November 17, 2017

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“American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers” | Professional Shelf

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American girlsIt’s no secret that teenagers spend lots of time on their phones. But what do parents and teachers really know about the ways teens use smartphone and Internet technology, particularly when it comes to navigating social interactions? In American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (Knopf, 2016), Vanity Fair contributing editor Nancy Jo Sales expands upon her September, 2013 article “Friends Without Benefits” as she explores the impact of social-networking sites, dating apps, and Internet use on teenage sexuality, gender roles, and behavior—online and off.

Quoting Pew Research Center statistics, Sales reports, “In 2015, 88 percent of American teens ages thirteen to seventeen had access to a mobile phone, and 73 percent had smartphones” and “24 percent were online ‘almost constantly’” with girls using social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat more frequently than their male counterparts. Over the course of more than two years, Sales investigated why girls are using social media with such intensity and “what they’re doing there” as she interviewed over 200 girls, aged 13 to 19, across socio-economic strata and throughout towns and cities in the US.

What she discovered highlights the often negative results of the ability to visually document and share public and private moments with the tap of a button coupled with the pressure to live up to media-influenced notions of female (and male) beauty and worth. Through her occasionally overlong and sometimes repetitive conversations with teens, mostly girls, Sales shares the gritty details of how some kids are using their phones—including perfecting the art of the sexually provocative selfie in order to generate positive hits from viewers, among other more troubling activities—while seeking to determine what might be motivating these behaviors. She spends a good bit of time discussing teens’ easy access to Internet pornography and how it shapes their views and expectations about sex and sexuality, from the hypersexualization of girls to the hypermasculinization of boys, while interweaving ideas on what it means to be a feminist in a world that rewards YouTuber beauty gurus and reality television stars with fame and fortune (yes, Kim Kardashian is a role model for many teens). Throughout, Sales includes related data and opinions from journalists, researchers, feminists, and others, and she concludes with a few specific, albeit limited, recommendations. Parents should talk to their children; Silicon Valley needs to be as proactive about stopping the exploitation of females as it is about making money; and girls need to read more, they should “put down their phones sometimes and pick up books.”

Sales’s eye-opening, fly-on-the-wall interviews provide a timely wake-up call for every adult who lives or works with preteens and adolescents to learn more about social media and to take responsibility for teaching children the emotional and intellectual skills needed to manage online interactions.

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Alicia Eames About Alicia Eames

A former Brooklyn Public Library children's librarian and NYC public school teacher/librarian, Alicia Eames is a freelance editor and a frequent contributor to the SLJ’s Curriculum Connections “Professional Shelf” column.

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