Inside the secret world of teens and social media

Tammy Weeks was living a mother’s worst nightmare.

“Her favorite color was blue. Nicole was a very lovable person,” said Weeks, speaking about her 13-year-old daughter at a news conference on Feb. 2.

Nicole Lovell went missing from her home in Blacksburg, Va., on Jan. 27. Three days later, her body was discovered in North Carolina. She had been stabbed to death.

According to investigators, Nicole had been secretly messaging with David Eisenhauer, an 18-year-old Virginia Tech student, on the social media app Kik. The middle-schooler snuck out of her parents’ house to meet up with Eisenhauer and never returned home. Eisenhauer and alleged female accomplice, 19-year-old Natalie Keepers, have been arrested on charges relating to Nicole’s disappearance and murder. Neither has entered a plea.

While the reaction to her murder has fueled a growing national conversation about teens and social media, Nicole’s story has become a cautionary tale about the dangers of messaging apps.

These dangers are just one of the topics journalist Nancy Jo Sales explores in her new book, “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.” She sat down with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric.

“One of the first conversations that I had with some girls in Los Angeles really set the tone for the whole book to me,” Sales told Couric, recounting a specific exchange she had with one of the girls. “She said, ‘Social media is destroying our lives.’ And I said, ‘So why don’t you just go off it?’ And she said, ‘Because then I would have no life.’”

Sales says what she discovered was troubling — a culture playing out on various platforms that was promoting negative self-esteem and instant judgment.

18-year-old Olivia agrees. “You’re like, ‘I got over 150 likes, like oh, what a good picture I took,’” she said. “And also if you post a photo that you think is good as well and you don’t get a lot of likes, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, should I take this down?’”

Sales says social media has become a popularity contest in which teens seek validation from the pictures they post and the number of likes they receive.

“If what you are thinking about is, ‘Do I look hot? Am I gonna get likes on this photo?’ I mean, this is the constant kind of thought being raised in teenage girls’ minds through their use of social media,” said Sales. “It’s not something that produces a feeling of well being or security.”

And all this, Sales says, is having a major impact on how teenage girls view themselves.

Sheryl, mom to 13-year-old Carrie, who says she was bullied on social media, believes the solution may start at home. “This is the way the kids will communicate. This is the way life is,” said Sheryl. “If you want your kid to be safe, you need to have the channels of communication open. You need to educate them as early as possible as to what the dangers are. You need to be smart.”