What I'm Reading: Sex, Teens And Social Media

sexting, social media

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post by Sasha Belenky.

1. 'Social Media Is Destroying Our Lives'

Nancy Jo Sales, who wrote the Vanity Fair article that became the major motion picture "The Bling Ring," is back in the magazine with a look at teenage relationships in the age of social media. Adults may be shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that teens today are obsessed with sex. And Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder and other online tools are seemingly robbing America's youth of meaningful, loving relationships.

“We don’t date; we just hook up,” one girl in L.A. tells Sales. "Oral is, like, the new kissing,” says another girl in New York. Boys pressure girls to send them nude photos. “They’re definitely more forward to us online than in person,” says one girl, Zoe. “Because they’re not saying it to our faces.”

A group of friends at the mall sums up the Catch-22: “Social media is destroying our lives,” one girl tells Sales. “So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asks. "Because then we would have no life,” another girl responds.

Concerns about a teen "hookup culture" devoid of emotional intimacy are hardly new. Conservative cultural critics have been bemoaning the "oral is, like, the new kissing" depravity at least since the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s and the moral panic over "rainbow parties" in the early 2000s -- well before the invention of iPhones, Facebook, Twitter and the rest. And as Amanda Hess points out in Slate, "texting with your crush is about as 'disembodied' as quill-to-scroll love letters were." The Internet, she argues, has also allowed teens to have healthy conversations about sex, and given rise to feminist and gay communities. Plus, "Receiving a text from a person you like can be a glorious thing," Hess writes.

The real difference now, it seems, is that social media has created a culture in which popularity is measured in terms of Facebook and Instagram "likes."

“More provocative equals more likes,” a girl named Greta tells Sales. “It attracts more guys and then it makes other girls think about doing it just for the attention," agrees her friend, Padma.

Fourteen-year-old Casey Schwartz told HuffPost's Bianca Bosker much the same thing earlier this year. “If you don’t get 100 ‘likes,’ you make other people share it so you get 100,” she said of the competition surrounding Facebook profile pictures. “Or else you just get upset. Everyone wants to get the most ‘likes.’ It’s like a popularity contest.”

It undoubtedly doesn't help that we have a celebrity culture in which kids can land a reality-show gig simply by virtue of their Instagram photos.

"Social media is fostering a very unthinking and unfeeling culture," Donna Freitas, who has researched hookup culture on college campuses, tells Sales. "We’re raising our kids to be performers."

2. 'A Perfect Storm Of Technology And Hormones'

"It's a perfect storm of technology and hormones," Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology in Chicago, tells Nina Burleigh in Rolling Stone. "Teen sexting is all a way of magnifying girls' fantasies of being a star of their own movies, and boys locked in a room bragging about sexual conquest."

This culture can sometimes have tragic consequences. Burleigh takes a good, deep look at the case of Audrie Pott, a California teenager who committed suicide last year after she got drunk, passed out and was sexually assaulted at a party, and friends and classmates passed around photos of the assault.

The "whole school knows … Do you know how people view me now?" Pott wrote to one of her alleged attackers, who she believed had shared the photos. "My life is over. … I ruined my life and I don't even remember how."

"What's really changed is that before the Internet you could do something really stupid and maybe someone would take a picture of it, so there's the picture and the film, and you could physically capture that," Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosen tells Burleigh. "You can't capture things on the Internet. What's very clear to me from this Pott case, and other cases around the country, is that for raped or sexually assaulted young girls, it's one thing that people are gossiping about you in school, but when you add images that they can keep forwarding, it really can seem like the whole world knows."

3. 'That’s When Jane Doe’s Wellbeing Took A Backseat'

As Ann Friedman has pointed out, the proliferation of photos can sometimes help bring the perpetrators to justice and raise societal awareness of the issue of rape. "Arguably, the case never would have resulted in a conviction if the images had not been circulated through social media," she wrote earlier this summer about Steubenville, Ohio, where a 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted at a party.

Now, in Jezebel, Katie J.M. Baker travels to the small Ohio town, to get a sense of the effect the controversial case has had on it, one year later. It has perhaps been too easy for Internet commenters to be critical of Steubenville from afar, Baker admits.

"Before I spent the last week of August in Steubenville, I only cared about the guilty verdict," she writes. "I criticized pundits who harped on the case’s details and mocked locals who defended themselves instead of acknowledging the role they played in contributing to rape culture."

