Social Media

“You must work very long to write short sentences,” writes Henry David Thoreau

By Martin E. Marty|February 29, 2016

“You must work very long to write short sentences,” writes Henry David Thoreau. His best-known short sentence is not an aphorism but an observation: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In his view, while men and women appear to experience a range of emotions through the course of their life-careers, most of them suffer some sort of despair, but it is disguised because their malady is of a quiet sort.

Sometimes an observation of quiet despair in the lives of many people—not necessarily the mass of them—is inspired by subtly voiced phrases. Last week, tucked away in a book review by Virginia Heffernan of Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls: Social Media and the Lives of Teenagers, two short comments by teenagers opened a window on long-term trends.

Sales had listened to myriad exchanges on iPhones and followed up with interviews about their chief use as “social media.” Teenager Billie, one among the 70% or so of U.S. teens who own an iPhone, said “It’s like Apple has a monopoly on adolescence” because of the role of what Heffernan calls “stagey fraternizing.”

A 16-year-old from L.A. told Sales “Social media is destroying our lives.” But then the girl's friend shot back that without social media “we would have no life.” That phrase may be as revelatory or at least as provocative as Thoreau’s line. “Without social media we would have no life.

Heffernan, citing Sales, amplifies. She documents her themes by mentioning, among others, the daily millions of selfie nude photos by the girls and “dick pics” which male contemporaries circulate. American Girls offers data to support what the reader may well conclude; these illustrations reveal—“without social media they would have no life”—the phrase of the day, or the epoch.

Fear not, Sightings readers, this column will not turn into a detailed analysis of data or into scolding. It will not indulge in the tiresome vice of older generations which is to complain about the young, some of whom are Apple-bearing victims of “affluenza.” Assuming that the review and the book are at least fairly accurate and apt, it is appropriate to ask how readers and other elders might react.

Possession and transmission of pornographic images is illegal but, Heffernan asks, how does one apprehend and punish the young violators? What can parents and other elders do?

She does not ask, but one asks, what can religious communities and putatively moral agents do? What one might take from all the quiet despair and the “having no lives” stories is noisy despair or falling into hopelessness about the part of the future that this subject addresses.

But in the face of this, let me introduce a story that might offer perspective if not consolation. In 1962 I shared a panel with (later) Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, also a Ph. D. thesis adviser of mine. We were chartered to be on a panel that dealt with new computerized modes of communication, which later became the world of the internet. Our hosts wanted us to speak of all this as evidence of the “Decline of the West,” to invoke an old book title.

During intermission, we four panelists were told that we were not declinist-enough and evidently not despairing. Boorstin defended us as we four were instead trying to take a longer view. Here came his short hard rejoinder: “We four conclude that we do not know enough about the future to be absolutely pessimistic.”

That kind of wan consolation may help parents, teachers, religious leaders, ethicists, and media folk of conscience to develop bases for hope and resolve, so that more ways can be found to bring up and advance the positive features—and, admit it, there are some—of the internet, to help the young and the rest of us stand a chance of at least countering the seductive monopolies of social media and thus getting to “have a life.”


Sales, Nancy Jo. American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. New York: Knopf, 2016.

Sales, Nancy Jo. “How Social Media Is Disrupting the Lives of Teenagers.” American Girls. Accessed February 27, 2016.

Greene, David. “Social Media And Teenage Girls: Not Your Mother’s Adolescence.” Interview of Nancy Jo Sales., February 25, 2016, Author Interviews.

Heffernan, Virginia. “Lives of the Selfie-Centered.” Review of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales. Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2016, Arts/Books/Bookshelf.

Kakutani, Michiko. “‘American Girls,’ on the Secret Lives of Teenagers.” Review of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales. New York Times, February 18, 2016, Books.

Jones, Charisse. “‘American Girls,’ an alarming study of teens and social media.” Review of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales. USA Today, February 27, 2016, Life.

Hess, Amanda. “Open Secrets: The social media-obsessed teens of Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls never quite come into focus.” Slate, February 24, 2016, Doublex.

Image Credit: Pablo Hildago / creative commons.

0.jpegAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


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