American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales (Knopf, 2016) 404 pages

AG Sales

I actually bought this book when it came out in February and read it sometime in March, I think. But for many reasons, it just percolated up to the top of the pile recently. One reason is that I wanted to talk about it in contrast to Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex, but that will have to wait until next time at the earliest.

I raised one daughter who is now a wife and mother, and my wife Camille teaches K-8 Art (yes, from kindergarten through 8th grade, and she’s watched many a child, boy and girl, grow up and mature along the way). So I didn’t really read this book to find out “all about modern girls” or whatever. I just wanted to see how an author’s perception of the role of social media in the lives of modern American teenage girls corresponded to my personal experiences and the tales I heard my wife and other teachers relate—I promise there will be no titillating details.

For those who came for the “secret lives” promise in the title, the main point the author makes is that teenage girls often live rich lives that remain hidden to their parents, although not necessarily to other parents or the authors of books on social media and teenage girls. I was much the same way when I was a teenager—horrified of my parents finding out something that my friends’ parents knew already—because they caught us doing it. 🙂

I did struggle a bit with the overall organization of the book. A 20-page introduction introduces the reader to the new world of social media in high school and on college campuses, mentioning well-known incidents of sexual and drinking photos posted at Syracuse and ASU. Although I Knew a bit about the problems of early teens “sexting,” a lot of the newer apps like Yeti were new to me. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, I already knew that Facebook was all but obsolete among teens in general, thanks to talks with my wife’s students. Why use anything your parents know well? Are you crazy?)

After the crash-course-social-media introduction, the book is organized into seven chapters spanning the years from 13 (naturally) to 19. A short conclusion chapter ends the book.

I found the structure a bit limiting in letting the reader try to fit together the anecdotes into a coherent whole. And I already knew that some girls in some places at 14 are way ahead of (or far behind) other girls in other places at 16 (although these differences have become more homogenized than a generation or two ago: thanks, MTV et al). If anything, modern social politics has delayed entry into adulthood until after college or beyond, and, as a result, marriage and children come later and later as well. I don’t have to read a book to tell you that many of the kids I went to high school with got married right out of high school (17-18). Only about 50% went to college, and that was in Westchester County in NY.

The rigid structure all but forces Sales into unacknowledged “themes” for each chapter. After all, girls in college at 19 don’t need to watch YouTube videos on how to apply eye makeup like they do at 13 (or 9, if you want to freak out a bit). I did compile a sort of informal list on Sales’ main concerns for each age group:

13: the tech itself. (How many “likes” did I get?) Girls in this chapter deal with 50-100 texts a day (sounds low to me). The Internet traffic is 35% porn, and most kid’s first exposure to on-line porn starts at 6 (p. 13: still the giggly-looky stage…but still), usually through an older sibling or by a Google search gone wrong. (I still recall being absolutely shocked that a middle-school’s computers had no porn blocker…I hope they do today). But no matter: the boys go directly to the girls with “Send noodz” texts, and the girls often produce their own porn just to have some measure of control (p.41). If you want shock, you can ponder the 12-year-old Australian girl’s “I Love COCK” shirt (p.49)

14: The theme here is “Appearance”…it’s all about clothes, makeup, and accessories. There is a lot of Internet celebrities and following them, imitating them, obsessing over them. Sometimes, the girls themselves ARE them. Page 83 has a nice image of a flummoxed dad helpless to understand his daughter’s Internet fame: she won’t do the dishes but she has 100,000 followers on YouTube?

15: The theme shifts to bullying (p.128). About 50% of girls need to “manage their reputation” and for the first time issues of gay/lesbian come along (p.140). Another topic is who-is-cheating-on-whom (all that built-up sexual tension has to go somewhere).  I have to say, bullying is one place where schools I know about are really alert. But stamping out a negative storm of shaming texts is always a problem. For the first time, we meet cutters and other forms of self-harm (p.169).

16: There theme here is “Love” in all its teenage…I was going to say “innocence” but by now it should be obvious there is more innocence on a reality show like Lock Up Raw than there is among teenage girls today. The book relates the 2013 incident in California (p.205 on) where “Uncle Jim” abducts Hannah Anderson. But the usual pervert story is stood on its head when the rescued Hannah, after Jim’s death, becomes an Internet star and brags of her sexual conquests (p.207-208). At 13-14, I think, girls are not often aware of their effect on boys and men (maybe especially men). By 16, however, most know just what they are doing.

17: Love is so 16-ish, don’t you think? As we phase out of high school and into college, the theme is now dating (or rather, the lack thereof) and hooking up. Yes, why date when you can look at a hot guy online and have sex that night, or afternoon, or whenever? And if he doesn’t call, well, why would you want him to, silly? Free love has always been around (p.233), so what’s all the fuss if some of us like it?

18: Now we confront drunk sex and the rape culture. I don’t need to say much here: the case of the California swimmer from Stanford is all over the news. What should be the punishment for fingering a passed-out girl? Should he get points (as someone said) for “not having raped anyone before”? All I can say is it’s as bad as they say.

19: A sobering look at STDs and the risks all this sex talk and action might involve. I have to admit I found the last two chapters a bit depressing (not that Hannah was really uplifting).

So what’s Sales’ conclusion? Well, whether we’re “misunderstood youth” or their well-meaning elders, the author points out that we all manage to grow up. What we want, in the end, is some feeling of intimacy with someone special. The means might change, but as long as the end is satisfying to the partners, people will be all right.