Teens and Social Media? “It’s Complicated”

When it comes to teens and technology, social media researcher danah boyd thinks parents and educators should nix the anxiety and embrace the possibility.

A Nielsen study released last month found 40 percent of young adults use social media in the bathroom. A little odd, perhaps. But when you look at how truly tuned in teens are to social media, is it really that surprising?

It’s not just teens’ attachment to technology that can make adults scratch their heads. There’s a deeper fear—that kids will lose their ability to socialize face-to-face, that they’ll be bullied, or lured by strangers into dangerous situations, or that they’re sexting or… the list of dangers goes on.

danah boyd, for one, thinks those fears are misplaced. And more deeply, the author of the new book, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” argues that we’re scapegoating digital media for bigger problems—like an overtly sexual society and overly scheduled childhoods.

boyd, who’s a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, spent eight years interviewing hundreds of teens and studying the nuanced ways they use social media. Her findings challenge the gloom-and-doom narratives we’ve all heard before. While still acknowledging the internet’s boundaries and shortcomings, she brings to light the potential of new media to empower teens.

In the book’s opening chapter, boyd makes an important clarification. Teens aren’t actually obsessed with Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Rather, as she told fellow tech expert Clive Thompson at Wired, “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other.”

“Most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such—they are compelled by friendship,” boyd writes. “The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end. Furthermore, social interactions may be a distraction from school, but they are often not a distraction from learning. Keeping this basic social dynamic firmly in view makes networked teens suddenly much less worrisome and strange.”

[one_third][blockquote style=”large”]”Educators have an important role to play in helping youth navigate networked publics and the information-rich environments that the internet supports.”

-danah boyd [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

Teens today want what teens since the stone age have wanted—a place to be themselves and hang out without adults hovering over them. But boyd describes how the last few decades have seen a mix of anti-loitering laws, enforced curfews, a decreasing number of public places, and growing safety worries from parents. Pair all that with the ever-increasing pressure to get into college, and teens have less time than ever to hang out face-to-face, which, boyd claims, is one reason their online lives mean so much to them.

But what teens see and what adults see are often two different things. Parents and teachers, she says, are too quick to blame social media and online worlds as the root cause of the problem. As she sees it, the real problem is bigger. To wit: sexting. We blame digital media for the flood of sexually explicit photos pinging back and forth via texts and Snapchat, but we should really be blaming the conflicting messages society sends about sex—from the Kardashians and twerking to abstinence and virginity pledges.

boyd also thinks that teachers should be more open to interacting with students on social media. She told Emily Bazelon on Slate:[/two_third_last]

“The moves educators have made away from using social media to talk to kids have been really destructive. Educators should have open-door policies for kids to reach out to them online. A teacher should create a profile that is herself or himself as a teacher, on Facebook or wherever your cohort of kids are. Never go and friend a student on your own, but if a student friends you, accept. And if a student reaches out to you online, respond. If you see something concerning about a student on a social media account, approach him or her in school. Give your password to the principal, so it’s all transparent, and then be present. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of teachers say they shouldn’t talk to kids outside the classroom. You can’t be 24/7, but when that connection is possible, it should be encouraged. And social media is an opportunity for more informal interactions.”

(That one lit up the comments, for a lot of reasons.)

Educators, and adults in general, play another role, boyd says—as online sherpas for teens:

“Educators have an important role to play in helping youth navigate networked publics and the information-rich environments that the internet supports,” boyd writes. “Although youth are always learning as they navigate these systems, adults—including parents, educators, and librarians—can support them further by helping turn their experience into knowledge.”

In the end, the advice boyd sends to parents, educators, and others concerned with technology is “keep calm and carry on”: nix the anxiety and embrace the possibility. “With technology, there is such a tendency for it to be a source of anxiety,” she told Bazelon. “I’d really like us to be in a place where we think of it instead as an opportunity for teenagers.”


Photo/ Personal Democracy

Published March 11, 2014