Much of what I know about teenage girls I learned from my older sister, Susan. Part of that education came from witnessing her engage in what to me was a mystifying nighttime ritual—the extended phone conversation. Seeing her spend so much time on her pink Princess phone raised many questions for me. What could she possibly be talking about at such great length? How come my own minimalist exchanges with my friends about baseball and our favorite TV shows seemed to be taking place on another planet? Whatever the answers, it was clear to me that for my sister, chatting with her friends was pretty much the point of life.
Today, as the technology of communication has advanced light-years beyond the telephone, it’s tempting to dismiss my sister’s teenage experience as narrow and understimulating. But in this issue, which includes an excerpt from the 25th-anniversary edition of her landmark book, Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher offers a more paradoxical view of teen life in the digital age. According to Pipher, the effect of the digital revolution has actually been to shrink the range of experience in the life of teens today. She describes a social world where girls are both more connected and more isolated as they increasingly retreat into their digital cocoons. Obviously, phone conversations and face-to-face get-togethers still go on. But these traditional forms of bonding have been increasingly superseded by all manner of contact on social media. We see it all the time: even when kids are physically together, most are peering down into their screens.
Of course, grousing about teen phone addiction is nothing new; it’s practically an adult sport, and no doubt some of the handwringing may be warranted. But that portrait of teen life leaves out a crucial element: the role of parents in creating an atmosphere of distraction and disconnection in many families today. Offering a different take on digital distress, Martha Straus shows how parents’ own immersion in social media can undermine their emotional bond with their children, leading them to ignore teens’ need for their full attention, even when the teens appear to be giving the opposite message.
In focusing on the common struggles that define adolescence as a distinct developmental stage, it’s important not to minimize the crucial differences that socioeconomics can make. Expanding the perspective on this issue, Shadeen Francis takes us into an environment that can be especially challenging for teens—a long-term housing shelter. There, she shows the commonalities that cut across apparent social differences and the challenges for adolescents facing the hardships of poverty, violence, and addiction.
Who is a teenage girl, anyway? For a long while, most of us thought we had the signs and signals down: the growing obsession with friends, the new fixation on looks, the pain of peer rejection, the rebellions both large and small. All that’s still going on, but in a different, harsher world now. If we’re to be able to help girls and their families today, we need to become savvier about teen-girl culture, right here and right now.
My sister Susan passed away a few years ago, but if she were growing up today, I doubt that she’d be gabbing on her Princess phone. Always wise beyond her years and attuned to the changing world around her, she’d find another way to learn her lessons about life. She’d have realized that while the technology may change, the need for human connection remains the same.