DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Journalist Nancy Jo Sales spent two and a half years hanging out with teenage girls - in shopping malls, at frozen yogurt shops - anywhere they gather with their friends and their smartphones. Her new book "American Girls: Social Media And The Secret Lives Of Teenagers," paints a disturbing portrait of life in this era of smartphones and social media.
NANCY JO SALES: One girl told me about waking up to a text from a boy that said good morning, beautiful, how are you doing this morning? I hope you have a great day. And she was so touched by that. And then she went on Twitter and she saw that one of her friends had posted oh, so nice. I got this text from bae. And it was the exact same text.
GREENE: Oh, my - same boy, same exact text, copy-pasted.
SALES: He mass-texted it.
GREENE: But that's just the beginning. Sales said she spoke with 13-year-old girls who are often asked by boys to send over nude photos on Snapchat or Instagram.
SALES: Fairly often, they are asked to send nudes. And if they don't send them, then sometimes they're even threatened with some kind of reprisal. They said that people would make up rumors about them or say they were a prude. They hated it. It bothered them so much.
GREENE: Now, Nancy Jo Sales does not believe digital age is all bad.
SALES: Girls use social media in all kinds of ways. They use it to have friendships. They use it to be playful with each other, to make each other laugh. It's all kinds of things to all kinds of girls. But there are these overarching trends that I think are really troubling and I think that parents especially need to become much more involved in talking with them about.
GREENE: Well, when you say parents should be involved, I mean, let's say, you know, you're talking to a mother and/or father of an 11-year-old, 12-year-old who's about to enter the age range that your book deals with. What's your advice to them?
SALES: Well, one thing this book is not saying is take away their phones. I got that reaction from various parents. They would say well, what am I supposed to do, take away her phone? She'll never let me take away her phone. I can't take away her phone. They had this kind of panicked look on their face like oh, no. But that's really not what I'm saying. Again, it's a tool, make no mistake. It's a powerful tool. A friend of mine who's a parent described it as, you know, what we're doing is, like, we're giving kids cars and not really thinking about what's going to happen once they start driving away in the car.
GREENE: You write about a girl who you called Sierra (ph) in Jamestown, Va. And we should say you did change the names in many or all of these cases, I mean, to protect people. And Sierra was bullied at school as a child, repeatedly tried to commit suicide. Can you just remind us what led her to that point?
SALES: Sierra, as I called her in the book, had been cyber-bullied throughout her life. And one thing that I found on researching the book is that girls are cyber-bullied more than anyone.
GREENE: And this would be like - I mean, if Sierra were posting photos of herself, like, on Facebook or Instagram, people commenting and just saying mean and pretty just awful things.
SALES: She had been bullied and cyber-bullied throughout her life to the point where it seemed to have affected her so that she was sort of playing into it by constantly trying to seek approval where she already knew she wouldn't get it. So she was posting all kinds of, you know, really sexualized pictures and getting hate for that. So she had tried to kill herself, and her parents didn't know anything about the cyber-bullying. They had told her online to kill herself.
GREENE: People had told her, and her parents didn't even know about this.
SALES: Yeah. I mean, just think about what a thing that is to say to someone. And yet it's not an unusual thing for someone to have seen or heard on social media - go kill yourself. I mean, what kind of a culture is that?
GREENE: How is she doing, last you had contact with her?
SALES: She was doing way better. I think that getting her parents involved in what was going on was the best thing that she ever did because when she finally talked to them about it, they responded with complete support.
GREENE: And Sierra was 15 when you met her and were talking to her, right?
GREENE: And you live in New York and you have a daughter, right?
GREENE: Her name - it's Zazie?
GREENE: How old is she?
SALES: Zazie is 15.
GREENE: And I just wonder how do you approach being her mom given everything you've learned about in writing this?
SALES: Zazie was I think 12, almost 13 when I did the first story on this for Vanity Fair, which now became the book. And so she did not have a phone at that point. And through the interviews I was doing with girls, I was able to become really informed. So we just started having a conversation about it that I guess is sort of ongoing because in the book, I kind of go into the whole issue of privacy and parents - not an issue of privacy in terms of, like, parents should respect their children's privacy and not involved in their social media use - no, no, not that at all but more so parents posting about their children. And a few years ago, I did it, too. I mean, I used to post pictures of my daughter online. But then I started realizing that wasn't fair to her. Even if it was something positive, what was I really doing there, and what are parents doing? I think we really have to ask ourselves, are we really using to children to promote ourselves?
GREENE: You've stopped posting photos of your own daughter?
SALES: I took them all off. I went through them all and deleted every single one that I knew of.
GREENE: Did you allow her to get a phone when she asked?
SALES: Well, I respect her privacy, so...
SALES: ...It's not really - (laughter) it's not really up to me to talk about her personal life on the radio (laughter).
GREENE: Fair enough. Well, let me finish by asking you about a phone call you made. All of this prompted you to call up your old ninth-grade boyfriend, who you hadn't spoken to in - what? - 30 years?
SALES: Yeah, more.
GREENE: And why did you decide to do call, and what did you hope to get from the conversation?
SALES: Well, I actually had come back to my hotel room from talking to the girl you just were talking about, Sierra. And I was really sad. I don't know, I just wanted to ask him, like, what were we like? Like, was it like this? I mean, maybe I'm just not remembering.
GREENE: And what'd he tell you?
SALES: Well, I called him up. He lives in Miami, where I grew up. And he has three teenage kids, and he said a lot of things were the same. I mean, were kids having sex? Sure. Did girls dress in provocative clothes? Sure. I mean, those things were all happening. But he thought that the biggest difference was between then and now was the porn and the fact that teenagers now were watching very violent, very degrading porn on a daily basis and had access to it. And he thought that was really having a big effect on them.
GREENE: Nancy Jo Sales, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
SALES: Thank you.
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GREENE: Nancy Jo Sales' book "American Girls: Social Media And The Secret Lives Of Teenagers" is out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.