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.

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.

Why fit in when you were born to stand out? - Dr. Seuss

Though much more common these days, back in the 2008 day, when we began our adoption process, we were considered an anomaly. It was strange enough to most people that we were pursuing adoption as a means of expanding our family when we already had a biological child, but add to that the fact that we were intentionally seeking to parent a child of another race was mind-boggling to so many. Rather than being encouraged, the two questions we would get right off the bat were “But WHY?” and “But what in the world would you do with her HAIR?”

They “why” question didn’t bother us, and was easy to answer. The hair question did bother us, not because it wasn’t easy to answer but just because it wasn’t easy to answer without the heavy use of sarcasm. Because obviously, yes, we are about as white as white can get, but we are also not idiots. I was not born understanding nor raised to know exactly how to care for the hair and skin of someone of another ethnicity, but I am both willing and eager to ask for help from those who are the experts: black people and professionals trained in the care of all types of hair. So this question bothered me not because it didn’t have a simple answer, but that so many people considered it a legitimate hindrance to transracial adoption.

Because, yes, hair is important and an essential part of who a person is, regardless of race. But is hair that is different from yours really a reason to leave a vulnerable child as an orphan? “Yeah, I see those starving children who have no parents and no one to protect them or advocate for them or love them, but nah…think I’ll pass. I just don’t know how to fix their hair.” Bless.  

 About a month and a half after we met our beautiful little bald-headed baby girl.

About a month and a half after we met our beautiful little bald-headed baby girl.

Hair is important. Hair in the black community is considered a hot-button issue because of the history of racism in this country (yes, that article is BBC-UK but I like it anyway because it’s thorough). My Pearl Girl’s African orphanage shaved their babies’ heads on the reg as a cultural tradition (and to ease caring for so many children). In that country, even teenage girls keep their hair shaved as part of the schools’ dress code. So when we first met her, she was almost totally bald. My goal – then and now – was/is to keep Pearl’s hair as healthy as possible (natural products, no chemical treatments, etc.) until she is old enough to make up her own mind about how she wants to style her hair. Pearl’s hair also grows very slowly, is 4C on the hair texture chart, is extremely thirsty, and has weak edges. We have tried several methods of styling over the last five years and her favorite (and mine) is to moisturize well, detangle, and then leave it loose and free. She typically wears a head band (her sensory needs dictate that it must be soft), but on days she doesn’t feel like the band she wears earrings.

In some pockets of the Birmingham-metro area we see lots of other little black girls wearing their hair loose and natural, and in others there are none. Though we see this natural hair trend growing, Pearl’s hair looks different than many other black girls her age…and I have caught some heat about that in the form of the side-eye, unsolicited advice, and Lord help us if we have to go in the Wal-mart after a long day of playing at school.

One online community (of several) I subscribed to a few years ago that advertised support for transracial families is disagreeable to any kind of hair style that is not “typical” of black American children. There are frequent frantic submissions of parents wondering if their kids’ hair looks black enough. I understand their reasoning but question the obsession over what makes a hair style “black enough.”

Is it really honoring to the black culture or culture of adoption to pour all your parenting efforts into making sure a child looks “enough?” Or is there a way to honor those cultures within their current confines while also allowing room for the expectation of the culture’s growth and evolution over time?

Those are big questions to which I don’t have the answers. I will not speak for the black community or the adoption community. I will only speak for the Team Wilson community.

One of our goals as parents is to raise these little girls up to be who THEY were created to and choose to be, rather than shaping them after someone else’s ideology of what makes them black enough or white enough or girl enough. It is not in our nature to look to other people to determine what we like about ourselves, and I love that we are starting to see that in our kids as well.

Recently Pearl Girl was asked to describe some of her favorite things about herself. The first? That she likes her short hair. The second was that she is from Africa, and the third was that she is adopted. We have a long way to go before all these little birds are out of the nest, but for now, even our shy little Pearl values who she IS, not who anyone thinks she is supposed to be.

And that is more than enough.

Remember that scene in Castaway?

Do you remember that scene in Castaway when Tom Hanks finally, painfully sparked a fire and it changed everything about his relationship with the island and he danced all around yelling to nobody in particular just for the sheer joy of it? "I! I made fire! Me! I! Fiiiirrrre!" All while banging his chest and shouting to the heavens? 

 http://www.imdb.com/media/rm892374528/tt0162222?ref_=tt_pv_md_1

http://www.imdb.com/media/rm892374528/tt0162222?ref_=tt_pv_md_1

Well, I just did that (or I had just done that when I started this blog post). But not for fire.

See, I had been in a battle of epic proportions with a broken toilet that whole miserable week. It was an exceptionally crazy week, with a hundred more things on my plate than I actually could accomplish, way too many non-negotiables colliding, and at that moment The Captain was away in Honduras doing amazing things. Part of his crazy wonderful new job is to travel a bit, help poor kids get sponsored, and show people the reality of how well the sponsorship program works in each country. It's a super crazy cool opportunity and aligns so perfectly with our family's desire to help kids in crisis and to help impoverished families remain intact. Obviously adoption is a big part of our life and our passion, but we believe that poverty should never be the reason a child is relinquished for adoption. 

So when he is away in whatever state or continent doing these amazing things, I try my very hardest to keep him from worrying about or being distracted by all the inevitable crazy random stuff that just tends to happen here when a parent is out of town. Say, like, when Child 3 has basically been pitching fits in all her waking hours for a solid four days...or, when the A/C goes out in my car and the Wilson ladies have been roasting due to the sun's decision to randomly crank that heat up...or, when all three children wake up crying/gagging/or complaining of some ailment when I have an especially important day at work...or when we've had to make not one but two office visits to the pediatrician in a 3-day span, etc. These things and more can and will happen every single time one of us is away. So while HIS part is to go and do amazing things there, MY part is to keep it all together here and that's just how it works. 

