Its Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

It's Complicated Book Cover It's Complicated
Danah Boyd
January 13, 2015

If you have pre-teens or teens, this is a MUST READ for you. The author reviews the online social habits of American teens and analyzes the role technology and social media plays in their lives, examining common misconceptions about such topics as identity, privacy, danger, and bullying. Illuminating. Terrifying. But super helpful. Here is a quote:

Social media is not only a tool; it is a social lifeline that enables her to stay connected to people she cares about but cannot otherwise interact with in person.

Most teenagers now go online to connect to the people in their community. Their online participation is not eccentric; it is entirely normal, even expected.

Teens are looking for a place of their own to make sense of the world beyond their bedrooms.

Teens are passionate about finding their place in society. What is different as a result of social media is that teens’ perennial desire for social connection and autonomy is now being expressed in networked publics. Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice.5

Teens engage with networked publics for the same reasons they have always relished publics; they want to be a part of the broader world by connecting with other people and having the freedom of mobility. Likewise, many adults fear networked technologies for the same reasons that adults have long been wary of teen participation in public life and teen socialization in parks, malls, and other sites where youth congregate.

In networked publics, interactions are often public by default, private through effort.

What is new is the way in which social media alters and amplifies social situations by offering technical features that people can use to engage in these well-established practices.

Whereas teens are focused on what it means to be in public, adults are more focused on what it means to be networked.

All too often, it is easier to focus on the technology than on the broader systemic issues that are at play because technical changes are easier to see.

Teens often want to be with friends on their own terms, without adult supervision, and in public. Paradoxically, the networked publics they inhabit allow them a measure of privacy and autonomy that is not possible at home where parents and siblings are often listening in. Recognizing this is important to understanding teens’ relationship to social media.

Social media is not only a tool; it is a social lifeline that enables her to stay connected to people she cares about but cannot otherwise interact with in person.

What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, and other social media are to teens now.

Many teens are not nearly as digitally adept as the often-used assumption that they are “digital natives” would suggest. The teens I met knew how to get to Google but had little understanding about how to construct a query to get quality information from the popular search engine.

American teens continue to live and learn in radically uneven conditions.

Economic inequality plays a central role. But access is not the sole divide. Technical skills, media literacy, and even basic English literacy all shape how teens experience new technologies.

Challenges of self-representation in a networked era.

The ability to understand how context, audience, and identity intersect is one of the central challenges people face in learning how to navigate social media.

The ability to easily switch contexts assumes an ephemeral social situation; this cannot be taken for granted in digital environments.

Having to take measures to prevent his family from seeing what he posts saddens him because he doesn’t want to hide; he only wants his family to stop “embarrassing” him. Context matters to Hunter, not because he’s ashamed of his tastes or wants to hide his passions, but because he wants to have control over a given social situation. He wants to post messages without having to articulate context; he wants his audience to understand where he’s coming from and respect what he sees as unspoken social

So when a teen chooses to identify as “Jessica Smith” on Facebook and “littlemonster” on Twitter, she’s not creating multiple identities in the psychological sense. She’s choosing to represent herself in different ways on different sites with the expectation of different audiences and different norms.

Facebook was the primary place where friend groups collide. Other services—like Tumblr or Twitter—were more commonly used by teens who were carving out their place in interest-driven communities.

For example, there are entire communities of teens on Tumblr who connect out of a shared interest in fashion; collectively, they produce a rich fashion blogging community that has stunned the fashion industry.

What this means is that teens turn to different sites because they hear that a particular site is good for a given practice.

Teens are struggling to make sense of who they are and how they fit into society in an environment in which contexts are networked and collapsed, audiences are invisible, and anything they say or do can easily be taken out of context. They are grappling with battles that adults face, but they are doing so while under constant surveillance and without a firm grasp of who they are. In short, they’re navigating one heck of a cultural labyrinth.

They cite youth’s widespread engagement with social media as evidence that the era of privacy is over.5

The teens that I met genuinely care about their privacy, but how they understand and enact it may not immediately resonate or appear logical to adults. When teens—and, for that matter, most adults—seek privacy, they do so in relation to those who hold power over them. Unlike privacy advocates and more politically conscious adults, teens aren’t typically concerned with governments and corporations. Instead, they’re trying to avoid surveillance from parents, teachers, and other immediate authority figures in their lives. They want the right to be ignored by the people who they see as being “in their business.”

