One of the sweetest and most powerful moments in Nancy Jo Sales’s new book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of American Teenagers comes during an interview with a trans girl named Montana, who tells Sales that YouTube saved her life: “Transgender kids on YouTube saved my life; just knowing they were there, hearing them talk and seeing them be strong.”
Later in the book we meet an IRL friend of Montana’s, a mentor of sorts: Robert, a gay man in his 50s she met at theater camp. They talk about feminism and Caitlyn Jenner while Robert does Montana’s makeup (at one point Robert says, “This girl is too much. Sitting in my makeup chair and railing against the Establishment”). It’s a really lovely scene — Robert and Montana are funny, their banter sweet — but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Where did she learn about feminism — school? the internet? YouTube? Twitter? Tumblr? We learn the name of Montana’s favorite YouTuber (I Am Jazz), and that Montana loves her for her “honesty and realness.” But how did she find Jazz’s videos? Who else did she follow? How often was she watching these videos? Did she leave comments? Make her own videos? Had she met trans girls online?
“YouTube saved my life” is a powerful statement, and I wish Sales had explored it more. I think half her book could have been devoted to YouTube or Twitter or Tumblr saving kids’ lives, literally or hyperbolically. That is the social-media experience many American girls are having online. If you’re looking for an answer to the question “What the heck is my daughter doing on her phone all the time?” you might find the answer in this book. But many parents will come away from this book with no better understanding of their daughters or the role social media plays in their lives. These girls have found feminist education and empowerment, and they’ve found it on the internet.
For this book, Sales talked to 200 girls in ten states. The picture she paints is bleak: For the girls depicted, social media is the means by which they’re bullied and objectified — and by which they objectify themselves. The book details the dark side of social media, the side that compels girls to belittle each other in Instagram comments, pressures them to send boys nudes, devastates them when they comply and the pics end up on “slut pages.”
The chapters in American Girls are given titles based on the ages of the girls she spoke to: 13 to 19. Each is made up of several scenes of teen girls talking to Sales and to each other about social media; Sales expands on these anecdotes with explorations of larger cultural trends, incorporating quantitative data, interviews and quotes from academics and bloggers.
Despite the promise of exploring the lives of American girls online, her main theme is the sexualization of the girls — the ways, Sales argues, that social media exacerbates that sexualization. Girls explain how to take the best selfies; they talk about the school hotness rankings; they obsess over how to interact with boys, whose behavior is repeatedly attributed to the ubiquity of online porn; they make and watch YouTube beauty videos, constantly preening on both sides of the camera.
The narrative accelerates as the ages of the girls climb. In “17,” Sales explores (and deplores) hookup culture; by “18,” she is talking to a few girls who have opted out of the social-media wasteland (one because she is a runaway living on the streets of Tucson); at “19,” we see the wreck that social media has made of heterosexual romantic relationships: A couple talks about online stalking and subtweeting (which Sales defines incorrectly as posting comments the other cannot see); a guy discloses that he has no need to be in a relationship, then explains how easy it is to clean up on Tinder. It’s eventually revealed what all the sexting and nudes and slut pages lead to in the most horrific admission of the book: A guy at a party in Indiana boasts to Sales that inviting his friends to rape a drunk girl who has “agreed” to have sex with him is fair game if she’s a slut. (When Sales asks him if he watches online porn and he admits that he started at 13 and watches twice a day, the implication is unsaid but clear: All of the porn-influenced bad behavior that boys have exhibited over the course of the book can culminate in rape.)
This is all unquestionably horrible. I came away from the book even more happy not to be a teen right now than I normally am. I am very thankful that Sales traveled across the country to speak to teen girls and take them seriously. But I don’t agree that social media is ruining girls’ lives, and I think that Sales’s focus on demonstrating its ill effects prevented her from asking questions and talking to people that would have brought her to a more holistic understanding of the social web.
In Sales’s book, no one talks about having found friends anywhere on social media (girls do mention meeting boys through Tinder, though this fact is always shared to further the narrative that social media sexualizes teen girls). Apps are mostly an extension of the high-school social circle, a lesser way to communicate with people you already know, a medium that encourages sexualization, vamping, bullying, random hookups, and general bad behavior.
At this point I should admit my bias: I met most of my friends online — most because we read something the other had written and we got in touch — and a good percentage of my relationships are conducted almost exclusively over text, Gchat, Instagram comments, WhatsApp voice messages. And when I’m not yakking online, I’m watching other girls yak at each other. I love teen girls; I read a lot of blogs run by teen girls, and I know that social media is good for more than what Sales has reduced it to.
I felt a little crazy after reading this book — girl after girl telling stories about how stressful and demeaning social media was, while online I was reading post after post by teens making jokes, praising their online friends, finding a niche on the internet. Were these girls fronting? Was it really all bad? I reached out to a teen I’d met reporting another story and asked if she’d be up to chatting with me about social media. We talked on the phone for two hours.
Alicé is 17 and met her best friend on Twitter. She started tweeting in earnest two years ago. “I was lonely before Twitter,” she says. “Without Twitter, I would still be depressed. No one has ever tried to be my friend. I’m different. I can’t relate, and people at school think I’m stuck up for saying that.” She grew up outside of New York, moved to rural Pennsylvania in ninth grade, and never quite fit in.
