I am reading “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Girls” by Nancy Jo Sales. It is making me so mad, but I’m having a hard time figuring out if I am mad at the author, the girls she spoke to, the culture they live in or all three and more.
The author, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, spent the last two-and-a-half years hanging out with teenage girls as they hung out with each other and their phones. My American girls are a lot littler — 2 and 9 — than the Serenas, Sophies and Sierras (all pseudonyms) that Sales followed, studied and tried to understand. Nevertheless, the book was illuminating and terrifying in many ways.
Close readers of this column know I am a late adapter. They have to be giving it away for free for me to be even remotely interested. I am just now allowing GPS to help me get from point A to point B, and I second guess Siri the same way I used to always re-check the map and worry I had gone too far. As late adapter and late bloomer, reading about 12-year-old girls sending noodz and slut-shaming is pretty hard to stomach. At the same time, I’m not surprised that middle schoolers are sexually active. I graduated from Mount Royal Middle in Baltimore almost 30 years ago (OMG) with at least two pre-teen moms.
What is surprising is how this “second world” (as one girl calls it) is both all consuming and completely vapid. One girl in Los Angeles told Sales that social media was destroying her life, but when Sales asked why she didn’t just stop, she replied: “Because then we would have no life.” A 13 year old from Montclair, New Jersey told Sales, “Probably more stuff happens on my phone than in real life.” Melinda and three of her friends tell the author that their social media drama keeps them up all night, almost every night.
It’s called FOMO, or fear of missing out. But on what? The girls talk about who likes who, who is a “savage” boy (crass and sexual), who is hooking up and who is falling out. And they work really hard at projecting and maintaining a flawless, super-sexualized, sort of soulless and surprisingly uniform image of themselves. It is actually really boring to read a whole book of this.
The book is 375 pages long and includes the voices of dozens of young people, and only one talks about caring about something outside of her immediate experience — besides makeup tutorials, “how to” videos and the Khardasian/Jenners. Kira, an African-American girl from Fort Greene, Brooklyn participated in civil disobedience that shut down the Brooklyn Bridge in December 2014 after Eric Garner’s murderer was not indicted. That was on a Friday night. She went to her elite, private high school in Manhattan on Monday invigorated and changed by that experience, and most of her school mates didn’t even know there had been a protest.
She told Sales that she started to have panic attacks, trouble breathing and realized that it was because of “the reality of my school life versus the reality of what I was seeing online, all this murder of black people.” Kira talks about how technology can inform, connect, motivate and help people organize: Social media, she says, can be a “tool for activism. All these people all over the country, all over the world, were galvanized by this organizing that was going on on social media. You could go on Twitter and find out exactly where you could go to a protest. You could hear a thousand voices talking about what was happening and how it was affecting different people. Some people are using social media to promote themselves. But other people are using it as a way to try and really change our society for the better.”
Yes, these are powerful technologies. Young people using Twitter and other social media platforms helped end Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and called one another into the streets and into people power movements from Tunisia to Ukraine. These are powerful technologies, but here we see them used to demean young women and men, sexualize everything and focus on the smallest and most meaningless physical flaws.
The stories that Sales tells are disturbing. Stories of moms cyber-bullying their son’s ex-girlfriends, stories of attempted suicides, stories of rape, gang rape, cyber-rape, roofie-rape, and stories of unprotected, unintimate, unclimaxing sex.
Fifteen-year-old Sierra was hounded and bullied online so persistently and so aggressively for so long that she tried to kill herself with pills. She put more and more explicit images of herself online and responded to every negative comment. Online name calling and threats escalated and spilled over into real life. Her mom and stepdad were oblivious to the turmoil and strife she was experiencing until it became so obvious they helped her get help. “They must be jealous of her,” the stepfather told Sales. “Look at her. Any man would say she looks hot.” There is so much wrong with that it is hard to know where to begin.
In another story, 17-year-old Jennifer stands in front of her class in Boca Raton giving a presentation. The teacher stands in the back of the classroom listening, while the boys in the front row flash porn at her. Sally relates what happen: “They were like, ‘Oh Jennifer, I have a question,’ and they raised their phones and it was a porn video. She couldn’t even concentrate. It was so sad. I felt so bad for her.” But no one told the teacher, no one told the boys they were wrong, no one told their parents. There were no consequences. “Boys look at porn all day,” said Billie. “They watch it during class,” said Madison.
The stories are shocking and sad, but there is another dimension that bothered me just as much. How ingrown, self-referential and small these kids’ worlds are. They are cruel and superficial.
The Pentagon is not the only one fighting cyberwars — so are teenagers, and one of the deadliest munitions they lob is the line “you should kill yourself.”
