Book Review

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens By Danah Boyd

‘Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry –for God’s sake their dirty photos! –online’  

So wrote Emily Nussbaum in her New York Magazine article lamenting the death of privacy.  It is one of the example of what Danah Boyd describes as the ‘myths’ about the effects of social media on young people – myths that she says serve to fuel a widespread fear fed by ‘a media ecosystem designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic and new-hyped technology’. 

There are others. The internet addles the teenage brain, destroying their ability to focus, hopelessly prone to distraction.  Teenagers are ‘digital natives’, proficient in the ways of the web.  Sexual predators lurk everywhere online. Cyber bullying is rampant.  

While noting that it is much easier to understand myths retrospectively than it is to dismantle them as they are being perpetuated, Boyd, a Research Assistant Professor at New York University, Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, and Principal Researcher at Microsoft sets out to do just that.  Into the often over-heated, frequently fact-free zone of public debate on teenagers and social media, Boyd pours the balm of sober data: interviews with adolescents and their parents from a wide variety of different backgrounds from all over the US, gathered over a decade, as well as with adults who work with young people; and extensive analysis of the traces these adolescents left online. 

Boyd’s data present a more reassuring account of contemporary media-saturated adolescence, a nuanced portrait of the everyday life of young people as they try to grow up amidst the pervasive anxieties and myths about social media that swirl around them:  ‘By and large, the kids are alright.’ says Boyd. ‘ But they want to be understood’.  

Take privacy, for example. Far from being blasé about privacy it turns out that teenagers are obsessed by it. But not the kind of privacy that preoccupies adults – surveillance by ‘big government’ or by Google. The kind of privacy they are preoccupied by is privacy from snooping parents.  Much of the surveillance is sensible and par for the course - parents keeping a watchful eye on what’s happening and setting reasonable conditions for internet use. 

But Boyd takes issue with what she calls a more intensive style of parenting that is becoming increasingly common. She reports that she regularly heard parents say that being a responsible parent required them to violate their children’s privacy, especially their use of the internet.  Some take more muscular action: strictly – even obsessively - policing their teenagers’ use of the internet. Others demand the right to monitor everything their children post online.

Predictably, teenagers don't take this surveillance lying down. Their interviews are full of wails of teenage angst about their parents ‘lurking’, ‘listening in’, ‘hovering’ and generally nosing around ‘in their business’.  They complain about their mothers joining Facebook to keep tabs on them and then taking it upon themselves to comment on their comments. As one girl put it ‘ ‘Everyone kind of disappears after the mom post’.  And they busy themselves devising strategies to evade this intrusive surveillance.  They shift platforms, encode content, use privacy settings. And when all else fails, they resort to secret codes (remember them?) 

But for Boyd, this is more than the usual cat-and-mouse game between parents and their teenage children. She identifies the anxious surveillance of teenagers, their exclusion from the public space, driven by parental fears of stranger-danger, as the real problem that requires addressing because she believes it is hindering young people from becoming ‘informed, thoughtful, and engaged adults’.  It is hard not to agree with her proposition as she documents the restricted lives of teenagers – at least in the US.  Teenagers now have less freedom to wander, socialise and hang out with each other unsupervised than ever before.  They are driven everywhere.  They are the object of deep suspicion when they congregate in public. Most of all, they are kept busy – many parents believing that this keeps them out of trouble. So their lives are highly structured – full of organised, programmed after-school activities.  

One teenage girl told Boyd that her mother organised ‘98%’ of her ‘free’ time. The paradox is that this lack of access to informal socialising often results in deepening teenage dependence on social media as their only way to keeping in touch with their friends. One 16 year old complained ‘My mom doesn’t let me out of the house very often, so that’s pretty much all I do, is sit on MySpace and talk to people and text and talk on the phone, cause my Mom’s always got some crazy reason to keep me in the house’ (P.22). 

Boyd argues that the only way for parents to deal with their fears of the new technologies is to understand the role they play in contemporary adolescent development. Social media, she says, have become central to the lives of young people because they answer many of the fundamental needs inherent to becoming an adult. Teenagers, stranded awkwardly between childhood and adulthood, between dependence and independence, need to carve out an identity not solely defined by family ties. Developing friendships is a key part of this transition and using social media is just the new version of spending hours on the phone with friends.  ‘Most teens aren't addicted to social media’ Body says ‘(If) anything, they’re addicted to each other’ (p.80). 

But social media also help them fulfil another need: to find their place and role in the adult world, in the public realm.  Teenagers need, in the jargon, to manage their social self-presentation: to strut their stuff, try out new identities, people watch, gossip, joke around, flirt, be seen in public. It's the same need that drives them to gather at street corners, or hang around in public parks, or congregate in shopping malls.  Social media simple provide a new public space – albeit one structured through networked technologies – that provides both real and imagined communities where they can do all that. 

Boyd’s central argument is that the over-hyped anxieties about the dangers of the internet and social media is preventing parents and policy makers from understanding the fundamental needs of young people – and obscuring the real risks and dangers that face them. Much of what is new about contemporary adolescence is not created by the internet – but by increased consumerism, heightened competition for access to limited resources and an intense amount of parental pressure, especially in wealthier communities. A preoccupation with technology is simply obscuring the other dynamics at play in shaping current adolescence. 

Similarly, much of what puts teenagers at real risk also happens off-line: poverty, abusive homes, mental health problems. Off-line these vulnerable young people are often struggling in isolation, with little parental attention.  On-line their pain – and attendant high-risk behaviours –is visible’.  ‘Although the internet may not be an inherently dangerous place’ says Boyd ‘(I)t’s certainly a place where we can see kids who are in danger, if we are willing to look’ and argues passionately for concerned adults and young people to  ‘(O)pen their eyes on the digital street and reach out to those who are struggling’ (p. 127). For Boyd, empathy, not fear, is the answer. 

This is an impressive book.  Not everybody will agree with all of Boyd’s conclusions – but they are evidence-based, reasoned and plausible – and provide a far better starting point for discussion about how to deal with the new technologies for the media, politicians, and policy-makers – and indeed for discussions between parents and their teenage children. 

Originally published in The Irish Times.  


Posted: 17 May 2014