Classroom Technology

Teachers, Teens and Social Media: Q&A with Danah Boyd

By Benjamin Herold — January 28, 2016 8 min read
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The statistics on adolescents’ social media use are pretty staggering:

  • 92 percent of teens say they go online daily, and 1 in 4 say they are online “almost constantly.”
  • 71 percent of teens report using more than one social networking site, headlined by Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat
  • 55 percent of teens say they’ve met a new friend online
  • Roughly half of 13-17 year olds say they’ve flirted or expressed attraction by friending, liking, commenting or interacting on social media.

(All figures from the Pew Research Center.)

But beyond the numbers lies a nuanced reality that adults often misunderstand entirely, says danah boyd, the founder and president of Data & Society, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and a visiting professor at New York University (who chooses to spell her name without capitalization.)

In her 2014 book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” boyd argues that teens love social media not because they’re addicted, anti-social zombies determined to bring about a dystopian future, but because Facebook is one of the few places teens have left to connect with their friends, participate in public life, and explore how they fit in the broader world.

It’s an argument that apparently resonates with many tech-savvy teachers, hundreds of whom will be converging on Philadelphia this weekend for Educon 2.8, an annual ed-tech conference that focuses less on gadgets and software and more on pedagogy and high-falutin progressive jargon.

Boyd’s book is the focus of two don’t-call-them-sessions-call-them-conversations at this year’s EduCon, including “It’s Complicated-Being a Teenager in the Digital World.” The Saturday morning talk will be led by MaryBeth Hertz, an Edutopia blogger and teacher at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy-Beeber, a new high school whose start-up year was profiled by Education Week in a year-long 2013-14 series.

Hertz has been teaching Internet safety and digital citizenship in Philly schools for almost 9 years. When we talked on the phone this week, she said she had lots of questions for boyd about how teachers and schools can better understand and be a part of teens’ “networked lives.”

Based on that conversation, I put together a list of questions for boyd, who was kind enough to respond by email. Our Q&A, edited lightly for length and clarity, is below. Enjoy, and keep it locked here on Digital Education and on Twitter for live coverage of EduCon this weekend.

How should teachers be involved in teens’ social media use?

boyd: The key is to back up and ask how teachers should be involved in teens’ lives, period. Many teachers enter the profession to help young people and they’re passionate about engaging them on multiple fronts. They attend sports games and are there when teens are struggling. With this frame in mind, I think that the key is to treat social media as an extension of their lives. So when teens invite teachers into that aspect of their world, they should think about how far they want to engage them beyond the classroom. When they’re a part of those networks, they need to be respectful, just as they are when they’re hanging in the stands at a football game. But when they’re there, they can see when teens are struggling and they can really provide a huge anchor.

The other facet in all of this is how to help teens understand the fact that today’s world is networked. That’s not easy, but it’s super-important. This means that teachers must help teens think critically about social media, just as they help teens think critically about TV and politics and newsworthy events and other parts of public life that aren’t directly in the classroom.

Where should teachers draw the line between being aware of what their students are doing on social media and invading that part of students’ lives?

boyd: Respect teens’ motivations and goals, but be there when they’re needed. I think a lot about Jane Jacobs in this light. She argued for “eyes on the street” as the key to public safety. When kids were messing around in the street, no one would step in; they wouldn’t get in their business. But when someone fell of their bike, you knew a neighbor would jump out to help. The key is to give young people enough space to develop their own sensibilities, but be there when they fall down and need help. It’s not about fixing things for teens, but giving them the backing so that they can develop.

What do you think a successful school-based approach to supporting healthy teen social-media usage might look like?

boyd: From my perspective, the key is citizenship. How do we help young people understand the world around them? How do we help them understand resilience and empathy? How do we help them appreciate the complexities privilege and struggle? All of this today happens in a networked world. We can see into others’ lives and we can connect in new ways. But if we treat the internet as separable, we miss the point. We need to help youth be responsible members of society and that society is no longer bounded by physical space.

When it comes to

social media and passwords

, what should educators (and teens and parents) be aware of when schools provide students with school-issued computing devices?

boyd: It starts with being upfront. What are these devices for? Who can access them? What are the consequences when those devices disappear? What happens when those devices are used in ways that the school deems inappropriate? We don’t do a good job as a society of setting up these boundaries. And this isn’t just a school problem. How many white-collar employees don’t realize that their employers can look at their email? This happens all the time. For this reason, there needs to be a regular conversation about these issues. And that conversation needs to happen between schools, students, AND parents. I’ve run into many parents whose only access to the internet is through their child’s school-issued device. What does it mean when parents use kids’ computers to look at their Facebooks or access their bank accounts?

Is it ever OK for schools to restrict student access to social media tools/apps/platforms, as some

schools are starting to do with Snapchat


boyd: I have no problem with restricting certain sites in certain contexts. I often ask students to close their laptops during class. That said, schools should think through what their role in all of this is. For many students, school is the only place that they have internet access. Given this, should schools limit young people’s ability to interact with their peers on shared computers/wifi outside of class? I don’t know that this is in the better interest of students. Also, when schools make a big deal about a particular service, it makes it more appealing and is therefore counterproductive. Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of a social contract. What is it that we’re trying to do here? How are we going to collectively get there? How do we work together to minimize distractions and harmful interactions in this shared space? Just like an honor code, there’s a lot of room for co-constructed agreements on what kinds of interaction are acceptable. And when this is done collectively, involving students and the school, a lot can be accomplished.

Teens might be worried primarily about prying parents and authority figures, but companies large and small are

amassing oceans of data on students

based on their online lives in schools, including social media. How big a problem is this?

boyd: Schools need to start by understanding the contracts they’re signing! Some of those contracts are egregious and schools are assumed to be making informed decisions on behalf of students. To be honest, I’m far more worried about how student data ends up in the criminal justice system, affecting the freedoms and opportunities of the most marginalized students. But I do recognize that many parents are concerned about advertisements and other marketing materials. That said, I think we should also recognize that many parents are willing to trade-off their kids’ data in exchange for ‘free’ services. So it’s complicated. And it’s not just complicated for youth; it’s complicated for everyone.

The rise of

personalization algorithms in K-12 education

: Good or bad?

boyd: Right now, we’re soooooooo far from meaningful personalization at the student level that what we end up seeing play out is coarse categorization based on markers we can get. Said differently, what we’re seeing is tracking. And tracking is highly fraught in academic contexts, with all sorts of implications for low-status youth. Before we roll out these systems, I think we need to think hard about the biases and implications that these systems have for those who are less privileged. I do think that there’s tremendous potential here, but I also think that we’re a LONG way from realizing it. And I’m deeply disturbed by the versions that we’re seeing play out in schools, where the promises are far from reality.

What comes next?

boyd: I see the next five years as being about settling into this new reality, where information is networked and people move across those networks. We’re going to see the development of meaningful learning analytics, but it’s going to be fraught and contested, imperfect and highly political. This is the connected reality of stabilization and innovation. We’re also going to see a lot more battles over learning tools outside the classroom, as more parents turn to third party services to push their children academically in ways that we’ve already seen among privileged parents

We’re also going to see a messy world where parents can’t assess the value of supposed education services as they continue to escalate and as the market for “learning” apps escalates. All of these things are happening now but the development is continuing to explode so the big question is how people will manage this. I don’t see any radical breaks in the next few years, more of an evolution from where current trends are.

Photo courtesy of danah boyd.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.