There are several moments in Nancy Jo Sales’ new book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, that will make the average parent blanch and long for the days when shopping and stickball, not Snapchat and “free” parties at the homes of parents who work, were normal after-school activities.
There’s the scene in which a 13-year-old girl named Riley from Montclair, New Jersey, experiences an anxiety attack outside a Dunkin’ Donuts and refuses to enter the shop after spotting a group of kids who accused her of giving a boy in the group oral sex. Barely out of middle school, Riley is already learning how normal it is to blame a victim for an attack.
Then there’s the story of 13-year-old Sophia, who receives her first text request from a boy the same age asking for “NOODZ,” or a nude photo of her. He confesses that he needs the photo to score booze from a bunch of high school kids. He flatters her and says he only asked because she’s the “prettiest girl.” Compliment accepted, she doesn’t oblige but responds, “lol.” After all, if this isn’t a sign of a teen girl’s worthiness in today’s modern age, what is?
There are countless other examples that Sales effortlessly weaves into her book, which is a must-have for all parents. Boys of 17 who admit hookups with girls their age often leave them feeling disappointed because they don’t mimic the experiences they see and masturbate to through readily available pornography. Girls the same age who are getting the message that hookup culture is “a contest to see who can care less.” And scores of concerned parents who don’t know whether to blame MTV, Gossip Girl, themselves or their kids.
“Hanging out face to face, going out in the neighborhood and reading books after school used to be a thing, and now it’s tech time,” Sales tells SheKnows. “You had diaries when you were little or talked on the telephone. So much screen time can increase aggressive behavior and break down our sense of empathy, and parents need to become aware of this and what effect this is having on our children.”
One of the major focuses of Sales’ book is the fact that children, girls in particular, are both being sexualized and sexualizing themselves at a younger age. The girls Sales interviewed and observed, who live in places like New York City, Boca Raton and Williamsburg, Virginia, reveal just how commonplace it has become to field texts from dozens of boys asking for nude photographs. They’re also unable to hide their confusion as to how they’re expected to respond — if the constant stream of porn kids are exposed to these days is any indication, their role is to serve as passive vessels of “hot” for the opposite sex. Their real-life role models, including Kim Kardashian and other adult women who value keeping up with the “hotness” of younger women over their achievements, aren’t helping matters.
But let there be no question as to the underlying problem Sales says she sees teens dealing with these days: a multitude of porn, oftentimes pornography that degrades women and that they can’t process at such a young age. Even if they’re not watching porno, the boys they date are, or the reality TV stars they idolize are influenced by it, and the porn effect eventually trickles down and affects their sense of identity.
“Being ‘hot’ has affected all girls in the last few decades, and the pressure has grown and grown,” Sales says. “Sometimes people will say it’s always been this way, but it hasn’t. My mother was 5 foot 9 as a young girl but wore saddle shoes and ribbons in her hair. She wasn’t telling the world she was sexually available.” Sales says the rise of porn has everything to do with young women appropriating the look, attitude and even actions of a much older, sexually promiscuous woman. “It’s affecting people’s sex lives and the expectations of how girls and women are supposed to look,” she says.
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Sales says the sexual harassment of girls and boys — because despite how our focus is usually on girls, boys are also receiving nude photographs or suggestive texts they didn’t ask for — is so prevalent that it has even seeped into schools. There are some cities, like New York City, where it’s illegal to take a child’s cellphone away in class — a movement driven by parents’ fears and their desire to be in constant contact with their children. Because of these laws, school leaders are having a difficult time policing what’s actually happening right in class, including sexting, cyberbullying and posting other students’ photos without their consent.
All the while, teens can easily access porn on their cellphones, they’re made to feel like losers if they aren’t racking up followers and “likes” on social media (and girls can see the easiest way to do this is by revealing skin), and apps like Snapchat give them a false sense of security, leading them to believe their actions will disappear after a few seconds. It’s a recipe for disaster. Sales stresses that she doesn’t believe teens are to blame at all for absorbing the messages all around them and that the best defense parents have is knowledge, the desire to organize and find ways to prevent their kids from accessing porn and a willingness to communicate with their kids openly about their experiences.
Talking to our daughters may be something we start doing as early as middle school — or younger. But parents of boys can also help their sons understand the pressures they and girls feel and help humanize their experiences so that they don’t victimize someone or profess that a girl is a “slut” because she sent someone a nude photograph.
“The sexualization thing affects boys too,” Sales says. “It affects them to see girls in an objectified way, because sexualization is sexism. There are cases in which girls send nude pictures to boys, and parents want to know why that isn’t seen as victimization. Girls have been processing that this is what they must do to get the attention of a boy: ‘In order to get a boy to notice me or like me, I have to give naked photos of myself.’ This can be a teaching moment with your son, where you say, ‘Look, I’m sorry this happened to you. A girl shouldn’t have done this to you, and no one should do this, and you shouldn’t do it either. This is not correct, but let’s think about why she’s doing this to get your attention.'”
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And, of course, the other thing parents can do to help teenagers and children realize there’s a big world that exists off their computers is by modeling for them how to turn away from their devices at the dinner table, while out for a family walk or while engaging in a fun activity.
You may think that, after hearing about the jarring experiences teens are faced with on a daily basis, Sales may feel pessimistic about our ability to change things, but nothing could be further from the truth.
“I’ve just been really amazed and heartened at the way parents are talking,” Sales says. “They’re talking about organizing. They’re advocating, for starters, that we need a national conversation about porn and ways of protecting children from porn. I don’t see teens as these monster little children doing these bad things — I see them as reacting to the culture.”