American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers

A few years ago, Nancy Jo Sales took on a bold and, some would consider, terrifying task. She spent hundreds of hours interviewing over 300 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 for one purpose: to uncover the digital life of American teens, with an explicit focus on that of teenage girls in America.

Her book is a rich yet raw synopsis of those interviews, revealing major fractures in American culture that both teens as well as those who work with them must face in order to survive – physically for some, and emotionally for all. Though many of the details and scripted exchanges between interviewees can be quite shocking, I found this book to be one of the most essential for anyone who is working with teenagers or young adults. Well-written and logically organized, it provides exceptionally valuable insight into the mindset of this age group.

Sales explains that the oversexualization we see of girls these days takes root in the tech bro/bro-grammer/frat boy culture that exists in Silicon Valley. All current popular social media apps and nearly all social media apps altogether are created and managed by tech executives, 83% of whom are white males. She makes valuable points about the clear connection between the tech industry’s frat boy culture and the rampant sexism found in many apps on the market (Two she mentions are Hot or Not and Titstare; others include MakeMeThinner, ShakeThatBooty, iControlHer, etc.).

This is also related to the normalization of pornography in modern society, which is damaging to females of all ages and specifically to the formation of healthy attitudes toward and understanding of sex among teenagers. Sales reports a rise in sadomasochism toward girls in both what is produced as well as what is searched online. Social media sharing apps and internet connections on smartphones has created wide access to and consumption of pornography among teenagers, but their built-in cameras have also sparked an unbelievable amount of pornography creation. Many teens aren’t just looking at porn, they are also producing it through sexting.

The girls Sales interviewed shared the rampant prevalence of boys asking girls for nude pictures of themselves, or the boys sending genital pics of their own as an invitation for the girls to do the same. The legal system is confounded by this. Sexting does equal the creation, solicitation, and distribution of pornography, which is a serious criminal offense. Yet, local law enforcement officers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of teens engaged in it and do not want to criminalize young juveniles, especially when labeling these kids as sex offenders would create lifelong consequences. It is also interesting to note that many girls with whom Sales spoke reported that the prevalence of sex available online is causing a breakdown in traditional courtship and dating relationships. Teenage girls and young women spoke of being treated like an option to guys rather than a priority. This is certainly indicative of the declining numbers of monogamous relationships we see in American society today.

Even if you remove the sexual aspects of how teens are using their phones, it is important to understand the depth of the emotional attachment they have to their devices. In 2015, 88% of teens ages 13-17 had a mobile phone, and 92% of teens were going online from a mobile device daily. Girls reported sending 30-100 texts per day. As one teen described the constant distraction this causes, “Texting is like someone constantly tapping you on the shoulder and you have to look” (pg. 61).

Beyond the distraction of texting, girls also reported that although they feel that social media is destroying their lives, they won’t just leave it because then they believe the consequence would be social death. I found it very interesting that the interviewed girls were all painfully aware of their inauthenticity on social media. They agonize for hours over selfies (taking 50 just to get the one they finally post), filters, hashtags, captions, and the underworld of what a girl can communicate by liking/not liking or commenting/not commenting on a friend’s or acquaintance’s (or even enemy’s) post. Every single post is a contest of likes, which frankly sounds both exhausting and miserable.

It is no surprise that girls suffer extreme mental anguish from the drama that unfolds through social media and texting. It is both amazing and terrifying the power social media has over teens, and especially teen girls. Eating disorders and other forms of self-harm are increasing exponentially, and optional reconstructive surgery for young girls is also on the rise. When “flawless” perfection is the goal, depression and anxiety are guaranteed side effects.

Sales also touches on parenting in the digital age, though briefly. I found her comments on the effects of parents’ oversharing their children’s intimate details a bit underdeveloped, but then again I personally believe this is a topic that warrants its own study and book altogether, as I believe the impact of parents oversharing the details of their children’s lives is exactly what has caused our teenagers to struggle with oversharing sexually online. Sales reports that 92% of American children have an online presence before they are two years old, which is a point of concern in the areas of safety and privacy at minimum. On a deeper level, however, I see this as a direct correlation to the social media crisis we see our teens struggling with today.

