For two and a half years, journalist Nancy Jo Sales immersed herself in the world of selfies, sexting, and Yik Yak IRL ("in real life," for those not versed in millennial-speak), traveling coast to coast interviewing more than 200 teenagers on how technology -- social media, specifically -- is impacting the way teen girls are growing up today.
In her new book, "American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers," Sales, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, zeroes in on how the typically fraught teenage years have become even more confusing and angst-filled for kids who now seek out affirmation from friends and strangers alike online, and measure their worth in the number of "likes" they receive on Instagram posts.
The book highlights the very personal stories of young girls who find themselves caught in a world where their own sexuality has become a form of Internet currency used both to attract boys and impress and compete with friends -- where Kim Kardashian's "belfies," or butt selfies, are emulated and dissected.
Each chapter is organized by age, starting with 13 and ending at 19, sharing stories of girls making their way through their teenage years. Not all of it is bad news. The young women Sales met are articulate, smart, and have found some empowerment through their online presences, but nevertheless, the experiences they share in the book feed into the sense that today's teens lead lives that revolve increasingly around their digital selves than their physical surroundings.
Sales spoke with CBS News about the way girls are growing up today, the troublingly pervasive culture of sexual harassment and misogyny that shadows teens on social media, and what needs to be done in the wider culture to make things better. (This conversation has been condensed and edited).
Q: After traveling across the country interviewing these girls for two and a half years, what was the most surprising finding from your research?
A: I would say what surprised me was the level of sexual harassment girls encountered online. The amount of "slut shaming" and sexual harassment that girls encountered on a daily basis was shocking. It affects their sense of what it is to be a girl in a negative way. To fix it, you really have to change the culture as a whole, the culture of social media, the cultural life in in America. There needs to be more of a sense of having respect for women and girls online.
Q: What causes this? Is it the whole influence of the Kardashians, of this selfie-obsessed celebrity culture?
A: Well, the Kardashians are products of it -- they are literally products, a brand -- they aren't the cause of it. Everywhere I went, girls almost look up to the Kardashians. You might wonder why that is, but it's not surprising in a culture that so values fame and wealth and materialism and the cultural sexualization of girls and women that has become so normalized.
A perfect storm created the Kardashians. You know, Barbara Walters said that they became a success without having any talent, but that's not true. Their real talent is social media. Barbara Walters was coming from a different era where she didn't realize that they do have talent, and that talent is promoting themselves using social media. It's a very marketable talent and they are so good at it, especially Kim. Their lives are a sign of rising trends that have been happening for awhile. All of these things have an insidious quality and it's potentially damaging for girls. Everything they are told is the value of being rich with lots of luxury, with designer handbags and clothes and shoes and getting ten thousand "likes."
Q: "Generation Z" -- the younger cohort just below millennials -- is the first generation to grow up with social media. What impact does this technology have on them?
A: Well, it's a new kind of childhood. People want to dismiss criticisms of social media, but often it is social media companies or people connected to social media companies who defend social media -- they have a vested interest in social media and don't want to take responsibility for this new kind of childhood, a new kind of living.
A lot of people want to only focus on the positive things. There is this alleged claim that we are all becoming more connected and making revolutions, which is slightly true. But at the same time girls are getting slut-shamed, sexually harassed and pressured into sending nude pictures of themselves in this electronic environment. There's no sense of what we know of intimacy that is based on face-to-face interactions. For these girls, their first experience of sex and romance is on a screen.
Q: There's one girl in the book who is talking about going on a date "in real life" and what it is like to finally meet this boy who she met once before at a science summer camp, but who has only really forged a relationship through chatting online and through apps. It's kind of crazy.
