As an educator with a strong interest in technology, I found danah boyd’s much talked-about new book, It’s Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens, refreshingly empathetic, pragmatic, and forward-thinking. In it, boyd, a youth researcher with Microsoft Research, takes a straightforward and evidence-based look at how kids “these days” communicate with each other and the world around them. And the book is structured to address the most serious gripes and misperceptions of adults.
As a middle school teacher, I am privy to the many anxieties parents and colleagues have about new technologies and how they will affect students in the classroom, in the halls, and at home. Teachers, a subset of the “adults” boyd refers to in the text, tend to “idealize their childhoods and … assume that their own childhoods were better and richer, simpler and safer, than the digitally mediated ones contemporary youth experience.” This extends to the classroom experience itself. It’s easy to idealize the days before the distractions of technology in the classroom, before the threat of texting in pockets and under desks, the potential for lifting of passages from the Internet, the unreliability of online sources, and the constant threat of cyberbullying. However, as boyd explains, when we idealize the past in this way, we fail to see what has not changed, we withhold the empathy and understanding that teens need to continue to navigate their world, and we forget our own potential roles in this new technological revolution.
The Need to Connect
The social spaces of teens may be changing, boyd says, but the motivation and drive to have those spaces remains constant. Where in the past, she explains, students were able to “hang out” in malls, parks, and other public places, students now often commute to school from greater distances and are not afforded the same autonomy and freedom as kids were in the past, in part because parents have become more protective in light of rising communal safety concerns. These factors have resulted in students needing to connect with each other in public spaces that just happen to be virtual.
And boyd reminds the teachers and parents bemoaning all of the time that kids are spending on social media of the hours that they themselves spent just hanging out, loitering, or talking for hours on the phone. Can I begrudge my students their texting with multiple friends when I spent untold hours on the phone with my middle school boyfriend? (Remember that scene in Bye Bye Birdie, with the dozens of kids tying up the phone lines of Sweet Apple, gossiping over minutiae?) As boyd explains, students can maintain multiple relationships through text, messaging, and social media—in a way that gives students some of their social autonomy back and in a space that is much more flexible.
The book also goes into great detail about cyberbullying. Ultimately, boyd found that adults have difficulty decoding and interpreting exactly what goes on in students’ online interactions, and that applying the umbrella term of “bullying” to all types of negative social-network interactions, both large and small, misses some of the nuances involved. It inflates some issues while de-emphasizing the severity of others. For example, many adults see “bullying” in what students experience as “drama” or gossiping (not necessarily positive interactions, but not as severe as bullying with a victim and a perpetrator). Boyd suggests that instead of reframing all negative conflicts as bullying, schools should take these interactions as a “valuable opportunity to help teens navigate the complicated interpersonal dynamics and social challenges that they face.”
While she doesn’t try to minimize the severity of real online cruelty, boyd does warn educators not to blame technology for students’ actions toward each other, or assume that a lack thereof would result in the lessening of “acts of meanness.” Again, she reminds us here that the vehicle may be different, but the motivations have always been the same.
At the same time, It’s Complicated paints a picture of students that are not as technologically savvy as we educators might assume. As many have done before (myself included), she takes to task the oft-repeated adage that today’s students are “digital natives” who somehow have advanced knowledge of the entire landscape of technology. And so what if they don’t? What does that mean for us as educators? It means that we have an imperative to be more hands-on in our approach to guiding students through technology and teaching them to use it responsibly and ethically. Students may know how to operate the more intuitive technologies of social media, but they need help realizing that they don’t know what they don’t know—privacy settings, for example. While some of our students may be writing their own code, we can’t assume, boyd says, that all of our students understand how to navigate new technologies, that they have the skills to do so in a productive way, or that they understand how to judge, for example, the value of one website versus another.
Which brings me to one of boyd’s more controversial stances, at least in the realm of education. She all but says that students should be able to use Wikipedia as a source for their work and not just a secret source that they pretend they don’t consult. She explains that students often have the misconception that all sites Google Search suggests have been vetted for validity, while at the same time having absorbed the conviction that Wikipedia is not to be trusted at any cost. In fact, boyd says, Wikipedia is often more reliable than the Encyclopedia Britannica.
She brings up a very valid point that the crowdsourcing Wikipedia is built on often encourages more reliability, and, additionally, allows for the sharing of multiple perspectives that students would not necessarily encounter in more “white-washed” or one-sided sources. She compares some of the multiple perspectives found on the Wikipedia entry for the American Revolutionary War to more standard or conventional history books. “Through the archived debate,” she explains, “the [Wikipedia] editors make visible just how contested simple issues are, forcing the reader to think about why writers represent information in certain ways.” What kind of teacher would want to keep her students away from that kind of exploration?
Boyd’s book is based partly on a wide swath of interviews with many kids from different places, backgrounds, and socio-economic levels. In a sense, she is pointedly telling the story of as many kids as she can find, and, while she saw that students from almost all backgrounds use technology, she discovered that their access, their use patterns, and their perceptions vary widely. She argues that the Internet is not post-racial, but rather often a virtual manifestation of physical segregation; even social networks within schools are often segregated by race. Additionally, boyd highlights instances where technologies are inherently biased, such as in the case of Apple’s Siri having difficulties recognizing accents other than standard English. These observations help elucidate the digital divide, and can give us, as teachers, more insight into our students’ experiences.
While some, like Howard Gardner and Katie Davis in their recent book The App Generation, have blamed technology for all that is (perceived to be) wrong with kids these days, boyd’s approach is more measured and empathetic. She evokes the complicated, messy, confused, and sometimes exhilarating feeling of being a teen. For a book that is about the most cutting-edge technologies, it cuts to the core of human experience, citing our need to connect, to form and maintain relationships, and to discover each other as the driving force behind today’s (and yesterday’s) technologies. As teachers, this message is instructive, because the better we can understand our students’ experiences, the better we can reach them.