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02/24/2016 06:00 AM

Combating an Online World That Can Objectify, Sexualize, and Demean Teen Girls

Nancy Jo Sales.

For Scott Cochran, the director of Madison Youth & Family Services, it’s alarming enough that there are anecdotal reports of both young girls and young boys in Madison sexting, or sending pictures of their intimate body parts to other people via their cell phones.

What’s worse, he says, is that some of these children and teens feel like that’s normal.

“For some of the kids who are doing this, there really isn’t much of a sense that it’s wrong. They think it’s normal for someone to ask for a picture, whether they are in a relationship, or it was asked as a joke, or even if they’re collecting pictures as if they are collecting trading cards,” he said. “We know it’s happening. We know it’s happening in Madison and we know it causes significant problems for kids on both sides.”

And so he welcomed a recent call from R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, inviting him to participate in an event coming up Tuesday, March 1 at 7 p.m. at the Walter C. Polson Middle School at 302 Green Hill Road in Madison that features award-winning journalist and author Nancy Jo Sales, who recently wrote American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.

Cochran and Sales, along with Dr. Katherine “Kiki” Kennedy, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University, will talk about Sales’s findings during the event, and talk about how parents can learn more, and start a conversation with their children, and others in their community, to help young girls negotiate the challenges presented by a “constant digital tether” to an online world that can objectify, sexualize, and demean teenage girls. Sales says that sexting is just one facet of the problem faced by adolescent girls who may run the risk of having their identity and self-esteem shaped, or warped, by attitudes and behaviors they encounter on social media.

Sales, who specializes in reporting on youth culture, among other subjects, wrote American Girls after talking with more than 200 girls, ages 13 to 19, asking them what they wanted to talk about.

Teens Not Knowing How To Respond

“This was not a book that started with me saying, ‘Social media is terrible, tell me about it.’ Quite the opposite. I went out to report on what was going on in the lives of girls. I asked and they wanted to talk about social media and the challenges they are facing. It was almost never the case that they wanted to talk about how great it was and how they loved it and how fun it was. It was almost always the case that they wanted to tell me about their difficulties and what was troubling and, sometimes, the really damaging things they were experiencing on phones or online.”

Sales said that many of these girls told her what they were experiencing was new territory and that they didn’t know how to respond. Sales opens the book with a 13 year-old girl telling her about the time she received a message from a guy she knew on Instagram saying “send nudes.”

“What does that feel like? She’s 13 years old, and he’s not even boyfriend, and he’s demanding naked pictures of her,” Sales says. “Explain to me how that’s like anything that’s come before.”

Sales says she was shocked to hear about the prevalence of this kind of thing, and how normal it has become, when she talked with the girls. “It’s become normalized so quickly, without a conversation going on between the children and their parents, and without a national conversation about what this really means, and what this is doing to kids.”

For parents who feel comfortable on Facebook, Sales says there is a whole world of social media apps they need to learn about. The kids are no longer on Facebook, they’ve migrated to apps like Kik, which is, by the company’s own account, used by 40 percent of teenagers in the United States.

Connecting with Strangers, Mean Friends

Kennedy says it’s important to start having conversations about this issue.

“In this book, Nancy Jo Sales writes about how these very powerful forces are being amplified and intensified through the social media environment for teenaged girls,” she says.

The important tasks of adolescents include developing an authentic identity, developing healthy attitudes toward sexuality, developing stable self esteem, and developing real relationships, Kennedy said. All of this can be distorted by unhealthy behaviors on social media, she says.

“I really hope this book will start both a local conversation and a national conversation about this important topic,” she says.

In addition to the conversation at the event on Tuesday, March 1 at 7 p.m. at the Walter C. Polson Middle School at 302 Green Hill Road in Madison, Sales says a website related to the book will be posted online in late February at, and that it will feature an interactive component that will allow parents and their children to have a conversation online about these issues. Participants will be able to share their stories anonymously.

“Parents can read these and parents can respond, and girls can read this and find out ‘I’m not alone, and it’s not happening to just me,’” she says.

For more information about the upcoming event, contact R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison at 203-245-3959 or visit

Knopf to Publish Book by Journalist Nancy Jo Sales about Teenage Girls and Social Media (PRNewsFoto/Alfred A. Knopf)