Teen Girls And Social Media: A Story Of 'Secret Lives' And Misogyny : All Tech Considered Author Nancy Jo Sales says the Internet fosters a kind of sexism that is harmful to teen girls. Her new book is American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.
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Teen Girls And Social Media: A Story Of 'Secret Lives' And Misogyny

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Teen Girls And Social Media: A Story Of 'Secret Lives' And Misogyny

Teen Girls And Social Media: A Story Of 'Secret Lives' And Misogyny

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How are social media, dating apps, sexting, texting, shaping the lives of teenage girls who spend many hours a day on their phones? How are girls' digital lives changing their social lives and sex lives, their self-image, self-esteem and self-confidence? My guest, Nancy Jo Sales, has written a new book exploring those questions. As part of her research, she spent two and a half years talking to girls in 10 states including New York, Florida, Arizona, California and Indiana. She also spoke with experts who study social media or work with teenagers. Her book is called "American Girls: Social Media And The Secret Lives Of Teenagers." Sales has been writing about teenagers for about 20 years. The Sofia Coppola movie "The Bling Ring" was adapted from an article Sales wrote in Vanity Fair.

Nancy Jo Sales, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write this book? What questions were you hoping to answer?

NANCY JO SALES: I've been writing about kids for about 20 years off and on, and we had been seeing some really disturbing things in the news involving girls and social media including the Steubenville case where there was a sexual assault and video of it posted online. And there were some high-profile suicides. Amanda Todd, sadly, killed herself after being cyberbullied. So we really wanted to know, were these isolated incidences, or was there a kind of a crisis going on in the world of girls?

GROSS: Your book starts with the story of Syracusesnap - Syracuse as in Syracuse University and Snap as in Snapchat. Describe what this Syracusesnap story was for us.

SALES: Well, the Syracusesnap story happened, really, at the very tail end of my reporting. I often would go on - during my reporting, I would often go on a site called Yik Yak just to kind of see what young people were talking about, what kids and teenagers and college students were talking about because even though it's - maybe because it's an anonymous app, you very often get this unfiltered sense of what concerns them and what interests them and what they feel like posting about. And people started saying, oh, Syracusesnap, got to look at Syracusesnap, oh, my God, Syracusesnap. So I start looking at it - and I went to Snapchat and I started looking at it, and it was really hardcore. I mean, there was a lot of really violent images and sexual images and so forth. And what struck me about it was how it was using the pictures of girls to get attention - you know, the pictures of girls naked or having sex or being in these sort of degrading positions was what was really getting all this attention. And so I started kind of looking into it and wondering like, who posted this and where did this come from? And I don't actually know. There's no way of knowing without having access to the servers that it was coming from. But some questions arose in my mind and in the minds of some of the people in the administration of Syracuse University whether or not this was perhaps a kind of an advertisement. And we don't know this for sure, but it's possible that it was an advertisement for another site. So it just brought home for me a lot of the themes that I had been covering, which is the way in which images of girls and objectified images of girls are so normalized and really used sometimes to get attention.

GROSS: What are some of the realms within social media that you think girls are being most objectified and that girls are being defined by photos of themselves, whether it's naked photos or clothed photos?

SALES: Well, I think the first thing that you have to understand when it comes to social media and girls is how prominent likes and followers in a quantitative sense have become in the sort of popularity contest of high school and early college that has always existed. What is new is that there's now a number, there's now an actual number of people or followers or likes that you can get to quantify how good you are, how interesting you are, how popular you are, and this is a new thing.

GROSS: There are dating sites like Tinder in which if you like a photo and you're interested in the person, you just swipe, and, I think Tinder was the first to have that swipe-right thing. So for people who have not used dating apps like that, which are also sometimes used for hookups, describe how those sites work.

SALES: Well, there are tens of millions of people on Tinder now - I mean, if you believe Tinder's statistics. Once upon a time, online dating had a certain embarrassment or shame attached to it. I mean, that's completely gone, I think. And the way it works - I'm sure lots of people already know this, but in case you don't - the way it works is that you post a picture, maybe a couple different pictures, and somebody who's also on the app is able to say yes or no to your picture by putting their finger on it and pushing on it sort of to the left or to the right. And to the right means yes and to the left means no. You know, it's very, very common to see people swiping, you know, as they call it, swiping on pictures on the subway or, you know, I was standing in line in a pharmacy recently, and there was a young woman in front of me swiping on Tinder just, like, in line. So it's become a very normal part of dating for everybody, not just young people.

GROSS: OK. So on these apps, the first thing you see is the photo of the person and then you can opt to read more about them and find out more about them before deciding if you're going to swipe right or swipe left. But...

SALES: Well, there's often very not much to read. You know, it's like, sometimes there's nothing to read or it's just maybe a couple words.

GROSS: Is that right? I'll confess, I haven't been on (laughter) the dating app site so...

SALES: (Laughter) You're not on Tinder?

GROSS: I'm not on Tinder. Yeah, and so I'm sure you've looked at a lot of the photos on Tinder if for no other reason than for research. Are a lot of the photos very sexualized or are a lot of them like your basic headshot?