A: Well, a lot of the older chapters in the book are about dating and sex and romance and how different it is. Relationships as we know them are rare, dating as we think of it is almost non-existent. It all all takes place in a digital way and it's all like really fraught with all kinds of new challenges of what and who to trust. Even the younger years in the book talk about how this kind of dating distorts their sense of trust. I mean these kids can have intimate relationships with several other people at the same time. Studies show that Facebook has become a factor in a lot of American divorces -- social media adds challenges to a relationship no matter what age you are.
People have no sense of how to deal with it for young girls. There's no history of it, no guidelines for it, no Judy Blume for "how do you feel when you post a picture and less than 50 people like it and you take it down?" There are new things causing a lot of anxiety, not only in kids but in adults -- we get sucked into it, too, but we know that there is such a thing as real life. Girls, more than anyone, feel like it's real and it can be so crushing sometimes.
The book explores a lot of sad stories where girls are really crushed, and I try to give a perspective not only about the negative things. There's a lot of social media activism, feminist activism that are empowering girls. In one of the older chapters, a girl discusses the Black Lives Matter movement, how this kind of social media activism played a big positive change in her life in dealing with micro-aggression racism. She went to a more elite private school, and found her voice through this activism. So, social media can be a voice for positive things, too. I don't think my book is saying social media is evil but it happens to be a tool, a place where a lot of really pernicious things happen.
Q: How do parents deal with all of this, given that they haven't grown up with social media and messaging apps?
A: In one of the older girls chapters, I interview a girl and her mother, "Debbie." They are in Florida, and this is a parent who has a really strong bond and ongoing dialogue with her daughter. Her daughter read for me a very weird text exchange with a boy right in front of her mother and she said that very thing to me: "We never grew up with this, we don't know what to do." You know, if a kid needs advice on how to apply to college, parents can deal with that, but we never had dick pics, never dealt with any of that. It's overwhelming.
Q: You have a 15-year-old daughter. Did conducting this research change how you approached these issues with her?
A: Before I did the first story for Vanity Fair in 2013 that led to this, girls really brought me to this subject. It was from talking to girls I knew through my daughter. My daughter, at that time, was 12 or 13 and didn't have a phone yet, she wasn't on social media. I mean, when you think about it, in social media time, a couple of years is like 30 years. It's becoming more and more a part of our lives, like breathing. As these girls started telling me about their experiences, it opened my eyes, because I became more aware of what was going on and how it was affecting them.
As I started talking to her about it, as I learned her friends were on it, we could sort of talk about what was going on with her friends and stuff, and it created a whole discussion that has been ongoing. In the past it would just be "what did you do at school today?" Now it is also "what's happening on social media today?" You aren't there with your children and you need to talk about it.
One of the moms I interviewed told me that she can always tell when something happens on social media, because her daughter will be in a bad mood and will slam the door and be upset. The mom said she'll just know, oh, was it about social media? I said to her, well, do you ever talk to her about it? And the mom said that her daughter doesn't want her to know about it. I think that is where we have to break down the barrier.
Q: Is it hard for parents to open that dialogue?
A: People need to unload and listen and talk. They just have to talk, talk, talk -- talking is good for people. Makes them think about what they are doing. However, parents can break down that barrier. In my case, it's just through being really open and listening and trying not to judge and have this fear.
You have to be a guiding a person. You would guide them if they were having some kind of problem in school in real life. The same applies withs social media. Sometimes their behavior is so impulsive. We all know that people say things behind the screen that they would not say in real life. Teenagers are biologically impulsive, and online, there are no guidelines and rules, no boundaries. One of the girls in chapter 15, in Florida, said that you can't trust whatever you say to anybody, and that it doesn't matter if it's your best best friend.
Q: I think an interesting group to look at is teenage boys. Many of this online behavior is in response to boys in school or guys they interact with online. What did you learn about teen boys from this?
A: I was shocked by the boy behavior. There's this normalization of sexism and sexual harassment and I don't remember it being like this when I was a kid. I spoke with my women friends about it who are my age, and believe it or not, women of my age generally seem to think that the sexism that girls deal with on a day-to-day basis now is worse than it was for us.
