Social media is totally destroying our daughters. Or at least that's what the media keeps telling us.
Don't believe me? Check out some of these recent alarmist soundbites:
Girls check their phones 100 times a day! They're using apps to buy followers! They freak out when their posts don't get enough likes! They're sending nude pics to boys! Tthey obsess over pics of girls like Gigi Hadid and Kylie Jenner on instagram! They write mean things in each other's comments as ammunition for social combat!
I'm paraphrasing here but you get the idea.
Now writer Nancy Jo Sales' is tackling the topic in her unsettling new book "American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers."
Sales interviewed more than 200 girls ages 13 to 19 for this thing, and it's definitely a must-read for anyone with a kid around those ages. Especially if you're one of those parents who is still waiting for social media to just "go away," in which case you need to head over to amazon and score yourself a copy like, now.
Equally parts enlightening and depressing, it's an important book that gives parents a very real glimpse of the pressures our girls face online both socially and sexually.
There's pressure to get and maintain followers. Pressure to score likes. Pressure to take the perfect picture, with the perfect pose, edit it with the perfect filter, write the perfect caption, and then post it at the perfect time in order to get the perfect response. And if you don't get over 200 likes in the first 20 minutes, you're gonna need to delete that sucker ASAP.
I read "American Girls" over the weekend. Or more like I inhaled it. Because I have a teenage daughter. And this book is a raw and alarming and totally on point. And I can see exactly why it's got everybody up in arms about how scary it is to be a teenage girl these days.
But I have a question.
Wasn't it always?
I was a teenager once, too. Back in the 80s. Before cell phones and Macbooks were things girls covered in RedBubble stickers and toted around 24/7. There were no selfies, or belfies, or Kardashians to take and post them. But we still felt the same pressure to fit in and measure up; the same compulsion to look a certain way, dress a certain way and act a certain way that I see my own eighth grade daughter and her friends struggling with now.
That pressure didn't come to us via likes and followers on Instagram or Vine or Snapchat. But we engaged in social warfare just the same, the minute we walked down the school hallways or changed in the gym locker room or flirted with boys at a party. One wrong move and your fate would be sealed in black Sharpie on a bathroom wall, or by a scented pink pen set to loose leaf, that was then intricately folded and passed around in science.
Even then, the jockeying for position was relentless. We may not have been armed with rose gold 6Ss and instagram accounts, but we could unleash our wrath on some poor, unsuspecting girl in a Slam Book, or with an old fashioned Princess phone tricked out with three-way calling.
We couldn't untag our besties in photos as a way to prove a point, but we could promise to save them a seat in the cafeteria at lunch, and then somehow conveniently "forget" to actually do it.
We couldn't compare our asses to Khloe's or Kim's or Kylie's, but we could measure our nipples against Farrah Fawcett's in that poster of her in the red bathing suit that every boy we knew had taped to their bedroom wall. And we could compare our curves to the one-dimentional images of Cheryl Ladd and Christy Brinkley that stared up at us from the glossy pages of our mom's magazines.
We couldn't torment each other in the comment section of Instagram or on it's evil offshoot ask.fm, but we flexed our muscles for social sabotage in the fluorescent-lit ballroom stalls where we hastily scrawled slut-shaming diatribes.
Lauren C is a BJ Queen!
So is that better or worse than being called a hoe on instagram?
Slut-shaming has always existed, you guys. We just didn't have a name for it back then.
Just like we were the first generation to grow up wasting hours playing video games and watching Madonna writhe around on MTV, our own kids are now the first ones to grow up in a time when hanging out on social media is as normal as hanging out at the mall--a place where, back in the mid-80s, we smoked clove cigarettes in the parking lot and shoplifted sensual oils from Spencer's so the boys would think we were cool.
Seeking validation on social media? That's just a shift in geography.
To be fair, there are some things that are very different. Like the stuff about boys asking girls for nudes. Because like it or not, sexting has officially become part of our culture, a part I see playing out in the backseat of my own car as I drive my kid and her friends around.
