When I grew up, my sister had the all the boyfriends. She was four years younger than me and I wanted to be liked, too. I flirted with the boy at the gas station. Finally he asked me out. Then he didn’t show up and I was even more desperate to be liked.
Now being liked has a whole new connotation and today’s adolescents are in more pain than I could ever have imagined. In fact, I had no idea of what they face until I listened to Nancy Jo Sales’ “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers” (book from Knopf, audio from Random House Audio). Sales reads the introduction, describing how – curious about rises in cyberbullying, campus rapes and female suicides – she began exploring a story for a “Vanity Fair” article. Her reporting tone is tinged with obvious concern as she describes her statistical and anecdotal findings during 2 1/2 years of crossing the country to speak with more than 200 American girls, ages 13-19. These young women were from different backgrounds, socioeconomic and racial groups, and sexual orientations. Their one great commonality? Social media.
Therese Plummer reads the majority of the book. Plummer’s tone is informative as she relates phenomena such as Kim Kardashian’s rise from 856 friends on Myspace to 31 million followers on Instagram. Plummer re-creates the casual, comfortable environment Sales initiated that allowed the young women to speak frankly and freely. This warmth often contrasts with the upsetting truths the teens reveal.
While my teen years had me flirting at the gas station, these girls are taking sink shots (taking a selfie in a thong, butt pushed up on the sink to make it look bigger). Before listening to this book, I’d never heard of Yik Yak, Kik, Vine, savages and slut-shaming, smizing, sexting-rings, thirsty and thighbrow. What I learned was horrifying and heartbreaking. Today’s social media addiction amplifies females’ tendency to compare themselves. This obsession is reaching younger girls, spreading anxiety, depression and fostering plastic surgery. (In 2013, 220,000 cosmetic procedures were performed on patients, ages 13-19.)
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These needs play out in tragic ways. Girls hoping for boyfriends send nudes of themselves. Many times boys collect as many as possible, post them and then the girl is labeled a slut. Social media makes it easier to be mean and nurtures the compulsion to attain as many likes as possible.
But all the likes don’t give these girls what they want. The book ends mournfully with teens wondering if they know how to fall in love, or will ever know what being in love is. Sales writes powerfully, Plummer reads poignantly and listeners will feel chillingly changed.