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Q+A: The Secret Lives of Teens Online


Mar 10 2016
The conversation about the pornification of social media is long overdue.

I wish I wasn’t seeing this.

Facebook suggested I might like to become “friends” with a teenage acquaintance, who barely resembled the little girl I met years before. No longer carrying a stuffed animal and book in each arm, as I remembered her, she posed in a skimpy top and sultry makeup, as her peers relayed the usual comments: “You’re so pretty!” “Hot!” “Gorgeous!”

I thought of little chats I’d had with her about her favorite books, way back when. I felt a little bit sick. I closed the app. What happened?

Studies estimate American teenagers spend an average of nine hours a day using screens. That’s two hours more than they spend sleeping. Many of these hours are devoted to social media, which some teens admit to checking at least 100 times a day.

For “digital natives”—people who’ve never known a world without the Internet—social media has become the place where relationships are formed, proven, and tested. It also represents an aspirational pathway to fame and fortune, with figures like the Kardashians as sexy, selfie-taking role models.

Nancy Jo Sales’ new book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, grew out of a set of troubling questions like mine: How did social media become so sexualized? Why do women and girls get harassed so much online? Why are girls posing like porn stars in selfies?

“Pornography really is central to what’s going on with girls and social media,” journalist and author Nancy Jo Sales told me in a phone conversation from her Manhattan apartment. “It’s one of the biggest issues that we’re facing now—and it’s not being talked about at the level of seriousness that it deserves.”

Author and journalist Nancy Jo Sales

Author and journalist Nancy Jo Sales

I talked to Sales about how porn culture is shaping teens’ use of social media and the need for parents to simply have conversations with their kids about what they do online. We also talked about how screen time is impacting all of us and the ways reading—and religion—can serve as antidotes to the dehumanizing effects of social media abuse and overuse.

You write that much of social media has come out of Silicon Valley, where “a male-dominated culture, some say a ‘frat boy’ culture, populated by ‘brogrammers’ and ‘tech bros’” predominates. How has that shaped these apps and digital cultural more generally?

Imagine it’s the 1970s, and a girl had a snapshot of herself naked, or in a bikini, and took it around school saying, “Like this picture of me; like my bikini pic!” She would have been taken aside for some counseling.

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