There’s a big difference between being in public and being public.

“Why are they on my page? I wouldn’t go to my teacher’s page and look at their stuff, so why should they go on mine to look at my stuff?”

What’s at stake is not whether someone can listen in but whether one should. Etiquette and politeness operate as a social force that challenges what’s functionally possible.

Much to many adults’ surprise, teens aren’t looking to hide; they just want privacy.10 As a result, many teens are developing innovative solutions to achieve privacy in public. To

Teens do think through the social cost to what they post, but they don’t always get it right.

Part of what makes Carmen’s message especially effective is that she regularly posts song lyrics to express all sorts of feelings. As a result, this song lyric blended into a collection of other song lyrics, quotes, and

Some teens see privacy as a right, but many more see privacy as a matter of trust.

This issue of trust also emerges in relationship to passwords. Many teens are comfortable sharing their passwords with their parents “in case of an emergency” but expect that their parents will not use them to snoop.

Surveillance operates as a mechanism of control.

Surveillance is a form of oppression that limits teens’ ability to make independent choices.

Privacy is not a static construct. It is not an inherent property of any particular information or setting. It is a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by managing impressions, information flows, and context.

Privacy is valuable because it is critical for personal development. As teenagers are coming of age, they want to feel as though they matter.

Rather than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are instead controlling access to meaning.

Today’s teens aren’t spending hours on landlines, but they are still conversing—updating others on social network sites, posting pictures and videos, and sending text messages to friends. Both entertainment and sociality are key reasons why teens invest so much energy in their online activities.

I often heard parents complain that their children preferred computers to “real” people. Meanwhile, the teens I met repeatedly indicated that they would much rather get together with friends in person.

Until fears about “latchkey kids” emerged in the 1980s, it was normal for children, tweens, and teenagers to be alone. It was also common for youth in their preteen and early teenage years to take care of younger siblings and to earn their own money through paper routes, babysitting, and odd jobs before they could find work in more formal settings. Sneaking out of the house at night was not sanctioned, but it wasn’t rare either.

Limited access to cars was a regular refrain among teens I interviewed. In towns where public transit is an option, independent travel is often forbidden by parents. Even in cities, many teens never ride public transit alone except to take a school bus to and from school.

In a safety-obsessed society, parents continue to drop off and pick up students well into high school. Although studies that focus on the decline of biking and walking usually address the implications for childhood obesity, this shift also has significant social implications.

As a result, many teens from middle- and upper-class backgrounds spend most of their days and nights in highly structured activities—sports, clubs, music lessons, and so on. This leaves little downtime for teens to reflect, play, socialize, or relax.

Social media—far from being the seductive Trojan horse—is a release valve, allowing youth to reclaim meaningful sociality as a tool for managing the pressures and limitations around them.

Driving around the United States, I was shocked by the skepticism many parents held for other parents.

Most youth aren’t turning to social media because they can’t resist the lure of technology. They’re responding to a social world in which adults watch and curtail their practices and activities, justifying their protectionism as being necessary for safety.

Although their demeanor was lighthearted, their discussion of their mothers’ fears was solemn: they worried that their mothers worried.

This dynamic—children worrying about mothers and mothers worrying about children—was something I saw often.

A central challenge in addressing the sexual victimization of children is that the public is not comfortable facing the harrowing reality that strangers are unlikely perpetrators. Most acts of sexual violence against children occur in their own homes by people that those children trust.

Three components that he saw as central to bullying in particular: aggression, repetition, and imbalance in power.

He argued that youth aggression was bullying when the situation involved all three components. Those who subscribe to Olweus’s definition view bullying as a practice in which someone of differential physical or social power subjects another person to repeated psychological, physical, or social aggression.

During my fieldwork, I met parents who saw every act of teasing as bullying, even when their children did not. At the other extreme, news media has taken to describing serious criminal acts of aggression by teens as bullying rather than using terms like stalking, harassment, or abuse. Ironically, teens often use the term bullying to refer to the kinds of incidents that Olweus described while adults and news media use this term far more loosely.

Networked technologies complicate how people understand bullying. Some people believe that cyberbullying is a whole new phenomenon.