She had a boyfriend but it wasn’t going great; she went on Twitter to talk to people. “I saw this random post of this girl I didn’t know so I retweeted it, and then I was like, maybe I should post a selfie, and then she retweeted it, and she had 7,000 followers, and some people followed me. I was like, oh, is this how it works? And then I started making some friends on Twitter.”
Eventually Alicé broke up with her boyfriend, because “talking on Twitter was more fun than sitting on the couch in silence.”
I ask her if she ever regrets the amount of time she spends on her phone.
“I don’t regret it, I love it,” she says. She admits there was a time when she was too focused on social media. “I got too obsessed with it,” she says. “I loved talking to the people I met online way more than the people I met in school. I guess that kind of depressed me without realizing it. You need human connection, and human social interaction. I guess I was really sad.” She connected with a girl online who was going through the same things, and that really helped. She made more of an effort to connect with people at school.
Alicé has had in-person meetings with nearly 20 of her Twitter friends, mostly on trips to New York, though she met one U.K.-based friend when she was in Italy with her family last summer. “I would have never met the people I’m friends with without the internet,” she says. “I have a lot of friends who live outside of the U.S. or in the middle of nowhere, and those people I’ll meet probably when I’m older.”
She is in a few group chats with various friends she has met online, but prefers one-on-one communications. She says there are seven people she’s in near-daily contact with, three girl friends she FaceTimes with every day.
“We’re all coming from the same place,” she says. “We’re going through the exact same things, living miles and miles apart. We follow people we relate to, so we’re already connected before we’re even speaking to each other.”
“I’ve had the deepest conversations with people I’ve met on the internet,” she says. “ I’ve never had such support from people; I treasure them. I was dumbfounded at how much they actually cared.”
The social-media culture that Sales describes is still a part of Alicé’s life, but because she has her Twitter friends, it stings less. “When I was younger, people did cyberbullying, but we’re older now, you grow up and realize, why do I care so much, and you realize you don’t, and you stop,” she says.
I ask Alicé if she’s dated anyone she met on Twitter. “I was in a real-life relationship with this one girl I met on Twitter, but it didn’t work out,” she says. “And I’ve hooked up with a few people through Twitter. It’s almost like a dating app. I’ve flirted with all of my friends.”
Alicé is bisexual. I ask how she figured it out, or if she’s always known.
“I think Twitter helped me. I’d never thought about it before,” she said. “I guess I’d see girls and just think, oh she’s so beautiful. Then I was like, oh, I’m not just thinking they’re beautiful, it’s more than that. I want to have relationships with them! Then a few of my friends [from being online] who were girls would flirt with me, and I’d be like, I’m really attracted to this person. So I was like, okay I guess I’m bisexual.”
Alicé’s Instagram and Twitter feature a lot of pics of her in underwear. She’s 17 and has a great body and she’s beautiful. Sales argues that pressures from boys and other girls on social media make girls feel like they have to post these shots. She is careful to say that she doesn’t view girls as victims, but she does imply that she thinks they feel pressure to objectify themselves. I ask Alicé about her pics.
“All of these body-positive pics were being posted and I wanted to join in because I’m body-positive,” she says. “It started this summer. I felt too little when I was 15 or 16, but this summer I was older. I’m almost 18. I love those types of pictures. It doesn’t need to be sexualized, this would be like if you saw me at a pool. I’m confident with my body and I don’t see a problem with that. I see Tweets sometimes that say something like, ‘I wouldn’t date someone who posted a pic in their underwear,’ and I’m like, if you don’t like me, don’t follow me. I’m not ashamed.”
I ask if her mom knew about the pictures.
“At first my mom said, why do you want to show your body to people? [The answer is:] Because I like it. Now my mom is like, I see the underwear pics on Instagram, but it’s your body, you can do what you want. Once she said, there’s pedophiles, you know, and I’m like, I don’t care. I’m safe. I don’t tell people where I live or anything.” I ask about the people she knew in real life, if they ever said anything to her about the pics. She says no, but she knows guys who don’t even talk to her have them saved on their phones. I ask her how that made her feel — she says she didn’t care.
Two weeks from now she turns 18. She is going to take the bus three hours to New York and meet up with a bunch of her friends. She met them on Twitter.
After we got off the phone, I texted her one last follow-up question. I knew the answer, but wanted to confirm:
“Are you a feminist?”
“Yeah, I’m definitely a feminist. Women need equal rights.”
“Where did you learn about feminism?”
“Twitter and the internet.”
I don’t know why the good side of social media isn’t in Sales’s book. (I’d hoped to ask her, but her publicist said her schedule was full.) But its epilogue confirmed to me that Sales doesn’t really understand the nuance. She is reminiscing about her first high-school boyfriend, describes them together as teens, walking home after school, doing homework together, talking for hours. She concludes the book:
I so want girls and all kids to have this experience of feeling close to someone, to feel valued and loved. It would not only be nice—I believe it’s necessary. Because no matter how much we may feel that this world of social media is real, as Riley, the girl in Montclair said, it’s a ‘second world.’ The real world we inhabit together is the one that matters; we need to find a way of navigating ourselves and our children back there, to the world of true and lasting connection.
Red marker, x’s, huge red circle, no, no, check your work. True and lasting connection can and does come from social media — it is born there and it is nourished there. That second world isn’t a ghetto — it’s not even a second world. It’s an expansion of this one.