In the fall of 2013 Nancy Jo Sales published “Friends Without Benefits” in Vanity Fair. In her article she uncovered “…a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers”. Sales, who also wrote for People and New York, is best known for her writing about celebrities and celebrity culture. The 2013 film, The Bling Ring, is based on Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair piece, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.”
“Friends Without Benefits” confused me. As a father and educator who works with teens, tweens and social media, the teenage boys and girls profiled weren’t familiar to me. Sales wrote: “As quickly as new social media appears, teens seem to find ways to use it to have sex, often sex devoid of even any pretense of emotional intimacy. There’s sexting, and there’s Snapchat, where teenagers share pictures of their bodies or body parts; on Skype, sometimes they strip for each other or masturbate together.” Really?
Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe my sons and students were deceiving me. I decided to try to find out, and, following Sales’ lead, I began interviewing teens about social media, random hook-ups and Tinder.
After twenty conversations I realized I had a problem. None of the teens I’d talked to had ever heard of Tinder, and they were genuinely shocked by my questions about using social media for random hook-ups or sexting. I changed tactics and cast a wider net. Maybe the teenagers I was talking too couldn’t be honest with a familiar adult. Still nothing. I tried using other adults as an intermediary. I even set up a google doc so that teenagers could submit stories anonymously. Nothing.
When I was finished I’d connected with 156 teenagers and, with a couple of minor exceptions, I didn’t find anything to support the view of teenage social media use Nancy Jo Sales was presenting. So I asked her about it.
We exchanged several (15) emails and Ms. Sales was as confused as I was by my results. She asked me not to quote her from those emails, so I won’t, but in the exchange she asserted that the things she was reporting on were global in nature, common and pervasive in the culture. She pointed to people she quoted in her articles and individual cases (e.g. Rehtaeh Parsons) as evidence of this. We never did resolve the difference and in the end we sort of shrugged and let it drop.
I ended up writing about my findings for the Toronto Star, and I thought that was it, until reviews and reactions to “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers” popped up in my news feed. The earlier article I’d reacted to had been further developed and turned into a book. Since the book was released there’s been mainstream media concerns about how social media is affecting teens (here and here) and some pushback about the basic assumptions of the book (here and here).
I don’t dispute the stories Sales’ tells about teens and social media in her writing. I’m sure that the teenagers she interviewed said they are doing all the things she says they’re doing. However, I also remember when I was in high school and was asked to complete a survey about how sexually active I was. I over reported significantly, and so did all of my friends. Teenagers aren’t always the most reliable subjects.
I also wonder about the scale of the phenomenon Sales is reporting. How many teenagers are encountering “…slut shaming” and sexual harassment” on a regular basis. My own research and experience suggests it happens, but it isn’t common.
I interviewed Toronto writer and digital advocate Emma Wooley for my earlier piece, and her comments ring true for me. Wooley said that “Sales’ writing reads like she (Sales) had a ‘social media and sex are ruining teen girls’ hypothesis and chose subjects and stories to support it. If Sales’ piece is to be believed, all girls care about is male attention and all boys want is sex — which can be true, but often isn’t. And how is it possible in all of her interviewing that not one teen had a different kind of story to tell, or felt empowered by their sexual experiences?”
I’m also reminded of danah boyd‘s concept of “moral panic” with respect to teenagers and social media as explained in boyd’s definitive book on teens and social media “It’s Complicated“, based on decades of academic research.
boyd’s point is that we’ve seen this “some new thing is destroying our teenagers!!!” panic many times before (e.g. rock and roll, punk rock, television, video games, etc.). It isn’t new, and in most cases the fears have proven to be largely unfounded. The important question here isn’t really, “Are teenagers using social media for immoral purposes?”, but rather what’s the risk and how does this balance off with the benefits of social media for teens?
Several reviewers have also expressed discomfort on how focused Sales (and the book) is on the impact of social media on girls and how little it discusses the role and effect on teenage boys.
Also lurking in the back of my brain is a cynical perspective. Why doesn’t Sales discuss some of the other stories about teenagers and social media? What about the many relationships strengthened and isolated teenagers who found friends and support on social media? Why does she present a one-dimensional picture of teenage girls only as vulnerable victims?
Perhaps focusing exclusively on the “tantalizing and dangerous” stories of teenage girls is simply more sensational? Maybe a more evenly balanced book wouldn’t be as popular? I wonder if Nancy Jo Sales has simply put her finely tuned skills as a reporter of celebrity scandals to work, and found the story that sells best?