It’s Complicated/the social lives of networked teens by Danah Boyd

Boyd’s research into how teens use social media points out a number of useful facts which run counter to current popular assertions – generally negative ones – about what teens do on the internet, why, and with what consequences.

My only wish is that she had managed to present the information more succinctly, with far less repetition, so that worried parents might actually read the book and then quit driving their kids crazy with their hovering. I think it’s going to be a hard sell to the parents of teens that I know from the library. But I’m glad to have read the book, and, as a result, hope I will do a better job helping teens be more savvy about how they use internet resources such as search engines and Wikipedia and other reference sources. Perhaps that’s the best thing librarians can do — provide teens and their parents with information and programming that helps them make better use of the internet.

Here are some major points the books makes.

Teens are NOT retreating from the world when they send text messages or spend time on Facebook or Twitter or use any other social media. They’re interacting with their friends. They’d use social media less if they had more opportunities to actually be with their friends. But they would still spend part of their time together interacting about content on social media or internet sites like Youtube.

Teens aren’t “addicted” to the internet. They want to spend time with their friends or playing or creating, and the internet makes that possible; for some previous generations, the “addiction” was the telephone or hanging out at the drive-in or mall. Today’s teens don’t have much access to physical spaces where they can interact.

Teens do want privacy, but they don’t define privacy in the same way their parents do. They don’t strive for privacy because they have something to hide; privacy is necessary for personal development. They want to avoid surveillance (p. 56). They want privacy from the adults that are always trying to control every aspect of their lives, including what they think and say, so that they can say what they want to say to their friends.

To teens, adult “snooping” is rude, like barging in on a conversation between strangers on a bus. Teens don’t go out of their way to make minutia private (p. 62). They choose what to keep private and they often go to great lengths to encode messages they don’t want understood by unintended audience members. “Teens assume they are being watched, and so they try to find privacy within public settings rather than in opposition to public-ness” (p. 74).

Social media makes social problems more visible; it doesn’t cause them and it won’t cure them. Parents’ fears about sexual predation via the internet are seriously overblown, largely because of mass media exaggeration. Bullying also was not born online. “There’s no reason to think that digital celibacy will help them (teens) be healthier, happier, and more capable adults” (p. 93) and there’s also no reason to think that online interaction will solve our social problems.

Teens’ knowing how to use various forms of social media doesn’t make them media literate, and a lot of what teachers and other adults are telling them about what they should and shouldn’t trust is not true. For example, they need to know how to evaluate the various entries in Wikipedia (including its history pages and debates and edits) and other reference sources and not simply be told not to use Wikipedia. They need to know how different search engines algorithms work and how they limit the information they find.

I hated being a teenager back in the dark ages of the 1950s and 60s – I often wonder how I survived those years. I know I would NOT have survived the current style of over-protective, hovering, intrusive parenting that gives kids neither the time nor the space to just be kids. There is NOT a stranger who is a kidnapper or sexual predator lurking near every schoolyard or playground, though there may be an abuser or potential abuser living in or often invited into your home – statistically, those are the odds. Hovering, however, is not the answer. Teaching kids about how to protect themselves, is.

Parents who want their kids to spend less time with social media need to lighten up and let them spend more in-person time as free time with their friends.


One thought on “It’s Complicated/the social lives of networked teens by Danah Boyd

  1. Michael Sauers

    Thanks once again for your great analysis. I’m still working my way through the text but it sounds like I’ve discovering just as much as you did. The one thing I can say is that this book is at least making me more aware of when I have one of those “kids these days!” moments. 😉



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