Apr 8, 2016

American Girls

Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers
by Nancy Jo Sales

This is one of those books that gets a high mark form me not because it was an enjoyable read, but because it is an important one. The author reports on what she found after crossing the country interviewing girls ages thirteen to nineteen. She sat with them in public places or in their homes, with groups of friends or with their parents by their side. She went to parties and beaches and bars with them. She talked to kids in middle school, high school and college. Mostly she asked them questions and listened to stories regarding how social media is affecting their lives. It is definitely eye-opening and disturbing.

This book makes me feel old. I never was part of the larger social scene at school, but even I can tell that things have changed drastically from when I was a kid, to what is portrayed in this book. It sounds like kids no longer really go on dates, they no longer hang out to just get to know each other or have fun. They do most of their communicating online, and it a constant thing. Its a constant competition, with girls involved in posting pictures of themselves in a heightened striving for popularity. Boys viewing porn at a very young age and assuming what they see is what girls want in terms of intimacy. This really screws up their understanding of what relationships should be like, and from all reports, it is terrible for girls' self-image. There's a lot more in this book, about substance abuse and underage drinking, about obsessions with appearances and the number of 'likes' received on social media platforms. But most of all the large message that leaped out was: kids are exposed to way too much, way too early and it is changing their lives in ways we don't really understand yet.

What's really confusing to me are some opinions the author reports finding among women. That they feel like exercising their right to show off their own bodies and be 'confident' in how they look is feminist. But it sounds like they wind up objectifying their own selves- and when boys treat them in a degrading manner in response to that, they either end up with crushingly low self-esteem (leading to suicide attempts) or train themselves to not care, making the experience of casual encounters even more meaningless. They sound dissatisfied, bitter, cynical, unhappy, stressed, lonesome and even wistful for the past they see depicted in movies made in my day- when kids asking each other out and dating (not just 'hooking up'), was the norm.

It's all very sad and distressing, and electrifies me with urgency to talk with my kids about the dangers of getting caught up in this kind of vicious online battlefield of compromising pictures and comments- all the backstabbing, blackmail and reputation smearing that can happen. Once you put something out there, you can never take it back. I just don't know if telling my kids will be enough.

Rating: 4/5       404 pages, 2016


Jenny @ Reading the End said...

God, yeah, it sounds like kids today have it ROUGH. I've been interested in this book for a while -- it seems like the author really did her background work with the kids and what their lives are like. Can I ask, did it seem like she got a diverse cross-section of American teenagers? Or did it generally focus on white middle-class kids?

Jeane said...

Yes, it definitely seemed to take a wide cross-section. She talked about middle-class kids and wealthy kids in rich neighborhoods. She talked about kids from inner cities, mixed race families, black kids, recent immigrants, native american on reservations, transgender and lesbian, etc. I did feel like it leaned more towards the rich kids obsessed with celebrities and with tons of money and time on their hands, but maybe those just stood out to me because their lifestyle is so far removed from my own... All of them seem affected negatively by this flood of social media crap.