Social Media, Teens, and “Friends Without Benefits”

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The Today Show green room was buzzing the way any room does when a group of moms are discussing parenting. We were all chatting before going on air, when the topic turned to our kids and digital media. When I revealed that my soon-to-be-fourteen-year-old daughter doesn’t have a phone, a Facebook page, or even her own email account (she shares an email account with me), the jaws of my fellow segment guests nearly fell to the floor.

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Art Credit: Natasha Murray

Surrounded by these sophisticated, urban moms, I suddenly realized just how unusual my parenting choice was in this day and age. I felt slightly self-conscious by their disbelief and a flash crossed my mind: Was I inadvertently setting my beautiful teenager up for my own version of Breaking Amish?

Then I read the much-buzzed-about Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, "Friends Without Benefits" and felt a lot more comforted in my instinct to protect my daughter for as long as I can.

Nancy Jo Sales reveals in her article a cyber teen culture that is virtually adult-free, and where too often an adolescent’s worst instincts and curiosities are exploited and encouraged. Sales recounts stories of cyber bullying, sexting, random hook ups, emotional numbness, and confusion told to her by teenagers from across the country.

“This seismic shift in how kids spend their time is having a profound effect on the way they make friends, the way they date, and their introduction to the world of sex," explains Sales.

“We don’t date; we just hook up,” an LA girl told Sales. “Even people who get in a relationship, it usually starts with a hookup,” which Sales explained means anything from making out to having sex. In this world, teenage boys seem to have outsized sexual expectations. “When you have sex with a guy, they want it to be like a porno,” said a 19-year-old girl in New York.

Pornography and social media go hand in hand, even for the teen set. We are only now beginning to consider the psychological effects on young, impressionable minds. Exacerbating this is a powerful and ubiquitous popular culture that repeatedly tells girls that emancipation from girlhood—and the Mickey Mouse Club—involves shedding your clothes for strangers.

Proponents and opponents of pornography have focused too much on the morality and not enough on the real consequences of its normalization for young people who are trying to navigate love, relationships, attachment, and commitment for the first time.

According to Sales, today’s teenagers spend nearly every waking hour of their day connected to some sort of electronic device. One teen quoted in the Vanity Fair article perfectly sums it up: “Social media is ruining our lives . . . but we wouldn't have a life without it.”

But is a cyber social life for our teenagers now worth the consequences that may be waiting for them in their twenties and thirties?

The rise of selfies and the intense pressure to project a sexy online image and lifestyle sends unintended messages with real consequences.

Social media gives teens the courage and permission to say and do things they would find harder to do in person. This in turn encourages faux intimacy and—when actual face-to-face encounters with one's “friend” occurs—the relationship often moves at an abnormal, warp-speed pace.

These consequences go beyond awkward sexual experiences with virtual strangers, many of which border on rape. The ramifications will also go beyond the tragic stories of body shots and sex acts captured on camera, indefinitely shared to the humiliation of many young, naïve girls.

Indeed, the consequences will be intensely felt when these teens reach their twenties, thirties, and beyond. It will be felt when they have trouble forming healthy relationships or lack the skills to maintain them.

I know many women in their twenties and early thirties and I am always amazed at how intrigued they are by my own marriage and family. Fourteen years of marriage and six children is not the type of thing one would intuitively think young, hip, fiercely independent, and highly educated women would be obsessing about. But they are; they seem to be yearning for proof that long, happy marriages are still possible.

So many of these bright, beautiful young women are frustrated and disillusioned by what they see out there on the single market: young men with big and exotic sexual expectations, who are simultaneously incapable of having authentic attachments with the opposite sex. So much time is spent texting or sexting rather than conversing; buying apps instead of roses; snapchatting instead of falling in love.

My own marriage started out long distance. I was living in LA, my future husband was a law school student in St. Paul, Minnesota, and neither of us had cell phones. These barriers forced us to go to extraordinary lengths to see each other. I’m still amazed at how much time we actually spent together and how my husband would fly out to see me, even in the midst of a stressful law school schedule.

I wonder if those priceless times we spent together would have happened in the age of social media and instant intimacy. Would we have believed that Skyping and texting could replace the romance, the anticipation, and the time we spent together actually hanging out and getting to know each other? I’m afraid we might have deluded ourselves into a cyber versus real relationship.

So, is social media killing romance? Perhaps. But it’s also threatening to leave a generation of young people scarred, emotionally empty, and unprepared for the challenges, joys, and pleasures of long term, committed relationships.

( Photo by Natasha Murray )