By Chin Lu
I first took notice of Nancy Jo Sales’ book, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, when an excerpt was published on Vanity Fair back in February. This snippet touched on the topic of what dating for young people is like in this digital age: sexting, girls receiving requests for nude pics from boys and men, digital sexual harassment, the risk of violent crimes, and posting provocative selfies on social for validation.
I’m a millennial intersectional feminist with a media studies degree, and professionally I specialize in social media strategy—At first I thought I could glean useful insights from Sales’ book for work. By the time I finished reading, what I was most concerned with was the future of American society and how I’m personally responsible.
American Girls is a book aptly organized by the age of girls the author interviewed, from 13 to 19 years old, with plenty of cited research done by others. To me, the most unsettling thing about the book is how much I could relate to it personally when I’m 28 years old and presumably more self-aware about my social media usage and the motivations behind it than the average person due to my career. I can see very clearly how the behavior and mentality of the teenagers discussed in the text are manifested continuously all the way to myself and my peers.
The book really made me think about the industry that I’m a part of as well, both as a consumer and a creator. For example, the fact that the Silicon Valley tech world is a male-dominated space is well-known, yet until reading Sales’ work, never had I consciously thought about how all of the founders of the most popular social media platforms are heterosexual men (and predominately white) and its implications: Considering what that means for the kind of products they create and the behavior & mindset these tools encourage in users have me shook.
I’m not going to lie to you. This book was very upsetting and depressing for me to read. And I don’t even have kids! However, we are all participants of this culture in one way or another. For those of us who are digital marketers, it’s easy to feel like the campaigns we’re working on do not have much social impact. “After all, we’re not curing cancer here” is a common joke when brainstorming digital ideas for brands, crafting clever promotional tweets, choosing which social influencers to sponsor, etc. But that’s not true at all, and we can all do better together once we understand the perspectives of those different than ours and are able to self-reflect.
If you’re short on time, the author Nancy Jo Sales was a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air” podcast, and she is also doing a talk at the Parents’ Coalition of Bay Area High Schools next Monday 9/26 evening.