Bullies are not evil people who decide to torment for fun; those are sociopaths. Most bullies react aggressively because they’re struggling with serious issues of their own.

They saw gossip and rumors as quite distinct from bullying, in part because when gossip and rumors spread, those who were the initial targets immediately responded by launching their own attacks. In other words, because Chloe and Vicki do not see a power differential between those engaged in interpersonal conflict, they do not use the term bullying.

Whereas adults might have labeled many of these practices as bullying, teens saw them as drama.

I found myself puzzled by the interpretation of what was happening on Formspring. What most people who didn’t use the site failed to realize was that questions never appeared on Formspring unless the recipient chose to answer them. Dumbfounded as to why teens would choose to respond to and post cruel questions, I contacted the company to help me understand what was happening. After investigating some of the most insidious cases, Formspring representatives noticed a pattern. Many of the “anonymous” questions were written by users at the same IP address as the account that responded to them. Furthermore, the questions were answered immediately after they were posted. Although there was a slim possibility that these hurtful messages could have come from siblings in the same house, some teens appeared to be anonymously asking cruel questions to themselves and then responding to them. In other words, some teens were engaging in acts of digital self-harm to attract attention, support, and validation.

Psychologist Elizabeth Englander found that 9 percent of youth she surveyed reported using the internet to bully themselves.

The advertising culture that teens witness reveals a market-driven valuation of attention. In school, teens observe how students broker attention with respect to classmates and teachers and start drama to negotiate power and status. Meanwhile, at home, teens often hear their parents gossip about work, neighbors, and family. While society derides attention, gossip, and drama, teens also receive clear cultural signals that these behaviors are normal. Teens may mock peers for being “attention whores,” but they also recognize that attention can be—and is often seen as—valuable. They may lament drama in their schools while relishing TV shows that depict so-called reality drama.

Social media also allows people to enact celebrity practices.18 Teens can and do use social media to drum up attention for themselves and shower attention on others.

Most American high schools that I encountered organized themselves around race and class through a variety of social, cultural, economic, and political forces.

The mere existence of new technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems. In fact, their construction typically reinforces existing social divisions.

I often found that teens must fend for themselves to make sense of how technologies work and how information spreads. Curiosity may lead many teens to develop meaningful knowledge about social media, but there is huge variation in knowledge and experience.

In describing youth as natives, both Barlow and Rushkoff frame young people as powerful actors positioned to challenge the status quo. Yet many who use the rhetoric of digital natives position young people either as passive recipients of technological knowledge or as learners who easily pick up the language of technology the way they pick up a linguistic tongue. These notions draw on the frames that Barlow and Rushkoff put forward but twist them in ways that are far from their intention.

by not doing the work necessary to help youth develop broad digital competency, educators and the public end up reproducing digital inequality because more privileged youth often have more opportunities to develop these skills outside the classroom. Rather than focusing on coarse generational categories, it makes more sense to focus on the skills and knowledge that are necessary to make sense of a mediated world. Both youth and adults have a lot to learn.

Familiarity with the latest gadgets or services is often less important than possessing the critical knowledge to engage productively with networked situations, including the ability to control how personal information flows and how to look for and interpret accessible information.

Youth must become media literate.8 When they engage with media—either as consumers or producers—they need to have the skills to ask questions about the construction and dissemination of particular media artifacts. What biases are embedded in the artifact? How did the creator intend for an audience to interpret that artifact, and what are the consequences of that interpretation?

When technologies are designed to make everyday use as easy as possible, it is not necessary for users to learn the technical skills that early internet adoption required.

When people dismiss Wikipedia, they almost always cite limited trust and credibility, even though analyses have shown that Wikipedia’s content is just as credible as, if not more reliable than, more traditional resources like Encyclopedia Britannica.

By 2011, 95 percent of American teenagers had some form of access to the internet, whether at home or at school.31 What that access looks like and what teens do with that access varies greatly.32 Concerned about how increased access was prompting the media to declare the digital divide over, Jenkins and his coauthors starting raising concerns over the emerging “participation gap.” They highlighted that differential access results in different levels of engagement and participation.33 For example, a teen who uses a library computer with filtered access for an hour a day has a very different experience with the internet than one who has a smartphone, laptop, and unrestricted connectivity.