USA Today reported this month that Snapchat is now the preferred social network of teenagers, with the photo-sharing app Instagram a close second and their ancient predecessors Twitter and Facebook further back in the pack. What social network will be next? The adolescent years have always been challenging, but the combination of teens and social media has made childhood terrifying.
In American Girls, award-winning journalist Nancy Jo Sales sounds the alarm on what “it [really] feels like to be a girl in America today.” With smartphones and social media constantly attached to their bodies and lives, we’re all a long way from Kansas. But Sales spent 2½ years in 10 states interviewing more than 200 teenaged girls for her book, gaining access to their “secret lives.”
Ironically, the things kids do on social media aren’t secret. The Kardashian clan personifies the hypersexualized image-driven culture that our selfie-enslaved daughters must navigate. A 13-year-old confessed to Sales, “We’re on it twenty-four-seven . . . It’s all we do.” Such is the view of a texting teen trying to keep in touch for fear of being “disconnected.”
“The words ‘addicted’ and ‘addiction,’ ‘obsessed’ and ‘obsessing’ came up again and again in my interviews with . . . teenage girls as they talked about their use of their smartphones and consuming media and using social media,” writes Sales. She observes, “One of the things that continually struck me over the course of my reporting was the similarity of girls’ experiences on social media regardless of their race or background. The homogeneity of the technology and widespread use of the same apps seem to be creating . . . a certain culture.”
At times the book’s virtual testimonies are numbing. Sales tracks not only “tween” and teen anxiety and self-identity issues but also reveals an online world where sexting has replaced intimacy. It’s not by accident that while the subtitle says the book is about “teenagers,” there are few appearances by boys in the book. Sales blames the sexualization of social media on the rise of online pornography. In that world, the boys usually win and the girls always lose.
A 16-year-old told Sales, “Social media is destroying our lives.” But a friend confessed that without social media “we would have no life.” Sales’s solutions include changing the culture of social media by putting an end to cyberbullying and stopping the “exploitation and degradation of girls and all children online.”
There are no simple cures to recovering from this virus infection. Sales concludes with a simple but stunning observation: “The real world we inhabit together is the one that matters.” In the words of Matthew 11:15, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Knopf)