The secret lives of networked teens

Author Danah Boyd on balancing parenting and privacy and the other side of online bullying

Danah Boyd (Photo by Lee Towndrow)

Danah Boyd (Photo by Lee Towndrow)

Updated March 31, 2018

Danah Boyd, 36, an academic at Harvard and New York universities and a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, is one of the most influential voices in the field of technology. Her work focuses on the intersection of media, technology and society, and particularly on how young people integrate social media into their everyday lives. For Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, she performed hundreds of interviews that give a rare voice to the young people involved, she examines the perceptual gap between adults and their children while setting out what has changed—and what has not—in teen life.

Q: If there is a single theme to your book—other than the calm assertion the world as we know it is not coming to an end—it’s that people bring their eternal issues to their ephemeral media.

A: Right: the good, the bad and the ugly gets revealed with new types of technologies. They make things visible in ways that are unexpected; they allow us to see into people’s lives in unprecedented ways. It worries us.

Q: From novels to comic books to Facebook, new media tends to incite moral panics about keeping the kids safe. Facebook may go the way of MySpace, but you note the next thing that comes along will provoke the same fears.

A: At some point I hope we stop these cycles of reaction, but I’m enough of a realist to know that’s not that likely—your industry in particular loves drama.

Q: You believe adult concern with social media—why are teens so obsessed with it?—is partly based in nostalgia?

A: If you go back and find your diaries or other things that really recorded that period in your life, you’ll find your overwhelming emotions were boredom, frustration, annoyance, conflict, confusion. But what we remember is the high times, the moments that were really exciting or glorious, all recalled with a retrospective clarity we certainly didn’t have then. One of the challenges we have in relating to teenagers is that we project onto them. We spend a lot of time telling them, “one day you’ll understand,” when we’ve stopped trying to understand their perspective.

Q: The contemporary culture of fear—do children walk to school any longer?—plays a significant role in social media’s popularity.

A: Right. One of the reasons social media became so popular with this cohort is the whole 30-year progression toward controlling teens. Curfew laws emerged in the 1980s in order to restrict where young people could go, and there are malls that won’t let them gather. The dynamics around their freedom and mobility came out of anxieties around latchkey kids, and this idea that kids who didn’t have anything to do would get themselves into trouble. By the early ’90s, the “solution” was to structure your kids’ time as much as possible. That’s what I saw very clearly in middle- and upper-class communities when interviewing teens. Add to their highly structured lives and their parents’ fear-driven anxiety about them, the geographies of their lives. A lot of teens don’t live in urban settings where they can easily get somewhere. They’re really dependent on somebody driving them. Their schools aren’t local any more, their best friends don’t live around the corner. All of that plays out in such a way that young people are pretty heavily constrained in getting together face to face.

Q: And then, at the same time as society is constricting teens’ actual social lives, along comes this virtual means of getting together.

A: So they find that opportunity online, right? It becomes a way of dealing with spatial and temporal differences. Even if you can’t get on at the same time as your best friends, you can talk asynchronously—they can read your comments later. For teens who can’t hang out in the park or at a mall, this is the way that allows them to get what has otherwise become inaccessible. The teens I interviewed talked about friends spread all over the place, people they didn’t want to lose track of, their absolute need to be online.

Q: Perhaps the greatest parental fear for children stems from the belief that teens don’t value privacy, that their carelessness will open them up to danger. But you argue that teens value privacy—in their terms—as much as adults.

A: For us privacy is something we lose, and the dangers are corporations and governments; for teens—who never had any privacy as children—it’s something to be gained, and the threats are from the local authority figures, parents and teachers. The questions of corporate and government prying is part of the narrative for adults, but for young people it’s far more, “Why would I worry about those abstract entities? I’ve got Mom looking over my shoulder.” If you don’t think teens care about privacy, remember back to when you were hanging out with your friends in the mall and your mom came by—you just went quiet. “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” Even if what you were talking about was not even remotely embarrassing, it was, “Mom, none of your business. Go away.”

Q: Adults can be hypocritical about privacy, too. They willingingly carry, for the convenience, smartphones with GPS in them.

A: There’s been some great survey work done with both young people and adults that has found they’re completely on a par for privacy issues. Not only are teens not radically different, when it comes to tactics, young people are actually much more sophisticated. I really enjoyed watching teenagers mess with each other’s Gmail—think 15-year-old-boy logic, 15-year-old-boy humour. They’ll put messages on Gmail with a whiteout text but with, say, diapers, to incite advertisers to try to sell them diapers because that’s really funny, right? Or they’ll use Instagram and put up ridiculous hashtags just to see what will follow. They understand the system, the corporatized landscape, well enough to mess with it, putting fake names and the like, while adults actually fill out the forms.

Q: Teens you quote explain how privacy is a matter of social etiquette, like the 15-year-old angry that her teachers had queried her Facebook page, declaring she’d never dream of looking at theirs.

A: And they have reason to think that way. Their bedrooms, for instance. This idea of having a room that’s yours is weird, historically, but now we understand the constraint of the bedroom, and though parents can enter it any time they need to, we basically respect its privacy status. With online media, young people are growing up with a set of norms about who looks at what when, based on what’s been socialized among their peers about what the boundaries are. But their parents don’t necessarily share those sensibilities because they didn’t have these tools when they were young. The mother who thought she could read her daughter’s online journal because the whole world could read it, was up against her daughter’s strong negative response that the journalling was for her friends. Just because her mother could read it, didn’t mean she should—if the daughter had been keeping a physical diary, the mother would have understood the reaction.

Q: Social media may magnify adolescent issues, from bullying to sexual predators, but you think those are issues brought online from real lives, not caused by online participation.

A: The stats show that the kids who get involved with predators tend to be the ones who already have troubled lives. And that’s heartbreaking because now we could actually do a meaningful intervention, if we kept an eye out. When I see kids who get into trouble, especially victims of sexual crime, so many of them are making their pain and struggle very visible online. Predators find them, and people who could help would find them too.

Q: Do you believe that society’s response, not just to social media but to other perceived dangers to children, has its own dangers?

A: I think the sadness of all of it is the lost opportunity to really be thoughtful, engaged participants in helping young people learn about the world around them. We keep assuming young people know everything about social media and thus don’t care about possible repercussions, instead of starting a conversation about it. The fear mongering and the paternalism actually hinders teens in coming to terms with the world. We keep thinking we can block our children from social dynamics and thus make them safe. In fact, that actually makes them more vulnerable.

Q: So what has changed and what has not?

A: In some ways, nothing. Kids are not addicted to the Internet, as their parents fear, they’re addicted to each other, as they always have been—getting together with their peers is an absolute necessity for young people learning how to live in the wider world. And, for a mix of reasons, the Internet is how they reach each other now. I’ve struggled about whether to write this as a parenting book, but there is no formula, no “If you take these steps your kid will be fine” type of advice. My hope for the book is that it will calm someone down, that people will cease worrying about the means, the technology, and concentrate on building healthy relationships with their children. It’s about trust, respect and communication, a process rather than a set of tactical steps.

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