MONTCLAIR, NJ - Teens, porn and social media was the topic of a lively discussion during a presentation at the Montclair Public Library on Wednesday.

In partnership with Watchung Booksellers, Nancy Jo Sales, award-winning journalist and author of American Girls, engaged in a meaningful discussion as she was interviewed by Liz Egan, author of A Window Opens.

Previously a reporter for People magazine and current writer for Vanity Fair, two of Sales' articles were optioned for films: The Baby Dinner and The Golden Suicides.  American Girls just came out a couple weeks ago and has already received quite a bit of notoriety.  

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When asked how she decided to explore social media in depth, Sales said she and her boss had been troubled about cyber bullying and suicides in the news. They wanted to know if these were due to extreme behavior or if it was a more widespread issue.

Sales interviewed girls in LA who literally said social media was destroying their lives. At the time she asked why they would not just get off of social media but the young girls said that if they were to do so "they would have no lives at all".

In total she interviewed 200 girls of all races and sexual identities in 10 states.

Egan asked how Sales got the girls to open up. Sales said, "they're dying to tell someone about it".



When asked if she learned any surprising or alarming things, she answered that the homogeneity of apps is creating a similarity in behaviors, whether youngsters are from Boca Raton or Brooklyn, they use the same type of words and expressions because the apps elicit similar responses.

Popularity has always been a high school endeavor but nowadays it is measured differently. According to Sales, youngsters have intense feelings about how many followers or likes they get, such that it creates a tremendous amount of social pressure.

The problem is that sexualization and sexual harassment go hand in hand, said Sales. She said, "It's difficult to imagine the amount of inappropriate content. This type of social activity involves pressures and expectations and elicits impulsive behavior."

What the author described was a love-hate scenario where girls love social media but also feel troubled and burdened by it.

"What we're really talking about is children producing and consuming pornography,” stated the author to the blank stares and mouths agape in the audience. She then added "extreme porn is the swamp that our kids are swimming in, in social media."

A more frightening perspective was having children coming of age seeing violent and degrading things being associated with sex. Effectively porn informs teens' sex lives and creates expectations of girls that involve both their looks and behavior.

An audience member shared that her son had actually been a victim of receiving unwarranted sexts (sending sexually explicit photos by text or email) and while the author empathized with the young man's plight she maintained that by and large girls tend to be a vulnerable gender in this environment.

Sales told the audience that schools may not want to be involved as long as the behavior does not occur on premise, but there is precedent of court cases in which schools can and have taken action against cyber bullying whether or not during school time.

Egan asked about loneliness and branding of oneself even before a child has had their first kiss. Sales went on to say that daily life changed in so much as people are addicted, even obsessed, with social media. It produces anxiety with the constant need to check a status or text with no time left in a day to be creative, bored, or for that matter even read.

She described websites where naked pictures of youngsters are posted without their permission, scenarios in which selfies given in confidence are disseminated without permission, and situations where children are simply at a loss with how to deal with the social pressures of this New Age.

Some may have attended the discussion hoping to be given a magic bullet. While there was advice such as limiting time, monitoring use, etc. ultimately each parent will have to decide what is best for his or her family. However, the general sense was that increased communication with parents provides children a sense of security.

Giving children tools to analyze what is age appropriate, and letting them know that whatever is happening on social media does not affect who they are, can be helpful. Making it clear to girls that they really do not need to post pictures of themselves to be acceptable, and maintaining constant conversations were some of the evening's takeaways.  

Though the author was reluctant to peddle any type of ideology per se, she did say, "girls need feminism".

Gay Kasegrande, a mother in the audience with two young daughters told us, " I felt that I've been aware of these worst case scenarios that social media can impose and I'm still learning along the way on how to handle them with my daughters. There's no manual for this and we can't lock them up.  We just need to keep talking with them."

Bonnie, another mom in the crowd, told TapInto that she found the discussion very enlightening. She said, "Some things cannot be reiterated enough to you as a parent. It causes you to go home and speak with your kids and ask the hard questions".

Toward the end of the event, with parents looking unsettled in their seats, minds racing with how to deal with a virtual pandemic at hand, Sales said with no reservation, "kids do want their parents to be strict because it makes them feel safe."