For one 12-year-old to say that to another means that they see life is cheap. It sure seems that way if all you look at is reality television, 6-second videos from Vine and 90-second videos on YouTube. But we can’t just lay the blame at the feet of social media. That message is expressed throughout our culture. Kids see life is cheap when “Blacks Lives Matter” is a slogan and a movement that enrages and incites. Life is cheap when the “Fight for 15” is labeled an economy-killing instrument of socialism. Life is cheap when Donald Trump’s hate and bombast can dominate the news cycle for what feels like years. Life is cheap when people cannot look each other in the eye and do not know their neighbors. Life is cheap when parents are working two jobs to try to buy the pretty, easeful life that beams at them from every device in their house. Life is cheap when $15 million drones target stone hovels in far off countries and enable soldiers with joysticks to kill civilians.
Kids are cruel on social media, but so are grown-ups. We treat the problem of kids and social media as though it is not learned behavior. I recently joined a Facebook swap group in my town — people selling deck furniture, electric hedge trimmers and kids clothing. A woman posted that a man had said “hi sexy” to her and she wasn’t sure whether to block him, report him or both. She wanted to know if other people had experienced anything inappropriate from him. Some people actually answered her question, but most accused her of wanting attention by sharing the post. One man said he looked at her picture and thought that the “hi sexy” man needed glasses. “I don’t think so,” he commented. And it went downhill from there. These are comments that people make publicly, next to little pictures of themselves in a relatively small community. What do they say when they think they are anonymous?
Kids learn all of this from us. Kids watch porn because they are curious about sex and because the grown-ups in their lives watch porn, while shutting down their questions and curiosity. Kids are always on their phones because they are looking for connection and their parents are glued to their phones, texting at every stop sign or playing games through dinner.
So, what do we do about it?
My track-phone-using husband and I need to get our act together on this developmental milestone because it will come beaming at us faster than you can say “upload image.”
Most parents around us give their kids some sort of call/text device for middle school, but our third grader comes home saying that kids at school have cell phones. With her, a cell phone isn’t just our decision, but something we will have to navigate along with her mom, with whom she lives half the time.
No. Sales doesn’t say take their phones away. She is light on advice. In her final chapter, she does not tell the reader how to parent a girl growing up in this hyper cyber world. Also missing is any discussion of boys — how they are being raised and socialized — in the book either.
Instead of really specific advice, Sales reflects that in the face of pervasive violent porn images we need to ramp up education about women’s history and experiences for girls and boys. We need to bring feminism back, change the culture of social media and get girls to read more. That is her advice. “The real world we inhabit together is the one that matters; we need to find a way of navigating ourselves and our children back there, to the world of true and lasting connection.” The end.
I am down with that. But I also need more. I must confess that after reading this book, I am afraid of my kids growing up. I want them to skip middle school all together. I want them to whittle sticks in the woods and have rock collections until they are 18. I want to close the door on the world and live in a log cabin where we all wash in tin basins with water we hauled from the stream.
But, no. That is not the world we live in, and this is not the article where I say that our kids will never have cell phones. I won’t get trapped in that! My husband and I said we would never serve them chicken nuggets or fish sticks, and look at us now. Those easy-to-cook, crowd-pleasing protein hunks hit their plates at least once a week. Madeline just woke up (too soon) from her nap, and I plunked her in front of Daniel Tiger for an hour so that I could follow my train of thought. I said I would never do that either.
So, then the answer is not: Take away their phones. The answer is: Don’t stop being their parent. That seems like good advice, and I thought of it often as I read “American Girls” and looked for the parents. They were there. But for the most part they were not acting like parents. They were letting their 14-year-old daughters’ boyfriends sleep over, buying their kids friends on social media, slut-shaming their kids’ frenemies, calling their stepdaughters “hot,” giving their daughters new cars or new noses as presents, ignoring their anger or reticence or misbehavior because “that’s just how teenagers are.”
Teens are still kids, and they still need love, limits and direction. They need more from us than our toddlers do in some ways. We cannot abandon them to their devices. No device can give a kid the tactile pleasure of a sandbox on a sunny day — the way the top layer is dry and crunchy, falling away to expose the cooler, denser sand below. No device can give a teenager the bone-deep satisfaction of a job well done the way the body does when it’s tired and amazed at the end of working hard. No device can replace the comfort of a shoulder to cry on or security of being genuinely heard.
No device can be a parent.
OK, wait. Now, I am ready: I am logging out of Facebook, putting down my phone, looking my kids in the eye and responding to a whole lot of questions about why I am not giving my American girls and boy over to social media. I am going to hold them close, listen to them with my whole self, love them without condition, and show them with every word and action that life is not cheap.
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