You might ask, how can that be? We've had one hundred-something years of the feminist movement, you had "girl power" 20 years ago. I talk about in my book that a lot of things have happened. There's been this normalization of the objectification of women. When I was in school frat boy culture was an element of the atmosphere, but now it's pervasive. If you want to talk about being shocked, for the book, I attended a July 4th party in Indiana. There was a boy who was 19 years old, in a college-age setting, who was freestyle-rapping about rape. Everyone was standing around clapping and laughing. And the girls, whether or not they were offended by it, didn't say anything.
Q: In the book, it seems like an easy way young men or other girls will silence a girl who might object to sexist behavior online is that she "has no chill" or no sense of fun at all. Is that an easy way people shut down that kind of outrage?
A: I really think online culture promotes aggression in people in all kinds of ways and this is backed up by some pretty well-established studies. As we said before, people say things from behind a screen that they wouldn't say in person, and when you start talking about sex and sexuality and put that on top of that aggression, if you look at the influence of porn and the pervasiveness of the porn industry online, it just leads to a very hostile environment for girls.
Q: Earlier you said that the culture needs to improve -- how do we improve it?
A: This is not a parenting book. I'm a parent, but I don't have a degree in psychology. I can tell you from my observations and reporting that I do think parents need to be more involved and more aware and more informed. They have to start a dialogue -- that's number one.
Also, the more education about girls and women and the history of girls and women in this country that is taught at schools at the earliest age, the better. Kids in this country, now in kindergarden, at an early age they start to learn all about the civil rights movement, which is really important. That wasn't mentioned when I was a kid. It's an important change that is welcome and has had a positive effect that led to a greater awareness of the history of the black experience in this country. It's not perfect by any means -- "Frederick Douglass" is still not mandatory reading in high school, but there's more understanding than there ever was. A similar thing has to happen with the history of women in this country and girls. It makes people more sensitive and more aware and more open. Not just girls but boys, too.
They have some kind of background and history of women and feminism. This is why they have to stand up and fight for equal pay, and Silicon Valley has got to get more involved in changing this culture. When someone says to you, "you can't change the culture," well, culture can change and we've seen it change. It's not an immutable thing -- it's a mutable thing. Social media is very new and very young, and the people in charge of these apps and creating this material and creating these products that girls consume need to be more responsible in studying their effects.
Just take the non-consensual sharing of nudes -- it's a crime that happens in such a normalized way. So, whether or not kids should or should not sext -- that's another conversation. But when girls sext and send nude pictures, they are at risk of cyber bullying that happens all the time. I would just like to hear what Silicon Valley thinks they should do about it.
Q: Do you think this would change if the gender disparity in tech and in Silicon Valley was addressed -- if more women were in positions of power?
A: That's almost a more rhetorical question. I think it is a reasonable thing to draw a connection between what's being described as bro culture in Silicon Valley and this sexualized environment online. Now, I'm not drawing a direct line, but it's a reasonable question to ask. In Silicon Valley, so many people have become so rich and so powerful in the last couple decades, and women have not equally shared in those opportunities. It's sexist and I think it would definitely change the culture of social media if there was more gender equality in the tech industry.
Q: What do you think the impact could be of your book holding a mirror up to these girls, for giving them the chance to share in the experiences of their peers?
A: I think it's important to hear the voices of girls and that's what I wanted to do in this book. It's important that we hear them. We don't often hear them, and we don't listen to them. There's this stereotype of girls being mean, there's this tremendous propaganda, there's this complete myth. And you know what -- people are nice, people are mean. Girls are people. There is nothing inherently mean about girls. Unfortunately, there is this attitude where people say, "well, they are just so mean so why should we care if they cyber bully each other?"
I've gotten good feedback, most importantly from some of the girls in the book. Some of their responses made me cry. To hear them say that had a voice through their interviews with me -- that's what I care about.
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