Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD
A review of Sales, N. J. (2016). American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. NY: Alfred A. Knopf. $18.68 (Hardcover)
Imagine a 13 year-old girl. Maybe this 13 year-old girl is your daughter, your niece or an 8th grader you just happen to know. Now imagine her walking home from school when, via Instagram, a classmate sends her a direct message “send noodz.” She is not friends with this boy and they aren’t in a relationship. She is scared yet, at the same time, flattered. She desperately wants to text her friends for advice on how to proceed, but her battery is low. She doesn’t know what to do.
This exact scenario happens in the start of Nancy Jo Sales’ new book, American Girls: Social Media and The Secret Lives of Teenagers. Sales is an award-winning journalist for publications like Vanity Fair and writer of the 2013 The Bling Ring How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World. This book, based on her 2010 Vanity Fair Piece The Suspects Wore Louboutins, is about a teenage clique who robbed the homes of celebrities in Los Angeles (the book was later adapted into a film by Sofia Coppola The Bling Ring). She spent two decades investigating the lives of teenagers and the past two and a half years interviewing over 200 girls to write her current book on American girls.
In American Girls, Sales provides in-depth interviews, peppered with research, which cast a light into the minds of girls all across the country who are living their lives on social media. Sometimes she gains insight by asking direct questions; at other times she acts as a fly on the wall, allowing groups of friends to speak candidly about their lives and phones. What emerges is a dark tale of girls grappling with the pornification of their emerging sexuality, requests for sexts that come with severe consequences (regardless of their response), online lists of who is slutty and the early realization that “sexy” photos posted online gain more “likes.”
Most striking of all insights gained through her research is just how alone girls are to handle all of this. Like the 13 year-old who was dealing with a request for nude photos for the first time, the initial reaction of most teens is to turn to peers for both wisdom and guidance. Teenagers generally do not want to talk to their parents about sex, and the teens profiled in this book do an amazing job hiding their sexual digital lives from them. The apps today’s kids are using to communicate (whisper, kik, snapchat, yik yak, yeti) are likely unknown to most parents and, quite frankly, will probably be replaced by newer models by the time this article goes to print. The girls are crafty, using technology designed to go undetected by parents. Messages/photos/videos that are erased after they are received, a messaging app that appears to be a calculator and even messaging through wholesome games like Words With Friends are all means by which teens evade parental oversight and control.
The teens Sales interviews are living in a hyper-sexualized, pornography ridden, fast-paced world. As both a psychologist and a parent, the details are hard to stomach; however, it’s a must-read. Research gives us reliable, general data, but American Girls gives us the details and the direct access to the often-hidden minds (and phones) of American girls.