Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (New York: Knopf, 2016), 416 pp.
A review by Carrie LeRoy.
In American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, award-wining journalist Nancy Jo Sales explores how the lenses and filters of social media have helped to shape a generation of young people that she suggests is focused more on their digital self-image than their self-improvement. Girls, according to Sales, now often spend hours preparing to take "selfies" to achieve the "perfect" look and to attain the coveted label among girls of "flawless."
Sales follows groups of young girls in different parts of the U.S. to gain insight into their motivations and priorities in the digital age. American Girls paints an alarming picture of how social media fuel narcissism, competition, bullying, exploitation, and addiction to the "likes." Sales traces the influences of reality TV stars, such as the Kardashian sisters, to YouTube stars, to teens who've become famous by posting shocking Vine videos. She considers the relationship between online pornography, misogynist hip hop music, and the rise of a teen culture that is increasingly drawn to attention-getting and degrading behavior on social media to earn "likes" and followers. One of the girls interviewed by Sales in New York City spoke of a girl at her school who "liked her way to the top" of the teen social ladder. The girl reported that she succeeded; she had "posted bikini pictures on Instagram and got ninety-two followers in one day."
American Girls is a hard but good read for any parent of a teen or pre-teen, or for those who mentor teens. Parents and teens are navigating unchartered territory with the development and pervasive use of technologies that enable instant access to and distribution of content, often of questionable value, or much worse.
In mid-April of this year, eighteen-year-old Marina Lonina was charged with several felonies for allegedly live-streaming her seventeen-year old friend's rape in Ohio via the social media platform Periscope. One of her "followers" on Persicope reported the incident to the authorities. Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, who is handling the case on behalf of the state of Ohio, stated that, upon his review of the footage, it was clear that Lonina "got caught up in the likes" she was receiving from her followers on Periscope during the alleged assault.
In Sales's portrait of the modern-teenage world, the Lonina case should come as no surprise. Teens want, as they always have, to belong and to be accepted by their peers. Technology affords them instant gratification, in some instances for the most shocking, offensive, and abusive content. Sales claims that social media have had a major role in fostering misogyny, sexism, and the objectification of girls, as well as creating a virtual marketplace of teen flesh in which genuine relationships based on mutual respect and shared values have been largely replaced with the Tinder-inspired "hook up" based solely on physical appearance.
Sales argues that Silicon Valley, as it reaps profits from pulling millions of teens into digital reality, should be involved to a greater extent in combating the ill effects of social media and online pornography on girls' development and self-esteem. She also suggests that girls are reading less than before the dawn of social media, in part because of the time required to be on all of the popular social media platforms, and that girls need to spend more time reading to develop a feminist consciousness.
One aspect of social media that Sales does not explore to any significant extent is the positive aspects of social media: for example, community building, sharing of feminist articles and "liking" of feminist messages that may also influence the norms and the values of young people. A person can read Gloria Steinem, for example, or follow #yesalldaughters on Facebook (a page dedicated to raising awareness of and combating sexual assault).
To be fair, her interviews with teen girls may not have given Sales a reason to believe that there are potentially redeeming aspects of certain social media platforms that should be explored in depth. As outrageous and shocking as the recent Periscope case may seem, maybe the next case will involve live-streaming of the planning of a crime to the FBI — in other words, the technology may be used to help rather than hurt others.
In any event, American Girls provides a valuable perspective on what is going wrong with social media. It is important to consider the pitfalls of being pulled into a digital world in which one's self-worth depends mostly on the endorsements of friends and followers on social media. American Girls highlights the need to encourage teens to question digital "reality" and the meaning and value of "likes" from followers who may or may not have their well-being in mind.