Nancy Jo Sales’ “American Girls”: Where is Judy Blume when we need her?

March 15, 2016
Leslie Dixon

American Girls Social Media Secret Lives TeenagersIn the past when you wanted to know everything about puberty you bought a Judy Blume book. Now young people can access any information with the touch of their electronic devices. The difference between reading one of Blume’s books and current teen resources is that Blume’s books were not only informational but fostered a healthy foundation during the teen years. Nancy Jo Sales’ book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, looks at the teen years (13 to 19) with each chapter addressing a robust interpretation of what girls and boys are facing due to peer and external pressures. She has created a concerning roadmap of teens and the impact of social media.

I’ve chosen to focus on the 13-year-olds and how the impact of social media has created an environment of self-objectification. The social media world in which teens live has no boundaries or filters. Teens feel comfortable posting, texting, Instagraming anything their peer group seems to “like” or “follow.” The motivator for this current behavior comes from the pressure to engage in a world steeped in sexualization, objectification, lack of boundaries or respect, and a whole host of inappropriate behaviors. Some of these behaviors include boys pressuring girls into posting (porn-like) pictures of themselves.

One of our recent blog posts addresses how immature the teen brain is. Within this context, it is no surprise how teens consider the Kardashians America’s new royal family. The Kardashians’ online footprint is filled with expensive clothes and an ongoing array of Kim posing in the nude. Pornhub reported that Kim was number eight in the top 10 most popular “porn stars” in the world. At a current signing of her book on “selfies,” one mother stated that Kim was a role model for her teen daughter.

So why wouldn’t 13-year-old girls feel it perfectly normal to send “porn-like” pictures to boys or to be held emotionally hostage by boys who choose not to pose in pictures? In the past, there was a concern about external factors creating an environment of objectification towards girls. Now, the greater concern is the self-objectification girls have toward themselves.

As I read the book, I often said to myself, “Where are the parents? Where do these teens go when faced with the challenges perpetrated by social media? What excuse do parents have now with the easy access to information via the internet?”

I often hear parents state their children are too young to be educated or that they are waiting for the children to approach them with questions. Unfortunately, many teens do not feel comfortable going to their parents when faced with social media dilemmas. If open and honest communication has not been established by 4th or 5th grade, teens would rather keep things to themselves than share with their parents. The fallout from the pressures instigated via social media combined with the breech of parent/teen communication has caused hospitals like Children’s Hospital of Orange County to create a special psych unit to help deal with the issues facing many young people.

Several teens quoted in Sales’ book state that because of social media all people care about is how many likes and followers they have and how they look on their profiles. Since social media has become such a popularity contest, some moms are even willing to “buy” followers so that their daughters will appear to be more popular. Thanks to photo editing filters and programs the “real” individual never has to be seen. Despite this superficiality and artificiality, many girls yearn to look past appearances and focus on the inside, rather than the outside.

Some concerns raised in the book:

  • Girls are encouraged by external motivators
  • Girls would do anything to be part of a group, which would include sending “porn-like” pictures of themselves
  • Boys control girls by blackmailing them into sending the “porn-like” pictures or even worse finding ways to use it against them when they don’t “put out”
  • Girls self-objectifying
  • The standard for girls is the Kardashians
  • Young girls confuse healthy sexuality for inappropriate images and objectification
  • Parents are in the dark, which leads to teens having no real safe haven to turn to
American Girls Social Media Secret Lives Teenagers

(Click to enlarge – image via PRNewsFoto/Alfred A. Knopf)

Parent solutions I recommend:

  1. Get informed and involved (connect with other parents)
  2. Do not be afraid to start early (4th grade) having discussions about their bodies, feelings, relationships, boundaries and especially social media
  3. Stop thinking these issues do not exist (they do!)
  4. Start helping young girls to feel connected, loved, safe, worthy, accepted (keep it up)
  5. Take a class with your son or daughter, it will help to break the ice and you will both be on the same page
  6. Ward off negative behavior which includes: inappropriate pictures, language, bullying
  7. Be the kind of parents teens will come to with their fears, feelings and issues
  8. This is just as much a boy issue (watch Boyhood)
  9. Monitor daily social media, do not assume your child is “fine”
  10. Make sure all electronic devices are kept out of their bedrooms

As Andy Kerckhoff says in “Critical Connection: A Practical Guide to Parenting Young Teens“: “Embrace your beautiful mess of a life with your child. No matter how hard it gets, do not disengage… Do something—anything—to connect with and guide your child today. Parenting is an adventure of the greatest significance. It is your legacy.”

So take the opportunity social media has presented you with, and use it to open a dialogue with your child and to increase the strength of your bond. We can look at social media as all risk, all danger, all superficiality, but there’s more to it than that, and as parents we have a chance to talk through what all of it is and what it means with our kids.

To be continued…….

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