by danah boyd
a book review
An often overheard comment in conversations about parenting or among those who ponder the state of the world is that social media is bad and dangerous. What is so often missing in subjective articles, news stories and other avenues of pop culture is the notion that social media is good and beneficial. Not that one or the other is absolutely the truth. It’s complicated. Like almost anything in life, author danah boyd – principal researcher at Microsoft Research – says, social media is neither utopian nor dystopian. In her important book, It’s Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014), Boyd encourages the reader to get real with what is truly going on in teens social lives and how that is reflected in their use of social media.
Because technology is the latest, greatest unknown, it is easy to fear it. News stories of cyber bullies and cyber stalkers abound. Kids posting inappropriate content lose scholarships or friends. Well-meaning parents, relatives and adult friends read teens’ comments and assume the worst. The fear of social media makes adults want to shut it down in order to keep their children safe. Yet boyd poses astute questions for reflection and research in her book. What, indeed, is so different about kids in the 80s staying on the telephone for hours in order to chat with their friends versus kids texting and messaging? What is so different about teens hanging out on Facebook versus hanging out at the mall? Why is bullying any more hurtful online than in person?
Interestingly, the answer is – not as different as we might think. boyd’s main point is that teens want their social lives. They crave relationship and if anything are addicted to friends, not to technology itself. boyd goes on to argue that teens today are not as free as teens in decades past. Due to over-scheduling of activities, work and to parents’ fears and prohibitions, teens are not able to run over to friends’ houses whenever they want, or to go to the mall or a public park. But they need to. The place available for teens to be connected and in public with their friends today is on social media. Today’s teen’s social life is a computer mediated one. Even so, boyd argues, it doesn’t mean it cannot be a safe and fulfilling one. boyd’s research shows that unlike the author herself, who came of age in the 80s and 90s and sought online chat rooms as a place to escape and be a new, unknown person, today’s teens seek online relationship with people they know in real life. They also seek a safe space to be themselves.
On the whole, kids today are doing well. boyd’s advice to parents, family, teachers and mentors is give teens the space they need to develop relationships and networks, without excessive imposition of adult priorities and projection of adult fears. Instead, if adults can educate themselves on the realities of this new space that is social media and understand context for teens, they can strike a balance between being protective and helpful and allowing teens the space they need to create and navigate their own publics.
Social media networked publics are different from more traditional publics in several ways. For one, they have a much larger, more global audience than traditional publics. Secondly, worlds can “collide” on social media, increasing networks but at the same time curbing privacy. Friends of friends see friends of friends’ posts. Thought by Facebook to be a benefit and a way to build larger networks, limited privacy creates broader audience, something teens don’t always think about when posting. In the book, boyd describes a young man in her book who is applying to colleges. He aspires to an Ivy League education and has been networking with admissions officers and other education and community leaders in order to build up his reputation. However, this teen lives in a socio-economic area rife with gangs. This students’ social media tells a different story than he projects to colleges. To protect himself, boyd surmises, he has put up posts that show he is into the gang culture of his school and neighborhood. But when college admissions staff searches his profile, they are appalled and shocked that this young man could present such a different face on social media than what he has put forward in his efforts to give himself a better life through education. This situation is a case of what’s called “context collapse” (boyd, 2014, p. 52).
Lastly, the mediated social life means that teens leave traces of their conversations, drama, jokes and more throughout social media networks. There is a trail. This means that moments in time in the form of comments or posts can be accessed asynchronously by multiple and larger audiences that the context in which the comment was made. This access can lead to adults and other teens making assumptions about meaning and interfering in teens’ socializing. For example, as boyd describes, “Interactions that were previously invisible to adults suddenly have traces, prompting parents to fret over conversations that adults deem inappropriate or when teens share ‘TMI’ (too much information)” (boyd, 2014, p. 54). boyd and people of her generation had to argue with parents about a bra showing or a skirt being to short. Today, parents worst nightmares come true when their teens have shared too much of themselves physically, in the form of racy photos, or in words, “in public,” on social media.
And yet, boyd’s research shows that teens still want privacy, just like they always have, as vehemently as they always have. It’s just that the mediated teen social life views privacy in a way that is confusing to adults. Today, teens desire privacy. They just know that the privacy is couched in the context of the public, online. The savvy teen will achieve this privacy in public, but most do not have the skills to do so. That’s where adults come in.
The greatest takeaway from boyd’s book is not to be afraid. We are all living into this new era of technology as those before us have with the advent of each new age. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves, discuss and navigate our way through this new era together. Digital literacy has never been more important than when it comes to understanding the evolving mediated life. We need to know that our kids are all right and that we are in this together. boyd argues that imposing “digital celibacy” (boyd, 2014, p. 93) out of fear and protectiveness will not protect our children. She is spot on in her relaxed but carefully researched position and in her defense of teens’ need for a space to grow up in. Instead of being reactive, adults can be proactive and creative in finding ways for teens to be together, in public, more often. Teens will still be using their phones to Snapchat messages, but in the spirit of sharing fun moments, as one might jokingly stick out one’s tongue to a friend before the advent of Snapchat filters. Adults can be part of the solution to issues concerning teens’ mediated social lives instead of part of the problem. There is a middle way. Social media is not all good or all bad.
One the most difficult issues to reconcile with not being afraid is cyber bullying. Parents are terrified of online abuse. I know I am. The headlines tell a frightful story. boyd argues that much of the problem lies in the way media present cyber bullying, as well as in the definition of bullying. She is astute in her assessment that the word bullying has come to mean much more than it once did. In the 1970s, bullying came to refer to behavior that involved aggression, repetition and imbalance in power. In other words, someone’s repeatedly abusing someone who was not powerful enough to overcome them, either through force or school or parental involvement. boyd demonstrates effectively that bullying now sometimes defines one-time events or reciprocal meanness where imbalance of power is not an issue.
All of the negative things teens say about and do to each other, no matter how much a part of growing up they are, can hit the media as bullying headlines. boyd does not de-emphasize the problem of true bullying but asks that adults focus on finding out what’s at the root, for both parties. This approach would lead to better conflict resolution and healthier life skills for both than just headlining a simple victim versus aggressor narrative. The mediated social life of teens and the trail it leaves behind means we can study what’s going on and who is involved in what capacity. Just in the way that Hannah Baker left a trail through cassette recordings about her suicide in the book 13 Reasons Why, teens today leave bits of their lives in public view. With a balance of not making assumptions, providing space, and careful concern, adults can work together to keep kids safe, monitoring their online lives with respect and appropriate interpersonal distance.
Asher, J. (2017). Thirteen reasons why. London: Penguin Books.
Boyd, D. (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. London, England: Yale University Press