5 Things I Learned from American Girls…the scariest book since Cujo

I don’t have daughters, but I still picked up a copy of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales. I didn’t expect it to keep me up at night. Here’s why it did:

  1. Most social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, etc.) were founded by men who work in Silicon Valley, where sexual harassment is a huge problem. More females use social media then males. Most post pictures of themselves in sexualized clothing and positions. Most males post pictures of themselves running, hunting, fishing, hiking or engaging in some other physical activity. They are rarely naked.

The contrast is troublesome.

I asked my sons about their Instagram accounts, the only social networking site they use. They are connected to hundreds of young women, yet only one female who hadn’t objectified herself in any way. Their Aunt Kerri, my sister.

Both boys attend a highly-rated public high school with smart, affluent female students. Such girls routinely feel the need to post pictures where they are barely clothed. Why?

I thought about my own pictures, back when I was on social media. What kind of example did I set? I posted pictures of myself in bathing suits and now frowned when thinking about it. Sure, there is a difference between a forty year-old woman popping out twin sons and working hard to get back in shape and a fifteen year-old girl who’s developing her identity and objectifying herself at a young age.

Isn’t there?

  1. The Instamatic camera, invented in the 1960s, fundamentally changed photography. Two separate marketing campaigns began – one for men, one for women. Men were encouraged to use the camera to document adventures. Women were encouraged to show off pretty clothes or document dances and social events.

Women bought into that distinction and the trend continues today.

  1. Dates and phone conversations are no longer a thing. In high school and college, dating has been replaced with sexting and hook-ups. This leads to less intimacy and many teenagers/young adults make connections that feel hollow, rather than meaningful. College girls reveal that, too often, they are having sex with men before having a conversation with them.

Again, I asked my sons to see if this was their reality. Both talk on the phone and my younger son Zachary had been out on a few dates recently. When I asked, they said girls regard them with curiosity because “no one dates or talks on the phone anymore.”

If young people don’t talk, how do they get to know each other? Text messages are easily misunderstood and social media posts can be deceiving. Nothing replaces sitting across from someone, looking into their eyes and discussing life experiences, values and opinions. That’s the beginning of true intimacy and our children are missing out if they hop into bed with someone they hardly know.

  1. These trends are surprisingly similar to grown-up dating. After discussing this book with my single friends, I was shocked to hear that this is their reality, too. I found it hard to believe at first, until my friend Eileen showed me her Tinder account.

Holy. Shit.

Most men, in the photos, are holding up fish. Most women are holding up their breasts. Swipe right if you like what you see? How do you know? Nothing indicates a person’s value system, intelligence quota, voting habits or sense of humor. Isn’t that what’s really attractive about someone once we graduate from high school?

People aren’t getting the nourishment that comes with human contact through social media and texting. As suicide rates climb, especially among middle-aged women, I wonder if depression from round-the-clock social media use and lack of connection is at least partially to blame.

Most female friends are exhausted by the constant pressure to post attractive pictures and brag about their lives. They spend hours interpreting text messages that could mean, literally, anything. Then they spend hours wondering why there is no response.

“Can’t you just call and ask?” I said.

They looked at me like I’m nuts.

Maybe I am. I thought dating was supposed to be fun.

  1. Not every trend is cause for alarm. When we were in high school and college, hooking up was routine. We didn’t have phones, but we did have Sink or Swim night at local bars. My friends found someone who looked good, took him home for the night and never saw him again. This was pervasive, along with herpes and venereal warts, but some girls – girls like me – said no and held out for more.

I would like to read more about such girls. We were out there then, and I suspect we are out there now. We aren’t religious or superior to anyone, we just have our own ideas and feel no pressure to conform to the norms around us. What makes us stand alone? I don’t know, but I’d like there to be more studies about us. Maybe if journalists and those reporting on young women today focused some of their time on girls who seek out and find partners based on mutual values, we’d have more of them.

I’m looking forward to a book like that.