If you work in social media (or you’re a parent), you must read American Girls.
Earlier this summer I wrote a piece positing social media as the new tobacco industry. My conclusions were based on two observations: First, the habits of my own three teenaged children, and second, the research behind a milestone study, the publication of which caused quite a stir.
But until recently I had missed the most substantial proof of my thesis — the February publication of Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, an incendiary must read for anyone with young children, but also for anyone with an interest in the impact our largest and most successful companies — Google, Snapchat, and Facebook in particular — are having on our society.
It’s rare that I read a book I want to turn away from so often, while at the same time turning every page because I want to know more. For many reasons, American Girls was a painful experience. As I read, I kept checking the details of the reporting — the slang, the app usage, the social norms — with my 13-year-old daughter. Every time, my daughter confirmed the book’s reporting. If nothing else, Sales got her facts right. And those facts bear contemplation.
Sales notes that today’s adolescents are the very first generation living nearly their entire social life through the mediated platform of social media. This is a very new phenomenon — literally less than five years has passed since this new reality has taken root. And it’s painfully clear society hasn’t thought through the implications of such a shift.
American Girls details the social media habits of teenaged girls from all walks of life, and what it finds should force the technology industry into a serious bout of self reflection. In the past five or so years, teenagers have become the number one users of social media, and as Sales puts it, “You cannot talk about the culture of social media, this place where girls are spending most of their time, without talking about the culture of Silicon Valley.” And as we’ve vividly learned over the past year, that culture is both disturbingly sexist and inarguably driven by the science of addiction.
So what happens when an entire generation gets hooked? That’s what Sales set out to discover. She interviewed hundreds of teenagers around the United States. Her conclusions: Social media has become a distorting force amplifying adolescents’ tendency toward social drama, highly sexualized behavior, and reckless decision making. Sales also theorizes on the longer term impacts of social media addiction: The erosion of empathy, a deepening inequality between genders, the loss of an “interior mind,” and rising depression and suicide rates amongst teens.
The ubiquity of social media in our daughter’s life has forced my wife and I into a far more considered and engaged form of parenting — an approach that requires far more work and far more conflict than was the case with our two older children (and we think we worked pretty hard getting them through adolescence!). In our own anecdotal experience, many parents are not only unaware of the realities exposed in Sales’ work, they are actively ignoring them, because they are just as addicted to their screens as are their children.
I know how this sounds — another clueless parent fearing the unknown in a technology soon to be normalized by the passage of time. And for years I hewed to that argument. But no more. We must face the impact of both the technologies we’ve created, and the business models we’ve adopted to propagate them — the very same business models, it should be noted, that have enabled Russian hackers to infiltrate and manipulate our political dialog.
But how to face them? This is where Sales’ work falls short — the book is more of a wake up call than a list of solutions. “We can change the culture of social media,” she writes. “But we need Silicon Valley to help. The leaders of tech, who are reaping such profits from girls’ fascination with their products, need to take responsibility for the effect of their industry on girls’ lives. Silicon Valley players are smart. We constantly hear how smart they are. If they’re also good, they’ll address how to stop the exploitation and degradation of girls and all children online.”
As I noted in my review of Looking Backward, NewCo Shift is committed to identifying and exploring the most pressing issues in business and society through a new Shift Reads program. At the NewCo Shift Forum this coming February, we plan to discuss and debate solutions to those issues — even if the conversation is at times uncomfortable. A conversation about the impact of technology on our children and our society’s future will be difficult, but it’s also too important to ignore. While incomplete, Sales’ book at the very least provides us the facts we need to acknowledge so we can move the dialog forward.
Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls is one of many books we’re reading at NewCo as we prepare for the conversation at the Shift Forum this February. Others include Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, Tim O’Reilly’s WTF, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis, Scott Galloways’ the Four and many others. If you’re interested in Shift Forum’s new Reads program, be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter here.
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