Vanity Fair posted an article on its website Thursday with the headline, “Friends Without Benefits: What Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, Instagram, and Internet Porn Are Doing to America’s Teenage Girls.” Penned by Nancy Jo Sales, the long-form piece essentially amounts to a collection of painful vignettes about the problematic realities teen girls encounter on social media.
“If you’re between 8 and 18, you spend more than 11 hours a day plugged into an electronic device,” Sales reported. “The average American teen now spends nearly every waking moment on a smart phone or computer or watching TV. 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 where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers.”
On Friday, Slate’s Amanda Hess fired back with a blog post titled “Romance in the Age of the Internet Is Lovelier Than You Think” that questioned two foundational tenets of the Vanity Fair article: Social media stunts romantic relationships and is especially grating on girls.
To debunk the notion that social media is ruining teen relationships, Hess first intimated Sales overly relied on anecdotal evidence (“The stories Sales tells (are) culled from conversations with dozens of teenagers and a sprinkling of adult experts, mostly based in New York and Los Angeles”) and then turned to large-scale statistical data.
Hess wrote, “Is the Internet really degrading this generation’s sexual and romantic lives? I have my doubts. The U.S. teen pregnancy rate is declining. Teenagers are waiting longer and longer to have sex. In fact, Americans who have sex before they turn 20 are in the minority. Teens are waiting because they feel that sex is ‘against their religion or morals’ or because ‘they had not yet found the right person,’ according to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control study.”
However, when Slate’s Hess took aim at the notion social media inflicts disproportionate harm on girls, she used the exact same tack for which she chided Nancy Jo Sales: Hess employed anecdotal evidence.
“Gender inequality is still a reality in the United States,” Hess wrote. “And the worst forms of gender violence fall disproportionately on teenagers. But talk to teenagers long enough and you’ll also find upsides to relationships that play out online. These stories are also real and important, but they don’t fit neatly in the framework of the hand basket that teenagers are supposedly carrying straight down to hell.”