Cyberbullying is another focus of this book, and Sales refers to suicides caused by cyberbullying as cyberbullycide. Again, girls are more often victims than boys in both cyberbullying and related self-harm. Most of the cyberbullying that occurs focuses on insults that accuse “promiscuity or perceived promiscuity” and the girl’s physical appearance (pg. 129). Exclusion from parties or events (and then the public exhibition of that exclusion through posting group pictures on Instagram) is one of the more passive-aggressive forms of cyberbullying. There is also an unprecedented number of incidences of girl-on-girl violence, many of which are published to video-sharing sites like Instagram, Vine, and Youtube.

At one point Sales delves into the history of photography altogether, from its conception to the point of availability of cameras for the general population. The invention of the Instammatic camera brought amateur photography (and selfies) into the hands of all people. That event, along with Kodak’s marketing campaign in the late 60s to create and preserve memories in which the customer looked good, marks the creation of the mindset that “cameras are tools for creating an idealized self” (pg. 78). The invention of smartphones and social media apps did not create this mindset, but they have certainly thrown fuel on the fire.

The increasing reliance upon apps and the phone world version of a social life is reducing our teenagers’ abilities to communicate face-to-face with one another or with adults. Basic communication skills, interpersonal skills, and nonverbal cues are being lost by teenagers and young adults. This changes how we teach as well as how we participate in discussions on deeper-meaning issues.

The work of Sales in her research for this book proves that while communicative technology is not the problem, an unbalanced focus on it (by teens, parents, and adults in general) is. It provides an understanding of just how deep and dark the social media world can be for teenagers, especially for girls.

My own reflection of this book is that of appreciation that Sales went where few have dared go before in her study and exposure of the raw world of teen social media. Understanding the weight of what teens experience in the digital world helps me serve them better. I know to choose instructional strategies that incorporate more face to face discussion among my high school students, to help fill the widening gap in their ability to converse. I can be a better advocate for teens in helping others understand their emotional and intellectual mindset in today’s modern digital culture. I can also design events and programs for my school that help teens understand this reality about themselves, and to challenge that reality through a more balanced approach to their social media use as well as developing a deeper perspective.

Because this book is so full of interesting observations, I highly recommend that anyone studying the field of technology as it relates to instruction read it carefully. On a personal note, I found myself in utter horror over the undertone of sexism in the tech and social media world. As the mother of three girls, it concerns me that in today’s “modern” society, the primary tools being used for socialization exhibit the antithesis of empowerment and feminism for young girls. We are taking huge steps backward as a society in relation to progress for women. Maybe providing flip phones for my daughters, at least through middle and early high school, isn’t such a bad idea after all…

Sales, N. J. (2016). American girls: Social media and the secret lives of teenagers.

Father's Day 2017 - Gift Guide for Dads

2017's day for dads is just around the corner, and many of us are in gift-planning mode. I love to buy gifts, and if I could spend every dime of our money just buying stuff for people that would almost be a dream job. But for many people, buying stuff for dads is tricky. Most of the men in our lives tend to be pretty simple creatures, and an awful lot of them suffer from the "if I want it, I'll just get it myself" type of mentality. That can be...notsohelpful to those of us trying to surprise them with wonderful things they will both love and actually use. 

Here are a few suggestions for those of you on the prowl for great stuff. 

There are few things more manly than a good piece of Saddleback Leather. I wrote about them back in 2015 and not much has changed in 2 years, except now we have more favorite pieces. They sent me this Leather Pouch Wallet (ours is shown here in Tobacco) in exchange for an honest review. It is one of their newest designs and secretly I love this one over all their wallet options because The Captain likes the wallet part and let me have the pouch part. You guys. It's like a double gift in one little package - something for him AND something for you! The wallet is sufficient to keep his cards and cash (LOL - like we even carry cash) organized but not too big as to bulk up his pocket space. Dudes can be weird about that. This one is available in several colors and you can order it directly through the Saddleback site. Several of their products are even available on Amazon. 

