s 370 pages. Some of it is a bit repetitive. The book is broken down into chapters by age – Chapter One covers age 13, Chapter two covers age 14, and so on, up to age 19. Some of the same issues are covered in multiple chapters due to this layout. However this does help to drive home the fact that teens of all ages are trying to navigate some of the same issues – whether a 13-year-old being hit up to “send nudes” in Snapchat or a college student experiencing dating as nothing more than swiping left or right on Tinder.
Some of the topics covered in the book are:
- Normalization of porn
- Slut shaming
- Body shaming
- FOMO (fear of missing out)
- Internet/phone addiction
- Depression and anxiety
- Myth of the “mean girl”
- Social media drama
- LGBTQ teens
- Suicide and self-harm
- Binge drinking
- Teen dating and sexuality
Pornography is a topic that is mentioned often and I think an important takeaway of the book is the effects of the “normalization” of online porn. “Whether or not a young person seeks out porn online, chances are she will see pornographic images popping up on her social media accounts, whether in circulated photos that appear on news feeds or as spam for porn sites”.
Sales attempts to answer the question of what it’s like to be “a girl growing up in a world inundated with nude and pornographic images of women and girls.” A middle school teacher mentioned that “Kids are getting distracted because they were sexting in class”. The publishing of “slut pages” or Instagram accounts where photos of nude girls are shared as if they were currency is a common occurrence.
While this book focuses on teenage girls, boys are certainly part of the equation and I would encourage the parents of boys to read this book too. Sales asked a few teenage boys in Virginia if they ever sent “dick pics” and the answer was yes – “usually as a way to try to get nudes in return”. I hope a similar book will be written focusing on boys and social media. While girls are using social media at a higher percentage than boys, reading this book had me wondering, where in our society are boys getting the idea that it’s okay to send a girl an unsolicited picture of his penis?
The book feels relevant having been researched between 2013 -2015 and published earlier this year, in February 2016. The apps mentioned that kids are using are the same apps I’ve written about, the same apps my daughter and her peers use. Sales talked with girls in 10 states, in urban and rural locations, from different races and socioeconomic statuses.
I couldn’t help but compare Sales findings to those of danah boyd, who covered similar topics in 2014 with “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”. Reading boyd’s book had me feeling like parents are overreacting; that I should just accept that social media is where kids are hanging out and they need these online spaces away from parent’s overly watchful eye. But while reading Sales’ book, I kept having the urge to rip the phone away from my daughter’s hands and close all her social media accounts.
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle?
Where are the parents? And what should parents do?
This question isn’t specifically addressed, but there are some insights weaved throughout. As one 13-year-old mused “I think the parents literally need to knock some sense into their kids and watch what their kids are doing”. Some parents may have no idea how their child’s life is being played out daily on social media (of course not YOU, Be Web Smart reader!) Then there are some parents who are not only aware, but enmeshed or even profiting from their teen’s involvement, like the dad in California helping with his 14-year-old daughter’s YouTube channel or the moms purportedly buying “Likes” for their daughters’ Instagram accounts. So I think this an important takeaway for parents – are we in some ways enablers when we hand over a phone or an iPad? Are we part of the problem?
As Sales mentions near the end, this book is “not a parenting book, but I hope the information it provides and the testimonies of the girls I interviewed will form the basis of an understanding of what girls around the country are experiencing online”. She goes on to say “Every parent has to decide for him or herself how to respond. Girls I interviewed told me that they want and need our guidance, and I feel it is our responsibility to give it.”
So my suggestion is to read the book, try not freak out, and take a few days to think about the book. Then use it as a conversation starter with your daughter – or son – and regularly check in with them. You may decide social media monitoring is something that could help you gain insight and help guide your teen to healthy behaviors, especially during the tween and early teen years, just to make sure they’re on the right track towards a well-adjusted adulthood.
Buy it: American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers is available on Amazon.com.
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