Education Opinion

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, a Review and a Webinar

By Justin Reich — February 10, 2014 3 min read
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Please join me and author danah boyd* for a discussion of her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, in a free webinar on Friday, February 14, at 3 p.m. Eastern.

For 10 years, danah boyd has been talking with kids about their lives and about the Internet. It turns out that if you want to understand how the online world is shaping young people’s lives, one of the best things you can do is talk to hundreds of them.

The book is a trove of insights about how adolescence has changed over the last 10 years, and how young people have adapted to and shaped those changes. Through chapters on privacy, identity, bullying, danger, inequality, addiction, and literacy, boyd offers a biography about a generation of young people, who boyd describes as “more resilient than I had originally believed.” Combining anthropological fieldwork with careful analysis of risk statistics, boyd brings much needed perspective on over-hyped risks and under-reported opportunities for learning and growth online, in particular emphasizing that the young people most at risk from harm on the Internet are the same kids at risk offline.

For me, the freshest insights have to do with teen life in the physical world—especially her research on changes in parenting and public spaces that set the context for teen life online.

boyd argues that parents have grown increasingly controlling of young people’s time and space. Youth in urban contexts have long been constrained by dangerous neighborhoods, but increasingly middle class families restrict young people to school during the day and home at night. Parents control young people’s time through overscheduling with activities, which combined with pressures from homework keep students constantly busy. Despite the fact that the present day is one of the statistically safest times in American history, the constant exposure to stories of salacious crimes and the risks of falling behind in an increasingly competitive world has convinced parents to constrain teenagers.

At the same time, public spaces for teen gathering have slowly disappeared. boyd and I are about the same age, and she describes public spaces from our youth—malls and public shopping areas—that have increasingly been replaced by unsocializable spaces. In my own stomping ground, the Framingham Mall, once an outdoor space with paths, nooks, and crannies, has been replaced by a series of box stores surrounded by parking lots.

Even if the kids were allowed out and had time, they have nowhere to go.

And then we adults, after collapsing the space that teens have to be with each other and grow up with their peers, think they are bonkers for spending all their time on Friendster and MySpace and Facebook. The most common public narrative is that narcissistic kids are pulled into online spaces by addictive technologies; boyd offers a compelling argument that after being pushed out of the public spaces of the physical world, teens found a space online so they could just hang out.

The line of argument here is incredibly important for thinking about how we want—as educators and parents—to help shape public spaces for young people to grow up, but I also think it does a particularly good job of highlighting the virtues of boyd’s methodological approach. The obvious way to understand social media is to look at social media. But technological change happens in a complex social context, and boyd’s decade of observation and interview brings to the surface non-obvious connections among a series of social changes—the overscheduling of helicopter parents, the high-pitched noise emitters that keep teens out of certain public spaces, and the move to socializing online.

It’s the kind of important understanding of youth culture that you can only pick up by really closely listening to kids.

I look forward to talking more with danah about the book and her work this Friday, so please join us.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

* danah doesn’t capitalize her name. Not a typo :)

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