SALES: Well, it's interesting because I talked to an 18-year-old girl who was talking about looking at Tinder with her older brother. And she - she's an 18-year-old and she's not on Tinder but her older brother is. And she said that she was struck by the way in which the boys' and men's pictures were very different from the girls'. Guys tend to have a picture like, I don't know, they're standing on a mountain looking like they've (laughter) climbed the mountain, or they're holding a big fish or, you know, they're doing something manly. Or in their car - there's a lot of pictures in their cars, and, I guess things that guys think women will think are attractive. But the girls' pictures - this girl was - commented in the book - tend to be very different. They tend to be a lot more sexualized. You know, this is a pressure on social media that goes back for women and girls a long time to really, like, trace the origins back to a site called Hot or Not which came out in 2000. When you're talking about swiping left or right or liking or not liking, a lot of it is this idea of are you hot or are you not and this kind of binary idea of a woman's attractiveness. Hot or Not was also pictures, and people were invited to look at their pictures and say, you know, is this woman hot or not? And the whole idea of hotness has become such a factor in the lives of American girls, unfortunately, because according to many, many studies including a really landmark report by the American Psychological Association in 2007, this has wide-ranging ramifications for girls' health and well-being including, you know, studies that link this pressure to sexualize on all kinds of things like anxiety - rising anxiety, depression, cutting, eating disorders. It's a thing that I don't that think boys have to deal with as much. I think we can safely and reasonably say that.

GROSS: You write a lot about how you think porn is influencing how people pose in their social media photos and also how people behave sexually. So let's start with the posing. Have you seen a lot of photos on social media that you think are really trying to live up to the standards of pornography and trying to imitate the poses of pornography?

SALES: Well, a lot of the most troubling sort of stories that I heard involved things that I think had been influenced by porn. For example, the book opens with a girl talking about being asked for nudes by a boy. The boy just simply sends her an Instagram message that says send nudes, which he spells N-O-O-D-Z, by the way. You know, I don't know if he thought that was cute or funny or something. But so she's a 13-year-old girl. She doesn't really know this boy very well. He's not her boyfriend. She doesn't have an intimate relationship with him. And I think the fact that, so often, we're talking about nudes and sexting is because kids are watching porn. You know, there's multiple studies that say that they are. We know that they are. They're curious. They're going through puberty. They're watching porn. And yet, nobody really talks about it or talks about the fact that it has an effect on how they behave and how - what they think about sex and sexuality and how they deal with each other. And there's really no guidelines for girls about how to react to all this. I mean, I think back to when I was a girl and, you know, the things that would come up in your life that were difficult or troubling or whatever. There was always a Judy Blume book for it, you know. There was - if you - getting breasts or getting your period or something, there was a - those wonderful Judy Blume books to read. There's no Judy Blume book for that.

There's nothing for them to turn to to know, like - how do I react to this? This picture popped up on my phone. How do I respond to this - that some boy that I barely know is asking for a nude picture of me? Should I be flattered? Should I be outraged? Should I send it? What if I don't send it? Uh-oh. What is he going to say about me if I do or if I don't? You know, so, these are the things that I talk to girls about and girls talk to me about and that I think parents need to be talking to their kids about.

GROSS: When you talk to girls who have been asked by boys to send nude photos and they're not sure if they should, what are their concerns if they don't? What do they think the consequences might be if they don't comply (laughter) and send a naked photo?

SALES: Some 13-year-old girls in Florida and New Jersey, both, told me that if they didn't, they had been threatened with boys sending rumors about them - sending around a picture that actually wasn't them and saying it was them. There's a kind of thing in adult life that we know about called revenge porn, and that happens among kids well, unfortunately. It's very risky for girls to send nudes because when they do - if they choose to - those photos are not private. You know, they can be shared, and very often, they are shared. I heard story after story of situations where girls had pictures of themselves sent around to groups of people. It has become such a normal thing to them.

GROSS: Well, this might be related to what you're saying. You write about slut pages. And every high school that you visited, there had been...

SALES: High school and middle school.

GROSS: ...And middle school. There had been somebody who created a slut page. What's a slut page?

SALES: Slut pages have different names. The most typical one I heard was slut page, and a slut page is when someone, typically a boy, not 100 percent of the time, but mostly a boy or boys - will collect nude photos of girls in their school or in the area schools and post them on a page. I've seen them on Facebook or Instagram. It looks like an amateur pornography site. It's a - it is an amateur pornography site, I would say. And it's underage girls and pictures that are sent to someone, very often, that they think won't share them, but who does. They're not - it's a nonconsensual sharing of these pictures and sometimes without their knowledge. I talked to girls who found out about it through texts, you know. Suddenly, their phone blows up, and they find out, oh, my God, you're on this page. And, you know, I think it's very threatening because it's abuse of a certain kind, and it's harassment. And it's very often not punished in any way - or even known by adults.

GROSS: My guest is Nancy Jo Sales. She's the author of the new book "American Girls: Social Media And The Secret Lives Of Teenagers." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nancy Jo Sales, author of the new book "American Girls: Social Media And The Secret Lives Of Teenagers." And just a heads up to parents, the next part of the interview is about how online pornography is affecting teenagers' sexual expectations and practices, but we won't be talking explicitly about porn or sex.

