I am not one who thinks everything was better when I was young and that the younger generation is doomed. Instead, I think growing up has always been tough. From my female perspective, I think it has been hard being a girl from day one.
Despite the women’s movement, more equality, less discrimination and more opportunity in the workplace, I think the challenges facing girls remain, perhaps in different forms and certainly with new technology.
Those challenges were spelled out recently in a PBS interview with Nancy Jo Sales, who has written a book called, “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Life of Teenagers.” It’s enough to make you want to hold off on buying your daughter a smartphone until she’s 18.
Today’s generation, perhaps in the past eight years, has become the first to grow up with the ubiquitous phone as a main component of their intellectual and social lives as kids.
When my oldest daughter was younger, she sometimes subscribed to the typical teenage girl magazines, the ones that were predominantly about clothes, makeup and hair. These magazines might offer an article or two on study habits or the risks of anorexia, but mainly they sold the need to look good, as determined by fashion and commercialization.
When she was older, my daughter told me that once she gave up those magazines, her body image improved considerably. She liked who she was, not the person the glossy rag told her she should be.
Today’s girls, instead of opening the occasional magazine, are confronted daily by social media in which being “hot” is a primary value, and hot has a distinctly sexual overtone. In her book, Sales describes girls who have plastic surgery so their Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook shots are better, and boys who text girls asking for nude photos.
“This is the swamp they’re swimming in,” Sales said.
People are different online than they are in person. One only needs to read the anonymous postings in the comments section of an article to know that behind a screen, people can become vile and uncivil in short order.
And even when the postings are not necessarily anonymous, social media brings out lascivious and cruel comments. Sexualization of females is pretty blatant today, and social media bullying is a reality.
Then there’s the prevalence of pornography. Gone — long gone — are the days when it was pretty naughty just to have a Playboy magazine tucked beneath the mattress where you hoped Mom would never find it. Pornography, which is increasingly full of violence toward women, is now available to nearly everybody. What kind of message is that sending young men about respect for our daughters?
The “hook-up” mentality in colleges naturally springs from this sexualization. Sex is casual and uncommitted, often fueled by wild binges of alcohol and drugs.
But Sales’ book isn’t talking about college girls. She’s talking about teens and tweens, whoever has access to a smartphone and social media. She’s talking about the depersonalization of relationships and a dearth of true friendship and respect.
It’s enough to make a grandma worry, but as I said, I think every generation faces challenges. Women today — including young women — should be raised to know they are tough and can stand up and resist this pressure.
That’s where good parents come in, parents with strong values who can raise strong women, parents who show more than a little interest in what’s happening on their children’s screens, parents who promote and give examples of true friendships. Parents must be the lifeboat in this particular swamp.