Original publication date
Instagram. Whisper. Yik Yak. Vine. YouTube. Kik. Ask.fm. Tinder. The dominant force in the lives of girls coming of age in America today is social media. What it is doing to an entire generation of young women? From Montclair to Manhattan and Los Angeles, from Florida and Arizona to Texas and Kentucky, Sales crisscrossed the country, speaking to more than two hundred girls, ages thirteen to nineteen, and documenting a massive change in the way girls are growing up, a phenomenon that transcends race, geography, and household income. American Girls provides a disturbing portrait of the end of childhood as we know it and of the inexorable and ubiquitous experience of a new kind of adolescence -- one dominated by new social and sexual norms, where a girl's first crushes and experiences of longing and romance occur in an accelerated electronic environment; where issues of identity and self-esteem are magnified and transformed by social platforms that provide instantaneous judgment. What does it mean to be a girl in America in 2016? It means coming of age online in a hypersexualized culture that has normalized extreme behavior, from pornography to the casual exchange of nude photographs; a culture rife with a virulent new strain of sexism and a sometimes self-undermining notion of feminist empowerment; a culture in which teenagers are spending so much time on technology and social media that they are not developing basic communication skills. From beauty gurus to slut-shaming to a disconcerting trend of exhibitionism, Nancy Jo Sales provides a shocking window into the troubling world of today's teenage girls.
Here are her comments on agency:
There's so much emphasis on acknowledging the need for this, and in honoring girls' and women's capacity for this, that there's never much questioning of whether they actually have it. Agency isn't something that's always necessarily present in someone's decision-making. In fact, ti's the nature of a sexist society to rob a woman of her agency long before she becomes a woman, when she's still a girl. Women's identities crystalize in cultures that are in many ways dead set against their interests. Girls are exposed to expected norms of behavior long before they're able to decide whether these norms are what they choose to inhabit.
While American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers is twice as long as it needs to be, it does raise issues that we should be discussing as a society, from how to raise independent girls acting in their own best interests, to what responsibility social media sites like Yik Yak and Snapchat should have towards their young users.