You may think you know what teen girls' digital lives are like. They're glued to their cell phones, they're hooked on YouTube and Twitter, they post a lot on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Vine, and they sometimes get embroiled in online drama that borders on or becomes cyberbullying. But as journalist and author Nancy Jo Sales (The Bling Ring) reports in her bestselling book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, there's a whole lot parents don't know about what teen girls face online.
Sales interviewed more than 200 girls age 13 to 19 from different racial and economic backgrounds in 10 states across the country. She found that girls are tailoring their online images for maximum likes and comments, and they're being pressured to act in a sexualized way earlier than ever before. Sales says even girls who are not personally sexting or cyberbullying or Kardashian-obsessed are touched by the new online culture: "It's in their feed every day."
She spoke with Common Sense Media from her home in New York City.
What was your goal in writing American Girls?
To report on girls' digital lives and portray their experience in their own voices. And to give parents information they'll need to help guide their teens as they deal with this technology. It's all very new and it's all happening very fast. It has changed everything — sex, love, dating and the very nature of what it is to be a child and a teenager.
What do you say to those who think you're an alarmist, that the behaviors you describe are not as widespread as they seem in your book?
This is really ubiquitous in schools and across geographical, racial, socioeconomic, sex and gender lines. A lot of that has to do with the homogeneity of the apps: Whether you’re a poor girl in the Bronx or an upper-middle-class girl in Boca Raton, Florida, you’re on the same Snapchat and Instagram. You're under the same pressure to post beautiful, hot selfies and try to get likes — and that's just one of the pressures that's on girls.
What’s the most surprising thing you found in your research?
I was not aware of the level of sexism and sexual harassment that girls are experiencing. We're closing the gender-inequality gap in many ways. More girls are going to college; there have been economic gains. But in the social realm, we seem to be going backward, not only on social media but at school.
I have a story in the book about a girl giving a presentation in class during which boys held up their phones to show porn while she was speaking. That's sexual harassment. So is sending a girl a "d--k pic" or posting sexual comments on a girl's selfie. I was not aware of how pervasive and normalized the harassment is. We need to understand how damaging it is for girls, how it affects them. And we need to talk about it in the home.
Did you find anything reassuring, examples of teens who found social media a source of support?
I was heartened by girls' awareness of how much they deserve respect. They're just not getting it. A black girl talked about how she discovered the Black Lives Matter movement through social media. A transgender girl said social media saved her life. I saw a wave of feminist activism that has grown since 2013. Social media [provides] a great ability to communicate.
Do you have any advice for parents regarding kids seeing porn?
Talk to other parents and ask, "How are we going to deal with the easy access kids have to pornography?" Talk to the leaders of technology about the spread of child porn on their sites. It's criminal and it's dangerous to kids. There are violent, festishistic and rape scenarios and images that are degrading to women. Kids will see that. Is that OK with you? In the U.K., they created blocks and filters on porn sites following studies that showed the terrible effects porn has on children. It's not impossible to have a change.
Ask tech leaders to create technology to stop the spread of nonconsensual content and prevent users from sharing nudes with someone other than the intended partner. This is happening on devices you created, and this ruins lives. There are enormous risks for girls in sending nude images, including slut shaming and cyberbullying.
What do you say to those who maintain that teens are doing what they've always done, it's just magnified by the new technology?
The difference is porn. Because it's on their phones now, and they’re watching it in schools. It's not just the sex acts, it's the aesthetic of porn and the Kardashianization of selfies and the sending of nudes. It affects how boys see girls and how girls see themselves.
Thanks to smartphones, kids have access to material that has changed how they view themselves and their bodies. It's not just the pressure to be sexy but to be beautiful and perfect. Fourteen-year-old girls are editing their photos to have whiter teeth, smaller waists and bigger butts. How is this good for their self-esteem? We all get these messages about physical appearance from American culture. Now magnify that by 1,000 and think about what that feels like when you’re 13.
By and large girls have a very strong sense of what's wrong with social media culture and want to see a change, but they can’t do it by themselves. They need our help. We just need to start talking.