By Nancy Jo Sales
Once upon a time, only the wealthy and privileged could afford to have their portraits painted by a small, select circle of artists. With the advent of photography, parents of all backgrounds could have pictures of their children, which were coveted as documents of their development and a way to show off their innocent beauty and charm to family and friends.
Today, with smartphones and social media, we all have in our hands the means to broadcast our pride and joy to the world. And we are cultivating our children’s online selves from birth—or even before, in utero. Ninety-two percent of American children have an online presence before the age of 2. Parents post nearly 1,000 images of their children online before their fifth birthday. “Sharenting” has given parenting a whole new dimension: viewer-rated performance.
The usual debate centers on whether posting pictures of one’s children’s online—or allowing one’s children to do so—is safe from a privacy or security standpoint. And as we have seen in the recent abduction and murder of 13-year-old Nicole Lovell of Blacksburg, Va., concerns about online predators are more than just a moral panic: they stem from something real. Lovell reportedly texted with one of her alleged killers, 18-year-old David Eisenhauer, a Virginia Tech student, on Kik Messenger, an app known among kids as a place for the exchange of sexts and nude selfies.
But while we’re consumed by the tangible dangers of messenging services like Kik, Yik Yak, After School and other anonymous apps, we may be missing a different influence: our own behavior. Kids today are often accused of being narcissistic, but they may be learning their exhibitionist ways from their parents. Accompanying the boom in selfie culture is a rise in competitive spirit, as well as a disturbing trend of sexualization. Likes, hearts, swipes—validation is only a tap away. And one of the easiest ways to get that validation is by looking hot. Sex sells, whether you’re 13 or 35.
So it should come as no surprise that in this atmosphere, with the new technology available, sexting and sharing nudes have replaced other forms of intimacy. And it’s girls—our daughters, granddaughters and nieces—who are most at risk in this online environment, which blends age-old sexism with a new notion of sexual liberation through being provocative.Girls who post provocative pictures often suffer slut shaming on- and offline. Girls are more often targeted in cyberbullying attacks that focus on their sexuality.
I spent the past 2½ years researching my new book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, visiting 10 states and talking to more than 200 girls. It was talking to girls themselves that brought me to the subject of social media and what sexualization is doing to their psyches. How is it affecting their sense of self-worth? The tweens and teens I spoke to were often very troubled by the ways the culture of social media was exerting influence on their self-images and their relationships, with both friends and potential dating partners. They were often highly aware of the adverse effects of the sexualization on girls—but not always sure what to do about it.
“Sexism has filtered into new arenas that adults don’t see or understand because they’re not using social media the same way,” says Katie, a student I interviewed at Barnard. “They think, Oh, how can there be anything wrong here if it’s just Snapchat or Instagram—it’s just a game.” But if this is a game, it’s unlike any other we’ve ever played. And the stakes for girls could not be higher.
Victim isn’t a word I’d use to describe the kind of girls I’ve seen, surviving and thriving in an atmosphere that has become very hostile to them much of the time. How can this be, when girls are graduating from college in higher numbers than ever before, when they’re becoming leaders in their chosen fields in greater numbers? From what we hear, American girls are among the most privileged and successful girls in the world. But tell that to a 13-year-old who gets called a slut and feels she can’t walk into a school classroom because everybody will be staring at her, texting about her on their phones.
So why do some girls post sexualized pictures? Why are they complicit in this potentially very self-undermining aspect of socialmedia culture? “I think it’s just to get attention,” explains Lily, a 14-year-old in Garden City, N.Y., where I studied a group of girls for the book. “It’s to get the likes. Everything’s about the likes.”
Categories: Social Media, The Muslim Times
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