Back to the toilet. 

The toilet picked a fight with the wrong lady that week. I don't mean to overwhelm you people with my technical toiletry jargon, but the little strappy thing that connects to the push-down thing and lifts up the big round flapper thing at the bottom to let all the water out? Well, that little strappy thing broke. I rigged it a few times by pushing the strappy thing through the arm thing, but it wouldn't hold. Too short. Then for the next day I just pulled it up manually every time someone used that toilet, but that whole dance got old real fast. By Wednesday I would have paid you $500 for a whole new toilet if that's what you said I needed. 

But on THURSDAY, I went to Lowe's. And I found the plumbing aisle (Lowe's has the best signage, y'all, they really do). And I studied those bins until I found a new piece that had the same strappy thing that was flying all over the inside of my turlet like a dancing windsock at a used car lot. And I gave them my $4, and I drove straight home and I showed that toilet who was boss. I turned off the water, drained the tank, took out the old strappy/flapper thing, and installed the new and improved (and flaming red, which was kind of like cool new turlet bling since all its other innards are white) strappy flapper thing. I turned the water back on, refilled the tank, and flushed that toilet over and over and over just so it would know who was the boss of it. 

It was undoubtedly one of the proudest moments of my adult life. I won. I! I fixed the turlet! Turletttt!!!

 http://castlerockhomestead.com/2016/02/16/daily-life-22-final-final-candle-tests/ 

http://castlerockhomestead.com/2016/02/16/daily-life-22-final-final-candle-tests/ 

I felt like Rosie the Riveter. This won't be the last of our random home emergencies that pop up at the worst moments, but winning that battle gave me a little reassurance that we can do this. 

This all might seem very silly to you smart people who can fix a turlet flapper strappy thing in your sleep, but it was so nice for me, in the thick of such an endlessly challenging week, to figure a hard thing out. It felt so good to whoop a problem with nothing but tenacity and my $4 fire-engine red toilet jewelry. 

Parents' Day Inception

There are many, many days when Matt and I marvel at just how wide the Ocean-of-Ways-We've-Jacked-Up-Our-Kids is really going to be. Hey, once Sassafras, Sweet Love, and Pearl are grown maybe they'll find us charming and endearing little old people who still prank them even 'til the very day they put us in a home. What we hope is that they'll have as many crazy stories to tell about us as they have given us to tell about them. Team Wilson: the gift that keeps on giving.

There's no doubt that this one will be one of those things they tell their friends one day about their dear old mischievous parents.

Backs aching from a marathon of cleaning (it's been a while, as we are in the "OMG WHY EVEN BOTHER" phase of CWP - Cleaning While Parenting), we both sat down for just a minute and I hit up Facebook, cruising for a funny video. It wasn't a funny day in Facebook-land, however, so I just scrolled and scrolled until I was bummed out because nobody had anything entertaining to share. Matt, in his infinite wisdom, suggested if it was a funny video I wanted then maybe I should find an episode of America's Funniest Videos. Then we giggled because the obviousness of it had to be giggled at.

Side note: I am an absolute sucker for funny videos on Facebook. What is that even about? Sarcastic GIFs, Principal Gerry Brooks, people falling down, funny facial expressions, kids doing dumb things, people falling down, old people pranking each other, people falling down (Why is that so funny?! It's so mean! I hate this about myself!)...and y'all. If it's a montage, I'll just laugh until I cry. The whole family will gather 'round the phone and laugh until we can't breathe. 

So while still searching for a funny video on Facebook, Sassafras (who was supposed to be cleaning her room) piled up on us. I can't say where the inspiration came from, only that The Captain's genius streak reared its creative little head. He started off by giving her a hug and telling her that he had waited all day for her to realize it, but today was actually Parents' Day. He told her he wasn't really expecting a gift or anything, but he had hoped she would remember. Sass, bless her heart, eyes all wide, started down the "see, what had happened was..." line of reasoning and she went on about how she knew there was a day just for moms and a day just for dads but nobody EVER told her there was a whole Parents' Day for both of us together! And she hugged us and told us she loved us. Matt told her it was okay, we just love them all so much. We love being their parents and in truth we really didn't need any gift at all. Their love is all we need. He actually said that.

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It took about 15 seconds for Sass to come running back in to us with our favorite blankets and, clearing the other kiddos out, she announced that their gift to us for Parents' Day would be having some time together to watch a show in the peace and quiet. She closed the door. We high fived each other and talked about how horrible we are as parents, and how we'll pay for it tomorrow when Sassafras goes to school asking her friends what they got their parents for Parents' Day.

Then we switched on the TV, and you'll never believe what was on. AFV!

Double high five.

Before long, Sass and Pearl were bringing me this super amazing sketch of Harry Potter (we've been reading the series together) that they - I kid you not - ran and found a YouTube Kids tutorial for, and drew it up for me because they knew I'd love it. How precious are these amazing little kids of ours?! 

Happy Parents' Day, everybody! I think we'll make this a whole thing.

*Revised to include that actually, Sweet Love was the only winner of Parents' Day 2016. Whilst typing this post she tumped over the whole bucket of mop water and created her own little disinfectant flood in two rooms of the Casa de Wilson. (sigh)

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