Teenagers have kept parts of their lives secret from the prying eyes of adults for generations. A degree of privacy is necessary to develop one's own identity, and to learn to solve problems independently on the path to becoming an adult.
But the hidden aspects of today's teen culture are vastly different from those in the pre-social media era. The secret spaces of this generation are contained behind a screen to which teens are nearly continuously connected.
Most parents know that technology has dramatically changed how teens communicate; they have become much more aware of the legal and social dangers of sexting, and the emotional harm of cyberbullying. But they may not realize the impact of the most significant change this era has enabled: the easy accessibility and near-constant presence of pornography. And they remain largely unaware of how it has changed the way teens interact, the way they view themselves and their sexuality, says author Nancy Jo Sales.
In "American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers," Sales details a new frontier of sexism and harassment that has become the reality for girls today. Even though girls aren't the primary consumers of online porn, their social interactions are guided by a hypersexualized porn-saturated culture, she argues. Sales interviewed more than 200 girls in six cities for this book. She presents teen girls' struggles and anxieties in their own words -- words that parents need to hear.
The confluence between the tech, porn and social media industries delivers graphic, violent and degrading images regularly to children's screens, even before they begin to seek it out. Clicking on a benign topic or a "trending" hashtag on Instagram or Twitter will commonly bring up pornographic images -- and the content is vastly different and more violent than what might have been seen in a magazine passed around a playground decades earlier.
Girls who raise their voices against it are dismissed as prudes who "have no chill."
Sales describes scenes in which boys hold up their phones, playing porn, during a girl's class presentation if the teacher is sitting in the back of the room.
Is anyone going to responsibly argue that this is OK? she asks.
There is a stark difference between being "sex positive" and wanting your child exposed to violent and degrading sexual images. Sales cites research that suggests that when boys have their first sexual experience by watching pornographic videos on a screen, it becomes much easier for them to think of women as objects to pleasure them. Sex is reduced to a woman's performance. She cites additional research that shows exposure to porn is related to male sexual aggression toward women.
And many kids' first sexual experiences happen over social media now.
"There is a generation of kids who are self-generating porn, and yet it's become so normalized so quickly that people are trying to dismiss it," says Sales. Young teens she interviewed describe how boys try to blackmail them into sending nude pictures of themselves.
In fact, some of the world's most popular social media sites began as a way to evaluate whether girls and women were "hot or not." That idea was the basis for Facemash, the precursor to Facebook, and the founders of YouTube have said they originally set out to create a hotness-evaluating video site.
A lot of men in Silicon Valley have become filthy rich and powerful off of teenage girls, Sales argues, yet they have taken no responsibility for the ways in which this hypersexualized culture has negatively impacted girls' lives.
She recalled a conversation she had with a friend, a father of a 17-year-old boy, in which she shared her surprise at how much porn teenage boys were consuming (according to studies she'd been reading). The father said he doubted his son watched very much.
The father approached her weeks later, after looking through his son's browser history. He'd discovered that not only was his son watching hard-core porn, he was looking at it right when he woke up in the morning, as soon as he got home from school and again before he went to bed.
The father was alarmed and troubled by both the content and the frequency, she said.
"Kids don't say at the dinner table, 'I saw a great porn video today,'" she said.
The takeaway for parents is twofold: First, parents need to talk with their children about porn, and not just about how to avoid it. There has to be a discussion about the ways it is influencing culture, teen interactions and self-image.
Secondly, we need to demand better protections for kids by the tech industry that profits from children's use of their products. Sales points out that in 2013, Britian's four largest Internet service providers agreed to institute "family-friendly filters" that automatically block pornographic websites unless households chose to unblock them.
Her book raises a fundamentally critical question: Why should porn profiteers and Silicon Valley flourish at the expense of a generation of American girls?
It's time to answer that question.