They whisper now--hands curled protectively over mouths smeared with Kylie Jenner's Koko K--the giggles and bubbly banter of their tween years long gone. The word "nudes" snaked its way up to me in the front seat the other day and settled in like an unwelcome hitchhiker. I felt it in my bones, my whole body suddenly on high alert. In my rearview mirror, though, the girls just gazed nonchalantly at their phones.
They are teenagers now, and sexting just is.
The media says internet porn is to blame for this phenomenon. And maybe it is. But I remember boys being obsessed with nude pictures back when I was growing up, too. Only access then came via cartoons in MAD magazine or someone's dad's hidden stack of Playboys or an older brother's grainy VHS bootleg of Porky's, or if he was really cool, Debbie Does Dallas.
Now kids watch porn on their phones.
But the sexualization of girls is nothing new. If someone had interviewed me back when I was 14, I would have talked a lot about wanting to be just like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, with her wild mane of bed head and slashed sweatshirt hanging seductively off one shoulder.
Do you know how many hours I spent cutting up my own clothes and trying to whip my bra out from under my top the way she did? Or how much time I wasted analyzing the way she basically gave a blowjob to that lobster?
"How's the lobster?"
Her character was a welder by day and a "dancer" in a seedy club by night. And every girl I knew wanted to be her. Or Phoebe Cates in Fast Times. Or Rebecca DeMournay having sex with Tom Cruise in an empty Chicago L car in Risky Business.
Hookers are awesome!
Before that, it was Sandy from Grease. And those fuck-me red pumps. I was only 11 when that movie came out. But we used to stand around at recess in knock-off versions of her black satin pants, fake-smoking twigs and then flicking them to the ground, where we'd purposefully crush them out beneath our shoes.
Tell me about it, stud.
Boys may not have been asking us to send nudes, but we still tried to act and dress provocatively to attract them. At 12, we wore jeans so tight it took 10 minutes to get them on and zip them up, and then another five to try and slide a comb into the back pocket because for some reason that was a thing. And at 15 we wore cropped mesh tops and belt buckles punctuated with the words "Boy Toy," because that's what Madonna did and Madonna was #goals.
I wonder how many likes those pictures would have gotten.
Being a teenager has never been easy. There have always been mean girls and sex-crazed boys and the trick was to wake up every day and try to successfully navigate both of them. We were lucky, though. Because back when we were growing up, we got to do this outside the parental line of vision. Which meant we were free to try on different personalities and move around inside them to see what felt right and what didn't. We could be judgmental and bitchy and obnoxious and slutty, and no one ever had to know about it.
But thanks to social media, nothing is secret today. Not if you're paying attention. Adults have a front row seat to the show. We can literally kick back with a glass of wine and watch our kids' lives play out in real time, 24/7, on our laptops or desktops or phones, as if we're watching an episode of The Bachelor.
Whether you choose to or not is up to you.
But isn't having that choice a good thing?
The press can vilify social media for stealing away our daughters' collective innocence and turning them into a generation obsessed with sex and approval, but this stuff has been taking place forever. "Likes" and "followers" may not have been tangible things back when we were growing up, but we still knew whether or not we had them. And we knew exactly how to "buy" more using passive aggressive jabs tossed off in the girl's bathroom or strategic party invites handed out in the hallways as currency.
Close your eyes for a minute and let yourself remember.
Eighth grade was about a billion years ago for me, but I can perfectly recall the day a girl named Tina whipped out a silver puffy pen at lunch, scrawled the words "Frizzy JAP" on a lumpy orange peel and then threw it at the back of my head while her girl posse laughed and laughed.
Thirty years later the memory still stings. Because a mean comment is still a mean comment, whether it comes via a post on social media or an airborne piece of fruit.
Never stopped me from eating oranges.
Don't hate the weapon guys. Hate the game.
Or at least acknowledge the fact that we played it once, too.
Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer and blogger who explores parenting and pop culture on her blog suburbabble. She's also a contributor to sites like Scary Mommy, Parenting.com, Romper and FlockU, and she's written for Self, Cosmo, The New York Post, Ocean Drive, Lucky, The Knot and Philadelphia magazine. Check out more of her work on her website: holleeactmanbecker.com.