That changed after she spoke with residents of the town, however, who told her that they have faced harassment and received death threats, forcing them to change their numbers and email addresses:

“We supported and still support Jane Doe 100%,” [Nicole Lamantia] said. “But the focus shifted when we watched helplessly as the media ripped innocent people apart we’d known since we were babies.” She said her priorities changed when commenters posted photos of her young children online and called for them to be raped because her husband is a Big Red coach. “That’s when this became less about Jane Doe and more about an entire town being destroyed for what two people did,” she said. “That’s when Jane Doe’s wellbeing took a backseat.”

"From my office in New York, I could rally against rape culture without sympathizing with any of these people," Baker writes. "In Steubenville, I couldn’t look them in the eye and tell them I thought they were necessary collateral damage."

4. 'America Is Just So Weird In What They Think Is Right And Wrong'

"We're in a world of selfies," Miley Cyrus tells Harper's Bazaar. This summer, Cyrus has twerked and tongue-wagged her way to the forefront of the cultural debate. Her controversial performance at the VMAs looked, to some, like evidence of yet another starlet in the middle of a public meltdown. MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski called her performance "disgusting and disturbing," evidence of a young woman "literally in the process of her undoing."

But Josh Eells' cover story in Rolling Stone suggests that Cyrus is actually quite self-possessed. "No one is talking about the man behind the ass," she says of critics of her VMA performance. "It was a lot of 'Miley twerks on Robin Thicke,' but never, 'Robin Thicke grinds up on Miley.' They're only talking about the one that bent over. So obviously there's a double standard."

"America is just so weird in what they think is right and wrong," she continues. "Like, I was watching Breaking Bad the other day, and they were cooking meth. I could literally cook meth because of that show. It's a how-to. And then they bleeped out the word 'fuck.' And I'm like, really? They killed a guy, and disintegrated his body in acid, but you're not allowed to say 'fuck'? It's like when they bleeped 'molly' at the VMAs. Look what I'm doing up here right now, and you're going to bleep out 'molly'? Whatever."

So yes, she's partying and skydiving out of airplanes and getting tattoos on the bottoms of her feet and generally having fun. "I was an adult when I was supposed to be a kid. So now I'm an adult and I'm acting like a kid," she tells Harper's Bazaar. But don't mistake having fun for being out of control.

Eells points out that she's the one calling the shots, not publicists or minders, and she's savvy about crafting an image, a brand. She's offered advice to Justin Bieber in how to navigate the transition from child star to adult celebrity. "I just don't want to see him fuck that up, to where people think he's Vanilla Ice," she says. "I tell him that. Like, 'You don't want to become a joke. When you go out, don't start shit. Don't come in shirtless.'"

"You're going to do dumb stuff from here on out," she tells Harper's Bazaar of how young stars should approach life. "But do it in your own time. Do it safely. You can afford to protect yourself and still have fun."

"Why don't they just get a driver?" she says of celebrities who are arrested for drunk driving, sounding like a voice of reason twice her age.

5. 'It Was The Biggest Game Of Chicken I’ve Ever Seen'

All these young people using social media have become a valuable commodity, asYahoo's purchase of Tumblr earlier this year for $1.1 billion attests. In New York Magazine, Molly Young profiles David Karp, Tumblr's 27-year-old founder, who seems to be a surprisingly reluctant CEO.

“I have a very rudimentary understanding of how Tumblr actually works these days,” he tells Young. And “I’m not super-passionate about how we run the company.” Not the sort of comments you expect from a guy overseeing a site that boasts 140 million users and is the fourteenth-most-visited site in the U.S.

Karp has become a bit of nerd royalty -- his new loft in Williamsburg was the subject of a recent spread in The New York Times. Young says that Karp's charisma has been a key to Tumblr's success. "The little red hearts and infinite GIF streams and fuck-yeah-everything add up to something very precious to its users, and it’s this same precious something that makes Karp an idol to his employees," she writes.

But she also pokes a bit of a hole in the image of the new-media wunderkind.

"After a hiring spree and floor-to-ceiling office remodel, the amount of cash left in ­Tumblr’s coffers was dwindling," she writes. It "was a six-year-old blogging platform with disappointing revenue targets, no clear path to profitability, and alarmingly little cash in the bank." Karp needed an escape plan.

"To stay afloat without selling, it would have needed a sixth round of funding, which, given the situation, might have led to a 'down round,' and to Karp ceding a substantial chunk of his equity," she writes. "As one person watching the deal unfold put it: 'It was the biggest game of chicken I’ve ever seen in a startup. Literally months away from bankruptcy, and he manages to find an angel in Marissa Mayer.'"

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