I attended an interview with Nancy Jo Sales about her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, at the 2016 Woodstock Writers' Festival. Her research, based on conversations with over 200 teen girls from across the country representing all different demographics, painted a very disturbing picture of the world our teenage girls are living in:
- Over 70% of teens have smart phones which means they have access to the internet which in turn means they have easy access to pornography.
Most teens are on their phones all the time - in school, in bed at night, when they go to the bathroom, while you are trying to talk to them, and while they are trying to do their homework. They are in instant access with each other all the time - living in a perpetual state of staccato interruptions. There are virtually no enforceable societal or parental controls short of depriving a child of a phone which then subjects them to rejection from their real and virtual friends.The popularity contests of childhood are on-line now and revolve around how many "likes" you get. A low number of "likes" typically translates into low social status, and possible shaming and bullying. A high number of "likes" translates to popularity and the pressure to sustain your status.
During the Q&A, an articulate 13-year-old girl confidently shared her point of view. She thought parents are out of touch when it comes to their concerns about the over-sexualization of teens. She said she feels empowered that she can send nude pictures of herself on the internet and saw that as an expression of her agency over her own body. She likened parents worrying about their kids sending nude selfies to parents "in the 80's" who were afraid of their kids listening to rock n roll - they just don't understand.
As this young girl spoke with such certainty of her point of view, my heart hurt and was saddened and I was scared for her and this generation. As you will see, I hold a very strong opinion myself on the matter. But, what I would really like to come of this is not to make each other wrong, but rather to find a way to truly hear each other's concerns and evolve a cooperative response to this situation.
Here are my specific concerns:
- With an under-developed prefrontal cortex, a teenager's decision-making is less likely to successfully weigh outcomes, form judgments and control impulses and emotions. At the same time, they have a fairly well-developed nucleus accumbens (the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward). Throw in hormones and we have the perfect recipe for immediate gratification, thrill seeking, and impulse behaviors far outweighing careful consideration of potential consequences. As a result, teens are more susceptible to becoming addicted to nicotine, drugs, and cellphone use and engaging in rebellious and risky behaviors.
The vulnerability of teens is intensified by the fact that as they move through the rite of passage that is their teenage years, the approval of their friends is increasing and eclipsing the value to them of parental approval. A confluence of the following forces has created an artificial secret world that is consuming
the time and mental focus of teens and subjecting them to risky, competitive behaviors:
--the popularity of social media among teens
--the normalization of Smart phone usage
--the easy exposure to pornography
--the influence of the Kardashian concept of female beauty<
-- the trend to up the ante and push the boundaries of sex and violence in visual media.
What is being forfeited in this situation? Research shows teens are extremely deficient in face-to-face communication skills. What else are they missing out on in terms of personal growth and development, social skills, and academic discipline and learning? What about their stress levels? This is a gold mine for the technology and pornography industries who financially benefit - every click equals more money for them. Teen girls have come to believe it is normal and desirable to sex up their look. They don't know any other way to be that gives them access to so much social currency among their friends. Kids are addicted to accumulating "likes" and the more sexualized their visual content, the more "likes" they get. If that's not child pornography, I don't know what is! I worry about the peer pressure for girls to post nude photos and for boys to accumulate as many as possible. Have nude selfies become the baseball cards of this generation? Posting provocative selfies is not a demonstration of a teen girl's agency over her own body. Flirting with the forbidden might be thrilling, but it is far from a reflection of her power and love of her body. Putting herself on public display simply screams, "Look, everyone I'm sexy!" The reality is these girls are subjecting themselves and each other to body shaming - a game of who looks better than whom and who is being most provocative. They are also providing free pictures for porn sites. And guess what subject matter is most popular there? Teenage girls! When a girl gets a request from a boy for a nude photo, she might think it's because he likes her. Sadly, her nude photo will probably just give some boy bragging rights for putting another notch on his belt. Stimulating each other's raging hormones is not empowering, it is a dangerous game. Off-line, it often escalates to heartless sexual acts that cheapen their self identity and the potential beauty of sexual expression.With the amplification of a sexualized sense of self coupled with the external search for validation, what chance do these children have of learning how to deeply connect with themselves and others and to develop the life coping skills they will need as whole people? I wish these kids could know that they are so much more than what is portrayed in a nude photo on the internet. I wish they could be as motivated to deeply know themselves as they are to gathering superficial "likes" online.
Where do we go from here? How can we, as a society, help these children? I welcome your thoughts on this.
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The Stakes Have Never Been Higher