Earlier this year I read It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd. boyd (she uses lower case) is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft. Her research examines the intersection between technology and society. Over the course of 10 years she interviewed over 100 teens, gathering data to better understand teenage behavior in our social media landscape. Some of her findings surprised me.
Insight into teen online behavior
It’s Complicated is not a “how-to” book, so you won’t find tips on how to use social media or how to understand the privacy settings on sites and apps that your teens use. What the book provides is insight into teen behavior when it comes to social media, online sharing, cyberbullying, privacy, and other hot-button topics. It tries to explain the role that social media plays in a teen’s life, from a teen perspective.
It did take me a while to get through the book. Partly because I’m a slow reader and don’t have lots of free time to read! It also took me a while to ease into the language of an academic researcher.
As someone who writes about the importance of parental involvement in children’s digital lives, at times I felt defensive. I felt boyd wasn’t empathetic to the challenges that parents face these days, with kids and teens using technologies that we never had at their age. I sensed she was pro-teen and anti-parent when it came to concerns such as Internet safety, online predators, or cyberbullying. For example “Their [teens’] ability to achieve privacy is often undermined by nosy adults [italics added for emphasis] – notably their parents and teachers – but teens go to great lengths to develop innovative strategies for managing privacy in networked publics.” Some statements made me bristle, such as “When parents choose to hover, lurk, and track, they implicitly try to regulate teens’ practices” or “As always happens whenever adults obsess over child safety, restrictions emerge and fearful rhetoric abounds.” [italics added for emphasis]
Once I got over the strong language I was better able to let these ideas sink in. While parents are rightly concerned, we of course were all teenagers ourselves. Most of us can think back to our own need for privacy, and our desire to spend most of our time with friends. So parents can try to find the balance between providing guidance, and when needed, monitoring, while allowing for the sense of independence and freedom that teens desire and in some ways, require.
Digital Natives – do they really know more than we do?
In terms of providing guidance, one important point boyd covers is the concept of the “digital native.” We have come to believe that today’s kids and teens inherently understand technology better than the rest of us simply because they have always lived in an Internet-connected world. boyd debunks this notion. “It is dangerous to assume that youth are automatically informed. It is also naïve to assume that so-called digital immigrants have nothing to offer. Even those who are afraid of technology can offer valuable critical perspective…Becoming literate in a networked world requires hard work, regardless of age.” boyd calls on parents and educators to support kids and teens in achieving digital literacy.
In the end I’m glad I stuck with the book because, interestingly, I actually felt calmer about the thought of my now-teenage daughter and her use of social media and related technology. Sometimes I think that it is “over-use” but as boyd points out, social media and the web are the new “public spaces” readily available to this generation. Like the drive-ins, malls, parks, and playgrounds of yore, social media sites, texting, and apps are the new meeting places or “networked publics” for teens.
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