Wherever the media reports on teenagers and social media, a curious buzzword follows: secret. In July, BuzzFeed infiltrated a “Secret Teen White Supremacist Messaging Group.” In October, CNN aired a report on teen social media activity called “#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens.” This month, the New Republic dives into the “Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens.” And as reporters and prosecutors unravel the story of Nicole Lovell, a 13-year-old Virginia girl found murdered last month after meeting and corresponding with an 18-year-old Virginia Tech man on the anonymous messaging app Kik, secrets abound. Lovell “had a secret life online,” the local news reported. A 19-year-old woman accused of helping dispose of Lovell’s body “was excited to be part of something secret,” prosecutors allege.
The more we learn about the Lovell case, the more it appears that her “secret” online life was anything but. Lovell’s father had recently confiscated her phone after discovering she’d been using it to chat with “older guys.” Her mother spoke of the girl being bullied on social media by classmates. Hours before she disappeared, Lovell showed messages on her phone to neighbor kids. Troubling comments Lovell made on a Facebook group, “Teen Dating and Flirting,” remained online after her death. Kik Interactive gave police access to a trail of digital evidence it believes helped lead to the suspects’ arrest. If anything, social media has made teenagers’ social lives more observable than ever before. But a “secret” plays well to parental anxieties: What if we can protect our daughters by keeping them off the phone?
In American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, Nancy Jo Sales gives the trope a spin. Sales is no breathless local news anchor. She’s a Vanity Fair vet known for charting the outer limits of celebrity culture, profiling figures made famous at birth (the Hilton sisters and the Brant brothers), by birthing (the procreative Pennsylvanians Jon and Kate Gosselin), or via break-in (the star-crossing burglars of The Bling Ring). That final story elevated Sales to her own circle of quasi-celebrity: In an infamous moment from the otherwise forgettable E! reality show Pretty Wild, despondent Bling Ring subject Alexis Neiers repeatedly tries and fails to leave a voicemail for “Nancy Jo” expressing her displeasure with the Vanity Fair article as her apoplectic mother screams her own commentary into the receiver. (Sales never picked up the phone.) The rise of social media—and the ways in which it’s slickly capitalized on American obsessions with celebrity, consumerism, and the female body—is all but predicted by Sales’ previous work. Promising, right? American Girls’ promotional copy calls the result “a disturbing portrait of the end of childhood as we know it” and “a shocking window into the troubling world of today’s teenage girls.” Oh.
Sales interviewed more than 200 girls, ages 13 to 19, for the book, accessing Girl Worlds across 10 states. Sales interviews girls on One Direction bedspreads, witnesses them self-consciously pick at their salads at a trendy New York lunch spot, witnesses them retch into the sand at Panama City Beach, and gets close enough to see the shimmer of their lip gloss or the cutting marks on the insides of their arms. Inside a Montclair, New Jersey, Dunkin’ Donuts, she eavesdrops on a pack of sprinkle-fueled middle-schoolers as they rank the bodies of the Kardashian-Jenner sisters, duck-face for their camera phones, and swap rumors about the day’s social media gossip. Because these are regular teenagers, not reality-television stars–slash-felons, each subject is assigned a pseudonym—Zoe, Riley, Jenna, Julie, Cassy, Maggie—and sketched into place with a few identifying details: race, hairstyle, footwear, her parents’ professions.
“One of the things that continually struck me over the course of my reporting was the similarity of girls’ experiences on social media regardless of their race or background,” Sales writes. “The homogeneity of the technology and widespread use of the same apps seem to be creating … a certain culture. And a lot of what girls had to say about this culture involved an experience of what can only be described as sexism.” State after state, mall after mall, clique after clique, the girls tell similar tales littered with dick pics, butt shots, cutthroat competition for Instagram likes, cyberbullying, blackmail, sexual rumors, nude photographs sent in confidence then circulated to whole social networks. Even if you’ve managed to avoid other journalistic stakeouts on the subjects of sexting, sexualized cyberbullying, and Instagram fame, these stories are shocking, then enlightening, then boring. The element that’s often sorely missing from scaremongering teen trend stories—actual teenage girls, talking about their actual lives—becomes tedious when told 200 times.
Sales never sticks with one girl for too long. One minute she’s sitting shotgun in a BMW outside a Starbucks, recording a girl saying, “I’m a teenager. These are my ho years.” The next, she’s trailing Halloween revelers near New York University, watching a young man dressed like the Tinder app hit on a woman dressed in a “slut” costume. The procession feels a bit like guests shuttled onto the Tyra stage to confess their weirdest, most awful experiences with boys and phones, get a judgmental or sympathetic nod from the host, and then return to their place in the studio audience. Even when Sales circles back to a Peyton or a Sophia we’ve met before, it’s hard to recall which particular drama each girl is navigating and which particular middle school boy’s penile photography it involves. The girls come into focus for just a moment before Sales swipes them out of view.
