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Author Nancy Jo Sales talks teens, social media and the normalization of sexual violence
This is the cover of Nancy Jo Sales' book, "American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers." - photo by Chandra Johnson
Growing up is tough for anyone, but its even harder for kids today who grow up navigating puberty and relationships through a screen. Thats what journalist, author and mom Nancy Jo Sales argues in her new book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.

Through 2 years of research and more than 200 interviews with teenagers, Sales shows how complicated it is to be a girl growing up with a smartphone and the ripple effect social media can have on the rest of their lives.

We talked with Sales about how social media is changing the lives of teens and, by extension, the future of America.

Question: Your first book, The Bling Ring was an account of a group of teens who used technology to help them sneak into celebrity homes and steal $3 million worth of stuff. Is there something about how teens use technology that especially interests you?

Nancy Jo Sales: Im interested in the idea of fame because kids are so interested in it. I dont remember when I was a girl having the same emphasis on fame. I never ever heard anyone say, I want to be famous. And thats what I started to hear from young people in the 90s. I wrote a story (published in New York Magazine in 1996) called Prep-School Gangsters, about rich kids and poor kids in NYC and this mash-up of cultures sharing a lot of things including love of hip hop music. They all wanted to be famous and they all did graffiti as a way to get fame. One of the girls in the midst of these kids (I was writing about) was Paris Hilton.

That was kind of the beginning of what were seeing now, where young kids are becoming interested in becoming famous and rich just for its own sake. Theyre just kids reflecting the culture and those are the values theyre reflecting. But whats significant about this now is that kids especially have in their hands the means to become a new kind of famous.

You dont have to have anything like what we think of as talent. You have to be good at using tech, knowing when to post and understand self-promotion. Thats why, in this book, I look at the Kardashians. Their fame comes from their skill at using social media to promote themselves and reflecting these values of wealth, materialism, consumption of luxury goods and sexualization of the female body. And you have to ask yourself, why are these people famous? And its because theyve learned to use social media to draw attention to themselves.

Question: What led you to look into how social media use impacts teen girls specifically?

NJS: The girls (interviewed for the book) really brought me to the subject from the very first interview I did for Vanity Fair about girls and what it means to grow up a girl in America. At the time, there were a lot of things on the news involving rape Steubenville had just happened (in which two Ohio high school football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl and distributing photos of the incident via social media). The girls really brought me to this subject, they set the tone for the entire thing. One girl told me, (Social media) is destroying our lives. Thats the snare they feel theyre in. The natural reaction is, why not move off social media? But thats where theyre socializing, thats where theyre living and their friendships happen. To be part of the conversation thats constantly going on, you have to be on it, but its not all the positive exchanges and happy friendships many social media companies would have us believe.

Question: The chapters in your book are numbered 13 through 19, for the ages of the girls you interview in those chapters. What differences did you notice between those ages as you studied their interaction with social media?

NJS: Some of the older girls, like 16, would say to me, I cant believe what 13year-olds are doing online, commenting about how younger girls are more extreme in their behavior. They were struck by how the younger girls were using social media even more and how much more sexualized it was, how much emphasis was placed on appearance. Some of the 16year-olds would reflect on how the 12-year-olds were wearing makeup and they thought social media was putting this extreme emphasis on appearance for younger girls.

Question: Of everything you learned writing this book, what surprised you the most?

NJS: The level of normalized sexism. Its more extreme than when I was a girl. Youd think things were getting better for girls theres more women in college, the pay gap is closing ever so slightly. Its gotten a bit better. But I think the inequality in the social realm is worse. I think a lot of women my age are noticing how lives of younger women are becoming sexualized because it became normal.

Theres a connection I draw in the book between the normalization of sexual harassment on social media and the way its being normalized offline, in real life. I think we can all agree that sexual harassment on the street is unacceptable. But what really is the difference between that and sexualized comments online? We dont even have a word for it we need a word for when someone writes slut on your picture and the feeling that youre not supposed to object because you'll be bullied for it. Is that supposed to be nice? Do we believe thats OK? No, so why is it acceptable on social media?

Question: How has social media changed the dynamic between teen girls and boys, based on your research?

NJS: Porn has everything to do with it. Kids are watching porn either on purpose or accidentally and the law says no one under 18 should have access to it, but they do. That means theyre exposed to explicit content very young whether they want to be or not. Porn sites use social media to advertise and people post pornographic photos on social media. Thats a lot of explicit content kids are seeing online and this is not porn like it used to be. This is violent imagery where the hallmarks are women being hurt or humiliated. Scenarios of rape and gang rape are common in porn, and it all impacts how kids see how men and women interact with each other.

Porns been around for a while, but enter social media, enter the smartphone and it becomes this environment where kids communicate and learn about sex from a screen. For many of the girls I interviewed, their first sexual encounters dont necessarily involve face-to-face interactions. They get a text asking for a nude pic. Screens are where boys see women objectified and they see girls in real life the same way they see porn stars. They see porn as sex ed, but its sex ed that teaches them that girls are a means to their gratification and nothing more.

Question: Whats the most important thing you want readers to take away from this book?

NJS: That we need to respect girls. We need to see them as human beings and listen to them. The book is in their voices because I like what they say and its more interesting and revealing than anything I could say. I want people to listen to them because theyre women in progress. We hear this debate now thats everywhere about consent and these are the questions we need to be asking what is consent? This is all very dangerous, blurry territory for boys, too.

Question: Lets talk about boys, because this issue affects them, too.

NJS: This book is for mothers of sons just as much as it is for girls. Look, theyre children. We adults and we, who make these social media sites and turn away when bad things start happening were doing this, were making them this way. We think of Facebook as the mom site now, but there are porn pages on Facebook and they can be very hard to get taken down. How is that possible? Why is that even a conversation?

Im a journalist and Im passionate about free speech, but I dont see that as the First Amendment. Its just not the same thing. Its a topsy-turvy situation where these ideas get conflated its like the idea that sexual positivity and porn positivity are the same thing. Sorry, theyre not. Thats insane.

These issues go really deep and are really important for boys and girls. Its been decades weve been talking about (gender equality and sexual harassment) and its almost like we have to start talking about it all over again because (social media) has changed everything and you cant throw a rock in this country without hitting a mom or a dad whos worried about this.

Question: So what do you think needs to change here, because neither porn nor social media are going away.

NJS: Theres a serious loss of innocence thats happening among small children when this (porn) is their example of love and marriage. But when parents are armed with information, they can make their own decisions about what to do.

This isnt even about sex. This is about what kind of human being you are in terms of how you view others, in terms of whether or not youre able to show sensitivity and gentleness to others. This isnt just about how you treat someone when you take your clothes off, it speaks to how you treat others period, in all realms. Parents should have the power to make the decision about whether or not their kids see porn. Its not appropriate for these things to just pop up anywhere online. That right has been quietly taken away from parents. Before I wrote this book, I thought porn didnt affect me, so who cares? But thats not whats happening. Porn is not only an issue in the lives of grown adults who choose to see it, its an issue in lives of children who see it and its engulfing their culture.

This can all change if people get informed. I dont want anyone to get me wrong there are things about social media that can be great. But theres a dark side, too. One thing I know is that this isnt going to last forever, this state of things, because people are beginning to realize this is not acceptable and theyll take action when they wake up. Theres a ton of information out there, but you have to want to make yourself aware of it.
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