Kids today! They’re online all the time, sharing every little aspect of their lives. What’s wrong with them? Actually, nothing, says Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher who studies social media. In a book coming out this winter, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Boyd argues that teenagers aren’t doing much online that’s very different from what kids did at the sock hop, the roller rink, or the mall. They do so much socializing online mostly because they have little choice, Boyd says: parents now generally consider it unsafe to let kids roam their neighborhoods unsupervised. Boyd, 36, spoke with MIT Technology Review’s deputy editor, Brian Bergstein, at Microsoft Research’s offices in Manhattan.
I feel like you might have titled the book Everybody Should Stop Freaking Out.
It’s funny, because one of the early titles was Like, Duh. Because whenever I would show my research to young people, they’d say, “Like, duh. Isn’t this so obvious?” And it opens with the anecdote of a boy who says, “Can you just talk to my mom? Can you tell her that I’m going to be okay?” I found that refrain so common among young people.
You and your colleague Alice Marwick interviewed 166 teenagers for this book. But you’ve studied social media for a long time. What surprised you?
It was shocking how heavily constrained their mobility was. I had known it had gotten worse since I was a teenager, but I didn’t get it—the total lack of freedom to just go out and wander. Young people weren’t even trying to sneak out [of the house at night]. They were trying to get online, because that’s the place where they hung out with their friends.
And I had assumed based on the narratives in the media that bullying was on the rise. I was shocked that data showed otherwise.
Then why do narratives such as “Bullying is more common online” take hold?
It’s made more visible. There is some awful stuff out there, but it frustrates me when a panic distracts us from the reality of what’s going on. One of my frustrations is that there are some massive mental health issues, and we want to blame the technology [that brings them to light] instead of actually dealing with mental health issues.
I take your point that Facebook or Instagram is the equivalent of yesterday’s hangouts. But social media amplify everyday situations in difficult new ways. For example, kids might instantly see on Facebook that they’re missing out on something other kids are doing together.
That can be a blessing or a curse. These interpersonal conflicts ramp up much faster [and] can be much more hurtful. That’s one of the challenges for this cohort of youth: some of them have the social and emotional skills that are necessary to deal with these conflicts; others don’t. It really sucks when you realize that somebody doesn’t like you as much as you like them. Part of it is, then, how do you use that as an opportunity not to just wallow in your self-pity but to figure out how to interact and be like “Hey, let’s talk through what this friendship is like”?
You contend that teenagers are not cavalier about privacy, despite appearances, and adeptly shift sensitive conversations into chat and other private channels.
Many adults assume teens don’t care about privacy because they’re so willing to participate in social media. They want to be in public. But that doesn’t mean that they want to be public. There’s a big difference. Privacy isn’t about being isolated from others. It’s about having the capacity to control a social situation.
So if parents can let go of some common fears, what should they be doing?
One thing that I think is dangerous is that we’re trained that we are the experts at everything that goes on in our lives and our kids’ lives. So the assumption is that we should teach them by telling them. But I think the best way to teach is by asking questions: “Why are you posting that? Help me understand.” Using it as an opportunity to talk. Obviously there comes a point when your teenage child is going to roll their eyes and go, “I am not interested in explaining anything more to you, Dad.”
The other thing is being present. The hardest thing that I saw, overwhelmingly—the most unhealthy environments—were those where the parents were not present. They could be physically present and not actually present.
What will today’s teenagers worry about with their kids?
The core concerns tend not to change: sexuality and the display of sexuality. For me it was leather miniskirts, and the ridiculous bangs, and fishnets, and bras on top of your shirts—gasp! Today it’s sexting and selfies. And pressures for freedom: over generations we keep finding new ways to constrain and control, and technologies provide a relief valve or a way of getting around them. All of a sudden there’s a new form of freedom.