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  • Moonshine Cologne - I slid this one on and off the list a few times because I can be such a selfish monster, but this is hands down the best smelling cologne ever. It has such an earthy, manly but not musty scent and I love it because it is so different than all the other colognes out there. Matt has worn it for years, and apparently I'm now mature enough to share the scent with others. You're welcome. 
  • Kayak/gear - We live in the Birmingham, AL area which has a magnificent supply of options for fun in the great outdoors. I gave The Captain a kayak for Christmas (well, I wrapped up a Barbie kayak and then we picked it up from Dick's Sporting Goods later), and he has really enjoyed it. My best tips here are two-fold. 1) Do your research. Check out sites like this one and this one to figure out what specific type will work for your person. OR 2) Don't do your research. Just wrap up a Barbie kayak and let him get what he wants later. Either way, the dad you're buying for ends up a happy paddler. 
     
  • Timbuktu bags - These things are rugged yet metro. They're sleek but also have pockets aplenty. They're really cool bags/backpacks/messenger bags that are extremely well made. The Captain loves his messenger bag and backpack, and as someone who travels A LOT he knows a lot about the best/most convenient bags out there. 
     
  • He Reads Truth  - For those of you with dudes who are interested in Bible study and application, this site has some very modern resources...and a great sale to boot! 
     
  • Uncommon Goods - This website is so fun and quirky I just cannot even stop the browsing. From manly hygiene kits to the coolest cocktail set ever (and by "ever" I do mean "ever on the planet of Geekdom") to this totally random and unbelievably awesome steampunk kinetic key holder. Welcome to the World of Random! At least you know you can find something he doesn't have on this site! 

Happy shopping, amigos! Now go! Go find him something fabulous! 

The times, they are achangin'

So many things have evolved in my 15 years of being an educator in Alabama. When I started my first position in this field, which was serving as a 5th grade reading teacher, corporate email for teachers wasn't even a thing, y'all. I mean, seriously. That alone makes me feel like a fossil. 

And, of course, there is much that hasn't changed at all. In many ways teachers are still disrespected, ignored, and undermined in all the ways that matter when it comes to legislative issues that impact our profession. Our elected representatives talk about us, over us, around us, and under us, but they rarely talk to us. This is ineffective and inefficient at best when it comes to effecting real and positive change for our teachers, students, and communities. 

There was a thing that happened this weekend that gave me hope. A very diverse group of impassioned, extraordinary teachers came together to discuss issues impacting education in Alabama. We discussed everything from Alabama's College and Career Ready Standards to measures impacting teacher quality to National Board Teacher Certification. It was a robust discussion, and my only regret was that we had to cut it off after an hour. This was teachers talking shop, and it was so refreshing to hear the different viewpoints on these issues. 

What made this different from any other teacher roundtable discussion was that, for the first time to my knowledge, a prominent person pursuing an elected office asked for a seat at our table. (*See my friend Julie's blog post explaining just why it is OUR table!)

The times, they are achangin' friends, and in all the ways that will be the wind in our sails to make a tangible difference for our teachers and students in this state. 

STEM for Preschool

The merging of all my posts into one feed has uncovered some old drafts that never got published. Here's one from last year.

Kidzone Discovery School - a place that is and people who are very very dear to our family - invited me to serve as a speaker for one of their professional development days last spring. In response to the administrators' research in best practices for young children, they asked that the focus be on STEM for Preschool. STEM, as some of you may know, is the emphasis on and intersection of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEAM is the newest version of this, incorporating Art into the mix.

STEM/STEAM-focused learning activities are pretty on trend right now for K-12 education. At the onset of planning, my approach was taking something complex and simplifying it for preschool purposes and I anticipated some challenges in that area. Would I be able to find enough "lower-level" activities to pull this off?

As it turned out, STEM is so perfectly aligned to instructional strategies appropriate for preschool that there was no shortage but rather an abundance of options for this workshop. Polling together my own personal children's STEM-type tools as well as some materials provided by the preschool made for a powerful, hands-on workshop that the teachers seemed to truly enjoy.

I started off with an interactive quiz to determine that audience's level of familiarity with STEM. We had some basic understanding but for most participants, this concept was entirely new. Then I gave a quick talk on the origin of the STEM movement and how this method of instruction helps nurture curiosity, initiative, and critical thinking skills in our kids. The next chunk of time we spent rotating through stations so that everyone had an opportunity to try out (and evaluate) some activities for appropriateness in relation to their specific age groups. Each station had a challenge/task card with just enough instructions to enable self-sufficiency in exploring the activity.