The tactic feels like a bit of a trick, because the limits of the conversation support the book’s thesis that social media has Girl World in its death grip. But it also testifies to one of the backward assumptions of the “secret” social media narrative. The things kids do on Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook aren’t secret. Kids and teachers and parents see that stuff on the kids’ own phones, and the worst examples are elevated to the nightly news. What’s often missing from these stories is a real commitment to understanding teenagers as full, complicated people. Social media helps adults track teenagers’ movements but sometimes inflames misunderstandings about the thoughts and feelings and meanings behind the display. While Sales does better than most reporters by letting teens talk about social media, she doesn’t exactly take it seriously enough to investigate the stories she hears and try to pin them down from every side. Hearsay—“We know a girl whose mom buys her followers!”—stands. The opportunity to tell a real story about how girls, boys, parents, teachers, reporters, and reality-TV stars create and grapple with a shared culture is instead reduced to a line of girls delivering similar monologues in various locales.
One of the joys of reading Sales’ Hollywood stories is her knack for indicting a subject’s character with a single, perfectly placed quotation or an aside about her shoes. Here, too, Sales isn’t shy to include the least flattering shot in the bunch, but this time it’s not so fun. Young feminist idols like Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson and the photographer Petra Collins are called up and then waved off for having made optimistic comments about women photographing their own bodies. Even a dispatch about #BlackLivesMatter is needlessly depressing; a girl gets invested in the movement online, is deflated when she learns none of her classmates follow the same feeds, and starts going to church so she can really connect with socially minded folks. One optimistic dispatch features a teenage girl in Tucson, Arizona, who has escaped the cycle of butt shots and dick pics because she doesn’t own a smartphone, because she doesn’t own anything, because she is homeless. She begs for her dinner, but at least she’s free from the urge to Instagram her plate.
The relentless focus on social media is shared by Sales’ subjects, she says. “When I sat down with some girls at the Grove,” Sales writes, “all they wanted to talk about was social media.” “Social media is destroying our lives,” one girl told her. “I think it’s making us, like, lower,” said another. Everybody’s cheating on everybody else these days, and “I think it’s social media,” a third said. “With girls our age, so much drama happens over social networking,” one 13-year-old says. “The words ‘addicted’ and ‘addiction,’ ‘obsessed’ and ‘obsessing’ came up again and again in my interviews with more than 200 teenage girls as they talked about their use of their smartphones and consuming media and using social media,” Sales says. In an ironic twist, the older teens Sales interviewed acted shocked and appalled at what their slightly younger sisters were doing, wearing, and saying on social—stuff they’d never have done, they swore, just two years before. Sales laments the lack of fluency with feminism among the girls she spoke with, and I get that, but I also wonder if the tendency to blame social media is in part an internalization of media narratives like Sales’ own, which nods to sexism but focuses its critique on the tech.
Instead of building context and backstory from the girls’ own lives, Sales attempts to whip anecdotes into story arcs by pinning quotes to academic studies or sociological musings. Sales introduces us to Sierra, a 15-year-old Virginia girl with “hatched red lines up and down her arms” who says she’d dealt with cyberbullying at school “by cutting.” Sales cuts right in with: “The Mayo Clinic defines cutting …” She tracks a stumbling drunk girl until she ralphs on the beach, then intones: “There’s been a precipitous rise in drinking among high school and college-age girls, according to studies.” One anecdote about a girl bullied at school after cutting her hair and dying it blond—“Yo, Chris, where Rihanna at?” some troll said—inspires 17 lines of non sequitur about the continuing problem of domestic violence. Imagine having a heart-to-heart with a friend where every intimate disclosure about your private life is instantly pegged to a data point in a study illustrating your minuscule role in the downfall of Western civilization. The problems seem big, sure, but the girls look small.
Boys hardly appear at all. Most of the boys and young men are quoted in passing or close to it. “Oh, she got a big booty,” says a middle school boy walking down the street in Montclair. “She’s hot,” says a boy waiting in line to see Kim Kardashian at a Barnes & Noble. “We’re horny dudes, you know?” says a 17-year-old kid, hanging out on a high school field when Sales dropped by, looking for a girl who’d been in the news for sending nudes. (She couldn’t find her, so she quoted him.) One boy who asked a girl for her Snapchat handle was “possibly looking for an exchange of nudes,” Sales guesses, though she gives no indication she ever even met the kid. Who knows what he was looking for? Why not ask? None of these boys rise to the level of a fake name. Sales does, however, grant a nickname to a college man she locates at spring break. She dubs him “The Bro,” pays him $60 to buy a few hours of GoPro footage from him, then gets his perspective, I guess, by watching the tape.
In her book, Sales laments that boys get off so easy in social media scuffles. They demand nude pictures from girls, harass them with unsolicited dick pics, blackmail girls who don’t comply, and spread the evidence of those who do; all of it helps boys gain social capital. But their lives don’t strike Sales as a fascinating secret to unpack, and so her book lets boys off the hook, too. It’s telling that Sales’ cover displays three girls in low-cut tops and short shorts, manicured nails wrapped around shiny smartphones, photo cut off at the chin so they can stand in for any daughter or sister or fantasy girl. There’s a tantalizing and dangerous sexual connotation to the idea of the “secret life” of an American girl. Maybe that’s why we demand that girls explain themselves, while the boys are free to lurk behind the screen.