You write a little bit about how girls are telling you that pornography is affecting actual sex, not just photos, but the actual act of sex. And you write that you think pornography is normalizing a kind of violence in sex, not necessarily sadomasochistic violence or bondage and discipline, or not necessarily brutality, but just a level of force that reflects a kind of language of pornography, like, word language as well as visual language, where the words that are sometimes used are things like pounded or jackhammered. And so there's this level of force that teenage boys think that they're supposed to have, and, I guess, you think that teenage girls feel like they're supposed to be a accommodating to.

SALES: Yeah. It was through talking to girls that I started thinking about porn. And they really enlightened me about the effect that porn was having on their lives because they would start describing to me interactions that they had with boys. For example, send me nudes, or a boy sending a nude picture of himself. It has a different name that I can't say on the radio. So it's described, you know, pretty graphically in the book through the voices of the girls. The book is a lot in the voices of girls because, I think, it's so important for us to listen to what they have to say. And so these things that they're describing sound - they sound violent to me. They say, well, they expect this, and they expect that. And they want you to do this, and they want you to do that. And these things - they're all the hallmarks of the most popular online porn. There's different things that are sort of popularized in porn. You know, pornographers have found that they get more traffic, more clicks, more views, whatever - if - the more extreme that it is. That seems to be the trend that has happened in porn in the last decade or so, right. So there are certain acts or moves or behaviors, whatever, which are filtering their way into - yeah, the - I mean, the sexual encounters of teenage girls and boys.

GROSS: You write that you think social media is feeding this trend of the hypermasculinization of boys and the hypersexualization of girls. Would you describe what you mean by that?

SALES: Well, I - (laughter) I was in some situations with girls, especially the older teenage girls, that I just couldn't believe, you know, in terms of what the atmosphere was like - in terms of the kind normalized harassment - you know, degrading comments, you know, this kind of - I think a lot of people are not aware of how the atmosphere has really changed in social situations where girls and boys and teenagers are together in terms of how the girls are treated and how the boys behave. And, I mean, I couldn't look at it at any other way than to say - this is a kind of sexism and misogyny being played out in real time in this really kind of extreme way that I was really appalled by. And when I would talk to girls about it, I would say, like, wow - what's this all about? And then they would just say, oh, you know, that's just what they're like. They think that they can do it, and this is a direct quote from a girl in New Albany, Ind. She said that's just - boys now think they can do anything and say anything and it's OK, and it's not OK.

GROSS: What kind of behavior would you describe as hypermasculinization, just so we understand what you're saying?

SALES: I went to a party for July Fourth at a quarry in Kentucky. And there were teenage guys grabbing girls and saying very degrading things. And these two girls were having a kind of sweet moment where they were, like, hugging each other, like - like, friendship, you know. And the boys started pointing at them and saying - make out, make out, as if it were, like, a prelude to a porn movie. You know, and it - the girls just sort of said - what? You know, what are you talking about?

And it was just so very hypersexualized, and the hypermasculinity was, I guess if you want to use that word - it's jargon-y (ph). But one of the boys started doing a rap. He was kind of a wannabe Eminem character, and he was rapping about rape. And, you know, people were standing around clapping. That was not seen as anything unusual or outrageous - at least not by the guys. Some of the girls later told me they were really appalled by it, but they don't say anything at the time because if everyone's standing there, clapping and, you know, it's not - as one of the girls described it to me, like, if you say anything, you quote, unquote, "have no chill." Like, oh - what are you, a feminist? You got upset by that? There's something wrong with you, you know. Don't make such a big deal out of it. So it was this very upsetting and troubling atmosphere that a lot of girls just feel like is just the way things are now.

GROSS: So I know you have a daughter - and this might be too personal, I know, but is she a teenager? And are you dealing, as a parent, with some of the issues that you address in the book?

SALES: I mean, my daughter is 15. So when I started researching and writing the book, she was, I think, 12. And she was right at the point where all of these things would begin. And because I was talking to so many girls about what was going on, I was able to talk to her about it as well. And, I mean, I think that's what everybody has to do - everybody who has a teenager, everybody who has a girl - or a boy - has got to talk to them about what's going on because girls so often said to me, like, I want to know what to do. I don't know what to do here. I have no idea what to do. And I talked to parents who said, well I - (laughter) I don't have any idea what to do either. This never happened to me. But I guess it all begins with a conversation.

GROSS: Well, Nancy Jo Sales, thank you so much for talking with us.

SALES: Thank you.

GROSS: Nancy Jo Sales is the author of the new book "American Girls: Social Media And The Secret Lives Of Teenagers."

After we take a short break, writer Victor LaValle will tell us about his conflicted tribute to his childhood literary hero, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft - conflicted because when LaValle was young, he didn't realize Lovecraft was a racist. LaValle is African-American. And before we take that break, I want to thank Dave Davies for doing such a great job hosting the show last week while I took the week off. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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