‘It’s Complicated’ delves into social lives of teens in Internet age

By A Contributor

When I saw this book on the shelves of new books at the Manhattan Public Library, I almost passed it by, doubting I would find anything new on this topic that has been so thoroughly discussed in recent years. 

I am so glad I took a second look, however, as Boyd’s book provides a perspective largely missing thus far in the heated debate about teen use of social media, namely the voices of the teens themselves. 

Boyd reports research results and narratives from her qualitative research interviewing dozens of teens about their social media use.  A lot of what she found shows that teens view social media, and indeed, teen socializing in general, very differently from the way adults view them.

Author Danah Boyd is Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and also holds academic appointments at NYU and Harvard.  She discusses her own research ads well as that of others.

Boyd’s discussions with teens reveal some fundamental differences from adult ways of viewing social media.  Contrary to the common belief that modern youth are less interested in face-to-face interactions than their predecessors because they are absorbed in social media, Boyd finds that teens consistently say they prefer face-to-face interchanges but that these are more difficult to come by than they were a generation or two in the past. 

There are many reasons for this, including teens generally living relatively farther physically from their friends from school, teens’ schedules being fuller than they used to be, fearful parents not allowing children to walk to school or even go around their neighborhood unsupervised, former teen hangout places like malls being less welcoming of teens, and teens getting driver’s licenses later. 

Into this void of social interaction has come social media, which adolescents have used to partially compensate for the reduction in opportunities for face-to-face interactions.

Again defying the conventional wisdom, Boyd shows that teens, like their elders, do in fact care about privacy but conceive of it somewhat differently.  They realize that Facebook and Twitter are public in the sense of accessibility, but they consistently fault their parents for breaking what to them are patently obvious social norms about media use.

A teen posting something on their Facebook newsfeed for their friends realizes that their parents can see that but, like hearing a conversation among their friends in their home, should realize they are not supposed to join in and comment.  Teens were uniformly critical of parents commenting on their Facebook posts clearly meant for friends, not parents. 

In cases where it is more important that parents do not understand a posting, Boyd offers some fascinating examples of social steganography, postings disguised in ways to only communicate the intended meaning to one’s peers, but not to one’s parents. 

For example, one girl posted a reference to a song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which she knew her friends would recognize its satiric use from a dark moment in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, whereas her parents would not panic thinking she was suicidal.

Like many serious scholars of media, Boyd rejects the popular addiction metaphor to describe social media use.  There is nothing comparable to chemical dependency in substance abuse in the case of social media.  In fact, Boyd argues that one can just as easily use other, more positive psychological constructs such as flow to describe lengthy social media use.

The discussions of online sexual predator and bullying dangers are also eye-opening.  While acknowledging that potential dangers do exist, Boyd presents convincing evidence that these are less prevalent than commonly assumed and have not in fact become more common in the Internet Age. 

She argues that many parents and “no-tolerance” schools have defined bullying too broadly to include any kind of mean and cruel behavior, instead of limiting them to the common scientific definition of bullying as involving aggression, repetition, and imbalance of power. 

Where adults see bullying online that requires immediate and decisive intervention, many teens instead see “drama” between equals, which may admittedly have cruel aspects but tends to run its course naturally.

The chapter on inequality is perhaps the most pessimistic of the book, in that Boyd argues convincingly that, rather than breaking down barriers among social groups, increased social media use instead only reinforces the tendency of existing racial and class groups to spend more time with each other and less with those who are different. 

In the chapter on digital media literacy, she cautions against assuming that all youth and young adults are highly literate in digital social media, when in fact some of them need considerable skill development.

This book gives great insights into the ways that adolescents view themselves and social media.

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