American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers

I had to read this in small sips to manage my incredulous rage and keep my blood pressure in check. Now that I have sipped my way to the end, I have a full appreciation for what Sales put herself through to get this story: interviews with teenagers around the U.S., witnessing their obsessive phone checking, viewing “slut pages,” mastering an entirely new language (thots, thirsty, fuckboys, etc.) and technology (Yik Yak, Tinder, etc.). I also appreciate the arc of the story—some of the darkest truths revealed in the middle to three-quarters, then an upswing with older girls seeming to catch on that the misogyny, objectification, passivity are optional and Sales leaves you with a somewhat uplifted spirit after slamming your head against the puke-soaked concrete floor of a basement where girls are prancing around doing duck-face selfies and worshiping the Kardashians while being dissed by the fuckboys.

For those looking for the short answer to how things got so insanely messed up with twelve-year-old girls being asked for nude pictures and getting dick pics within minutes of their first turning on iPhones: widespread availability and societal acceptance of online porn with degrading images of women.

Her chapters group the discussion around the ages of the girls, so chapter one is about thirteen-year-old girls, the next is about fourteen year olds, then fifteen, etc. up to nineteen. So you begin at a low point, your stomach churning to hear about the pressures put on 13 year old girls to manage their online reputation, be attractive to boys but not too attractive (slut-shaming), along with fending off online bullying and doing all the other normal teenage stuff like school and friends and activities.

What’s part of the cause of this? Terrible parents, made even more terrible by technology. “And so many children growing up today experience the world as a never-ending series of photo shoots, for public consumption.” As one Boca Raton parent relates, “I’ve seen mothers take their daughters to have hair and makeup done to do selfies.”

A group of thirteen year olds in Montclair NJ share their thoughts with Sales:

As they started talking about all this, they became urgent and intense, just as the girls in Boca had become when they were talking about social media. They began talking fast, raising their voices, interrupting and overlapping one another.

“All we talk about all day is what’s happening on our phones, but we never talk about how weird that is,” Sophia said.

“I spend so much time on Instagram looking at people’s pictures and sometimes I’ll be like, Why am I spending my time on this? And yet I keep doing it,” said Melinda.

Sales interviews Michael Harris, author of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, who says, “I think, before the digital age, girls had more opportunities to develop a rich interior life. At some point they were experiencing solitude. They had time to daydream or write in diaries or just think. Now they’re online most of the time and a lot of what they’re doing there is comparing themselves or being compared. Online life is a toxic enabler of the desire to compare.”

One of the Boca Raton girls mentions that people say mean things on social media that they wouldn’t say in person, which is backed up by a 2013 study of cyberbullying that reports “perceived anonymity online and the safety and security of being behind a computer screen aid in freeing individuals from traditionally constraining pressures of society, conscience, morality, and ethics to behave in a normative manner.” Sales sums up, “digital communication seems to relieve people of their conscience, enabling them to feel more comfortable behaving unethically.”

Lots of the same studies I’ve already come across crop up here, like the 40% decrease in empathy in college students and the troubling effect screens have on making kids not able to communicate with each other in person.

“Exploitative and disrespectful men have always existed. There are many evolved men, but there may be something going on in culture now that is making some more resistant to evolving,” said Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College.

“Misogyny now has become so normalized,” said Paul Roberts, author of Impulse Society. “We can’t even see the absurdity and the inequity of it, it’s so pervasive. When the male gaze was digitized, it was almost as if it was internalized.” He continues, “You realize how insane things are today when you think about the relative rate of change. When I was in high school, if I had gone around saying, Here’s a picture of me, like me, I would have gotten punched. If a girl went around passing out naked pictures of herself, people would have thought she needed therapy. Now, that’s just Selfie Sunday.”

I was glad to see Sales touch on hypermasculinity, albeit briefly. First coined in 1984, it was used to describe the behavior of collage-age men who associated masculinity with “calloused sexual attitudes towards women,” “violence as manly,” and “danger as exciting.” Since that time it’s only become more pervasive, the media flooding us with images of men being hypermasculine and degrading women.

Sales interviews Donna Freitas, author of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, who said, “The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what’s expected of them. They’re learning sex through porn. What it means to have sex, a lot of the time, is to mimic what they see in pornography.” In a later chapter, Freitas talked about interviewing a girl who woke up with a boy masturbating in her mouth, “She was talking about this like this was a usual occurrence, and I think it is.” The girl was surprised when Freitas referred to the experience as a sexual assault. “She had no idea that’s what it was. I’m not sure some young women know what consent is anymore.” Freitas also said, “We’ve learned to be distant from our bodies,” something she attributed to our increased interactions on screens.

Girls don’t even realize they are being sexually harassed when forced to look at raunchy images in school or having boys try to unzip their pants or grab their butts or say lewd comments. A 2011 American Association of University Women survey reports that “some researchers claim that sexual harassment is so common for girls that many fail to recognize it as sexual harassment when it happens.” A 2014 study of Midwestern girls found that girls failed to report incidents of sexual harassment in school because they regarded them as “normal.”

Sales brings up the question about why women/girls are being so passive, simply accepting this new state of affairs. It’s a good question, one that I think is partially answered by the lack of role models available in the media for this kind of pushback, standing up for oneself. It’s nearly impossible to find a movie that passes the Bechdel test, much less has a powerful and strong female lead. In our world dominated by images in the media, it’s critical to have a counterbalance to the flood of negative images.