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’s 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 .

Article continues below

Right, and now that’s fairly normal teenage behavior on social media.

For me, the question of Silicon Valley goes back to HotOrNot.com, the site founded in 2000 that lets users rate the attractiveness of photos. I see this as an influence on the overarching trend of sexualizing girls on social media. The founder of Hot or Not didn’t really disagree with me. Facebook began as “Facesmash”—a version of “hot or not” for Harvard. All these sites, notably Instagram, have that same “liking” feature, and the way that girls get more likes is to be “hot.” Now, there are millions of teenagers—underage people 13–17 years old—on Tinder. [The hookup app that allows you to swipe on a person’s profile picture to indicate whether you’d be interested.]

So to what extent are the conventions of pornography shaping how boys and girls behave on social media?

Everything we’re seeing [sexting and nonconsensual photo sharing, specific poses in selfies] has to do with the access to pornography that children have. I’m saying children because children do see pornography whether on purpose or by accident, since social media is used to promote pornography.

It’s having a huge effect on their idea of what it means to be a man or a woman, on their understanding of sexuality. It’s absolutely a destructive factor, influencing how boys think about girls and how girls think about themselves. Sexting is sometimes dismissed as innocent, but it can be hurtful, damaging, and in some states, the sexting of images is considered a crime. It’s not being talked about at the level of seriousness that it deserves.

What can be done about it?

There has to be awareness. Parents don’t know what their teens are doing. Moms and dads of teenagers say, “I don’t think my child is seeing pornography.” Parents are so concerned about toxins in their kids’ food, but not [seemingly] about pornography? It’s not that we deny that kids are interested in sex. What’s so alarming is the way that these healthy, normal impulses are being shaped by pornography in ways that are unprecedented. It’s new. Sex on screens is a new kind of sex.

Article continues below

And does it make a big difference that it’s mediated by a screen?

We know that communicating through screens makes people less empathetic, more aggressive, etc. Teenagers’ limbic systems are just forming. They’re really not equipped to deal with this. I think it’s creating callousness in personal relationships.

Do people accuse you of shaming girls by talking about the kinds of behaviors they’re engaging in online?

I don’t think you can blame girls. That’s not what I’m trying to do. It’s not about blaming the boys either. All of them grow up in a culture, and they behave how we shape them to behave. A girl I interviewed in person had a very critical view of [how other girls used social media], even bordering on slut-shaming girls she knows who do these things. Then I went on her social media page and saw a picture of her in a bustier. She was doing it herself. They’re entrapped in this set of expectations.

It seems like the girls you talked to have a complicated relationship with their use of social media.

I found a lot of girls actually hate the pressure they feel from social media, and the toxic environment it engenders. There was a landmark report in 2007 from the American Psychological Association on the sexualization of girls, associating it with anxiety, depression, cutting, eating disorders—and “cognitive dysfunction.” Apparently, you can’t think as well if you’re obsessed with looking “hot.”

But they find it hard or impossible to quit?

They say things like, “It’s what we do. It’s where things are happening.” There’s a feeling that if you are not on social media you don’t exist. This is all really new, and it’s happened overnight. Unprecedented. I don’t think we have really any idea what the long-term effect will be.

How do you think religion can constructively address the issues you raise in American Girls? You described three girls—one Jewish, one Muslim, and one Christian—for whom religion was a stabilizing force in navigating the storm of social media.

I’m not a Christian. I’m what you’d call progressive in my politics. I was not trying to judge from a moral perspective, but looking at it from the point of view of wellbeing and self-esteem. It’s unfortunate that people who think they are progressive often are intolerant and misunderstanding of what religion is. We’re in a moment when people are very derisive of religion. I’m perplexed by that, because the fundamental ideas of religion are considerable in terms of how we’ve developed as human beings. To be anti-religion is anti-intellectual, in a way, in that it denies the role religion plays in the evolution of civilization.

Article continues below

So what can parents do? You don’t really prescribe a whole lot of recommendations besides talking.

Talking sounds simple, but it’s a big deal. Kids don’t even talk to each other about social media. “We never talk about it, we just do it.” After we talked, they would let out these huge sighs of relief.

Parents have to put down their own phones and talk with their kids about what they’re doing online and talk about pornography, which is not real sex. If you want your kid to have a chance at a real sex life, you have to talk about it.

I don’t think it’s possible to completely monitor your kids on social media. They’re better at the Internet than you are! My mother is horrified when we go to a restaurant and everyone’s on their devices and there’s even a baby playing with an iPad. The table is where we become people in a relationship.

Absolutely. We need to focus on connecting face-to-face, but you also emphasize reading—both your own lifelong love for books and the advice that girls need to put down their phones and pick up books more.

Reading is good for your brain. Multiple studies establish this. People who read novels are more empathic and have a richer inner life. I know from my own experience that reading is a way to understand the lived experience of others. In a time when people are being reduced to images, reading is a way to become aware of people as complex beings.

Nancy Jo Sales is an award-winning journalist who has written for Vanity Fair, New York, Harper's Bazaar and many other publications. She is the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and The Bling Ring: How A Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World, which tells the true story behind the Sofia Coppola film based on a piece Sales wrote for Vanity Fair.

Photo credit: Jane Wexler