If you go looking for any info about “teens” and “social media,” you’ll likely find a collection of alarmism and guesswork that will make your head spin. Luckily, there’s now a book that isn’t just well researched, but insightful, accessible and makes no attempt to box away your concerns with easy answers.
It’s called, appropriately, It’s Complicated.
Author danah boyd (lowercase, as inspired by author and activist bell hooks) is a principal researcher at Microsoft who was tasked at one point with putting together data visualizations of online social interactions — but quickly saw that visualizations hardly get to the “why” of the issue.
So she set out to try and understand the nuanced social lives of networked teenagers by finding the actual teens themselves. She started with a few impromptu interviews in San Francisco, and quickly realized she would need to go much deeper than a few passing conversations.
“By this point there was so much anxiety about social media that kids didn’t want to speak to strangers on the Internet,” Ms. boyd told Betabeat.
She started spending time at high school football games, local libraries, after school programs, McDonald’s — anywhere she could be around teenagers in their natural, physical habitat. After a little trust-building, parents, kids and school administrators were more than willing to open up to her with their fears and concerns.
It’s Complicated is rich with research, and the writing seamlessly moves from anecdotes and observations to hard anthropology, unpacking terms like “technological determinism” and examining the psychology of performative identity behaviors. Her writing is casual and comprehensive; teen-accessible, even.
But even as a work of popular non-fiction, It’s Complicated manages to steer clear of the kind of feel-good fixes and pithy conclusions that permeate pop-psychology. As Ms. boyd will admit herself, the behaviors of teens in American society have a layered history that confuses every attempt at an easy answer.
“I’m still trying to properly untangle it,” Ms. boyd said about the storied history of American adolescence. “In the 1920’s, compulsory high school restricted kids from the labor force, and we started to see the rise of the American high school situation: age segregated schools, sports teams, dances. Young people aren’t used to interacting with people even two or three years older than them.”
And it’s not just more and more segregated from adults, but segregation from each other.
Loitering laws, zero tolerance policies and ineffective curfews have driven kids further from public spaces where they would otherwise be able to meet. Teens have been pushed out of parks, shopping malls, downtowns and city streets — and when they’ve attempted to take advantage of technology in order to reach one another again, we’ve told them that they’re too obsessed with their devices.
“It’s not that young people were obsessed with the technology,” Ms. boyd said. “Technology just lays in the midst of all this. Young people are trying to have some sort of control in an environment where they’ve constantly had control taken away from them.”
Ms. boyd emphasizes throughout the book that the problem isn’t so much social media itself — which is really just a platform for communication — but how the behavior of networked teens is so misunderstood and mishandled by parents, teachers, admissions advisors and potential hiring managers.
That disconnect between generations becomes the central conflict of It’s Complicated. Parents and teachers are in a panic about social media, but have their noses down when it comes to why their teens are online in the first place — to say nothing their own behavior.
Early in the book, for example, Ms. boyd notices the teens swarming around at a homecoming game, using devices to take pictures or coordinate, but mostly interacting interpersonally. The parents, however, spent whole game buried in their phones, most uninterested in their surroundings and never using their devices to coordinate, record or interact.
On top of that, Ms. boyd found many parents fearful and at odds with themselves, poking their nose into their kids’ social media use, but then harping that kids these days have no sense of privacy. It brings to mind parents bullying teachers into giving their kid an ‘A+’, but then being upset that everyone gets a trophy.
“Young people are trying to have some sort of control in an environment where they’ve constantly had control taken away from them.” – danah boyd
“Our children are precious,” Ms. boyd said, “so we don’t see how the decisions we make for our child affect other children. It’s difficult to make decisions about our kids in the context of what’s good for society.”
Still, Ms. boyd is deeply sympathetic to parents, citing data that says that even as parents are working more hours, they’re spending more time with their children.
“They’re put in a place where there’s no win,” Ms. boyd said, “so my big message to parents isn’t ‘calm down because you’re crazy,’ it’s ‘calm down because you’re making yourself and your children miserable.’ It doesn’t matter what parenting style you choose, as long as you choose the one that makes you the calmest and sanest.”
But parents aren’t the only ones restricting independence for their kids. Factors like the growing financial inequality and a deep economic crisis are often missing from the conversation about social networks, even though they permeate the subject of autonomy and adulthood.
“The more that we deeply we go into this economic crisis for young people, the more we end up with questionable outcomes for young people who are trying to become independent,” Ms. boyd said. “You can’t totally untangle from economic inequalities from these networking tools.”
It’s a dour prognosis for cheerleaders who tout social media and the Internet as democratising tools that will bring about a techno-utopia. But nothing pans out ideologically when there are human concerns, follies, and fears involved.
“I struggle with it, because I’m optimistic for young people in their ability to cope with constraints,” Ms. boyd said, “but I’m worried about the society that we’re constructing.”
It’s Complicated is available for free online as a PDF, which can easily be converted automatically via email for Kindle.