1. In this challenge, teachers were given rolls of tin foil and were asked to design a boat that would float. They experimented with design of their vessels, and even took on the extra challenge of adding cargo (pennies) to see how that would alter their boat's function.

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2. The next station was simply a box of Magformers. These are magnetized geometric shapes that can be clipped together to build designs from the included idea book or users can branch off and design a structure according to their own specifications.

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3. The next station was creating chemical reactions with baking soda, food coloring, and vinegar. The teachers could use droppers to pull out colored vinegar and create artistic chemical reactions by adding it to the pans of baking soda. Younger kids love this activity, and as long as you prep ahead of time with disposable trays and garbage bags, clean-up can be kept to a minimum.

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4. This was the most advanced STEM activity of the session. The participants were challenged to use tin foil, pins/hot glue, and streamers/ribbon to create a comet. The emphasis on this station for actual use with preschoolers would be teacher assistance and instruction on the various terminology associated with the comet models. The fun part, of course, would be getting to throw their foil comets across the room afterward.

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5. The next station involved using Legos and the Lego Movie Maker app to create short, stop-action videos. I have recently been devastated to discover that Lego Movie Maker has been discontinued, but there are other stop motion video apps out there that would accomplish the same goal.

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6. This station was the simplest yet it yielded the most room for creativity. The challenge was to build Elsa's castle out of sugar cubes, and everyone had such a creatively different take on the best way to assemble a sturdy castle. One of the administrators suggested that we could also use a sugar water paste (similar to gingerbread house icing) to help the "bricks" stick together.

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7. This station was also pretty simple, including just pipe cleaners and beads. Using those two materials only (plus duct tape, of course), the teachers were challenged to see which team could build the tallest structure.

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We rotated everyone through the stations in five-minute increments. Some challenges required more time, others less, but this gave all the teachers a broad sweeping exposure to the STEM/maker concept. A follow up interactive quiz gave good feedback on the participants' understanding of the purpose and details of our STEM activities.

Whether you're a teacher or a parent looking for Spring Break/summer fun, you are welcome to check out the links below to set up your own kiddos' STEM challenges!

Link to STEM for Preschool presentation

Link to supplemental signs for STEM activities

When your kids throw a wrench in your plans to opt out of standardized testing

As an educator, I believe there are better ways to assess student learning than the system of standardized testing we currently have in place.

As a citizen, I believe that parents have the right to determine what is best for their children – including exercising the ability to opt out of standardized tests.

As a mother, I have long believed that the combination of my views as an educator and a citizen would combine in one outcome: that I would opt my children out of any and all standardized tests that came their way. 

From Pixabay.com under CC0.

From Pixabay.com under CC0.

Only, see what had happened was…my child did not actually want to be opted out.

Huh. In the words frequently mumbled by Sweet Love when she has made yet another mess…”I didn’t see that coming.”

I’ve written about this testing thing a few times here and there:

http://asouthernruckus.com/asouthernruckus/outhernruckus.com/2013/03/opting-out.html

http://asouthernruckus.com/asouthernruckus/2014/4/5/deep-reads-for-you-this-weekend

http://asouthernruckus.com/asouthernruckus/2015/3/7/opting-out-is-it-worth-the-hassle

Sassafras is now in 4th grade, which means the next few weeks will hold her second round of standardized testing. Last year, I sat her down, told her my basic thoughts about testing, and asked what she thought. Her response was that she was curious about how the testing thing worked and she really wanted to take them. Okay, fine, I said. But there was absolutely no reason to get all stressed out or anxious about it and if at any point she changed her mind, I’d take care of it.

This year, I casually made the same offer: if you want to skip the test, I’ll make it happen. Her response was: Meh, I liked taking the test because I got a good score, so I’ll just go ahead and take it this year, too.

Ummmm…okay. I suppose she’s very behavioristic that way. Taking the test, and receiving positive feedback, makes her feel good about her school experience. I have to acknowledge that while also remembering that taking the test is not at all a positive occurrence for other kids out there.

I still believe there is a better way to evaluate the work done by educators and students, and will continue advocating for improvements to the overall system as well as parents’ rights to determine what, if any, testing experience is right for their children.