My summer reading list included a book suggested by a friend of mine who knows I care a lot about raising kids in today's confusing culture. The title: American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales. I knew, even before I finished the introduction, it was going to be an incredibly valuable read, so I emailed six of Mia's closest friends' moms and asked them if they would want to pick up the book to read and discuss before middle school starts the end of August. All six said yes!
I can summarize my reaction to this book in three short sentences:
If you want to read a book that will scare the shit out of you, I totally recommend it!
If you want to read a book that will give you very specific accounts about American teenage girls and their experience with social media and the affect it is having on their lives, I totally recommend this book.
If you want a book that is light-hearted and easy to read...I do NOT recommend this book.
As a mom whose only daughter is starting middle school, whose son is finishing middle school this year, one who is on his way to college, as well as two out in the "real" world, I am naturally very curious about the impact of social media on kids today. I know a lot of other parents like myself (thus the idea for a book discussion).
Before I launch into the book itself, let me share the p.s. (phone status) of our children...the three older boys have phones, of course, and no one monitors them. Maddux (13) has no interest in one, Mia (11) wants a phone (most of her friends already have one), they spend a fair amount of time on them when they are over at our house. It's hard not to notice the impact of getting likes, posting pictures/cute, short Musical.ly videos, and their reviewing the comments is already having on them.
Nancy Jo Sales' book is an intense look at how social media (specifically Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter) is affecting girls from 10 states (NY, NJ, VA, FL, CA, AZ, TX, IN, DE and KY), she divides the book up into chapters relating age 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 and she interviews dozens of girls over a two year period of time.
I literally had to put the book down for a while after reading the first chapter...Thirteen.
I mean, as an adult who recently took a big step back from social media herself, I am well aware of the impact it was having on me...but, to learn what it's doing to our teenagers is really nauseating.
The most shocking thing I learned in the first chapter was that it's common for girls (remember I am reading the chapter written about many thirteen-year-olds from all over the country) to receive "dic pics".
Yes, pictures of naked, erect, male genitalia. Often of their classmates...
The second most shocking thing I learned from the early part of the book is there is a rampant pattern of blackmail between teen boys and girls involving the sending of nude pictures. If you (teen girl) don't do it when it's requested of you your damned...and, if you DO do it (because you're afraid of the consequences if you DON'T do it, or if you are super confident in your body and what the hell, you want the attention) you're screwed as well.
What the f*#@ is the world coming to?????!!!!!
So, because I was having a hard time digesting the gravity of this behavior in kids my kids age, I decided to ask my older son if this is truly a valid thing...he says "yes, it's all over social media."
Nancy Jo Sales book goes on for many chapters, laden with interviews with teen girls from all walks of life, and she arrives at the conclusion after much research...kids today (male and female) are striving for the sexual shock, "likes", fame, attention why?
Because of porn. And because they are emulating celebrities.
Because of the easy access of porn to any age, both boys and girls are being heavily influenced. We have created a generation of young people (getting younger by the day), who feel as if they have to keep up with the image, lifestyle, and emotional distance of a multi-billion dollar a year industry where sexual fantasy rules and there are no consequences.
But, in real life the consequences of this second, totally unrealistic world, are very, very BIG.
That's probably the most depressing thing I can think of. And it makes me incredibly sad and sick to think my daughter is about to become part of a world where this is a strong possibility.
And, as much as I want to box her up until she is an adult, we all know that is (a) not realistic, and (b) a bad idea anyway. So, just like with the topic of drugs and alcohol, I am going to do and be the next best thing...I will continue to take the only approach I believe will work as my last two kids head down the slippery slope of adolescence into young adulthood with social media as their guide.
I am going to continue to educate myself on what's going on in the world of teens and social media use, I am going to work daily at continuing to create the kind of relationship with my kids where they can feel free and comfortable coming to talk with me about the things they experience on social media, at their school, and with drugs/alcohol use. We are going to role play situations they may find themselves in so they will have a clue what's coming with some suggestions on how to handle themselves.
And I am going to continue to find ways to get parents to talk with one another more (like book discussions).
Like every other parent, my intentions will be great and I will make mistakes along the way. But I will persevere.
When the stakes are this high, remaining in the dark is not an option. And creating power struggles in our home will get us nowhere. The only sensible, attractive way to guide your teenager today is to create connection that starts with being human, being honest and vulnerable, taking time to educate them on what may come, and being emotionally and physically available to listen without judgment and with compassion as they move through this challenging (for all) phase of life.
American Girls Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers is a realistic look at the impact and influence of social media on our kids today.
So, tell me, what are the biggest challenges and fears you are feeling as a parent around social media in your home? What is your family's approach to this not-going-away trend? I would love to hear! Comment below, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!