If the Music Man’s Harold Hill were warning residents of River City about the trouble ready to entrap teens today, he could forget about pool tables and focus instead on the dangers of the internet and social media.
It’s easy to fan the flames of parental anxieties and fears around social media. New technology almost always produces extreme reactions. Prognosticators worried over the printing press, automobiles, and even Walkmans when each was first introduced.
When sewing machines were invented, some feared the affect the machines would have on women’s sexuality, since sewing machines required women to move their legs up and down to work the pedals.
danah boyd, an expert on teens and social media, wants to lower the stress parents (and politicians and journalists, as well) feel around teens and the internet.
Her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, looks at the myths and fears around kids interacting on social media.
boyd (who lowercases her first and last name) believes social networks are a natural outflow for teens who no longer have access to friends and social settings that earlier generations had. Kids used to be able to go to friends’ homes to play, but increasingly kids attend schools distant from their homes and are prohibited from walking or riding bikes around their neighborhoods. Young people, today, live more restricted lives with after school hours filled with music lessons, language classes, and homework, so they’ve turned to social media and their mobile phones to hang out and socialize with their friends, boyd says.
“Social media and smartphone apps have become so popular in recent years because teens need a place to call their own. They want the freedom to explore their identity and the world around them. Instead of sneaking out (should we discuss the risks of climbing out of windows?), they jump online,” boyd wrote in a recent article for Time.
Eight years of studying teens and their social media behavior informs boyd’s book. A Principal Researcher at Microsoft, boyd is also a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. boyd interviewed parents, pastors, youth workers and more than 160 teens from a cross-section of urban and rural areas, different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and across 18 states to write It’s Complicated.
“The activities at the core of teens’ engagement with social media look quite similar to those that took place in shared settings in previous generations—at sock hops, discos, and football game stands. Teens hang out, gossip, flirt, people watch, joke around, and jockey for status,” boyd writes in her book.
Yet, the tendency is for parents to focus on social media surveillance of their kids (tracking, monitoring, and blocking) instead of helping teens learn how to navigate public life, interact appropriately with peers, and develop the skills they need to manage themselves in a technology-laden world where they are creating a more permanent, and public, digital footprint, boyd recently told an audience at the University of Washington.
“Surveillance is a mechanism where we assert power over people,” boyd said. “We do this with our young all the time. We assert power over them, and then we expect them to trust us, and it doesn’t work this way.”
When parents try to control and restrict social media engagement, teens exhibit behavior similar to citizens in authoritarian societies. They look for workarounds to connect. They communicate in subversive methods where content and meaning is decipherable only to their peers. What then, should parents do?
Boyd suggests that parents offer freedom and communication and not restrictions. Trust their young people, offer them a supportive arena to talk about issues as they come up, and let them handle the consequences of navigating online so that when they go off to college, they are prepared for their independence.
She also discusses the importance of community. Neighborhoods are better served by people who collectively take an interest in what is happening on their streets than by security cameras, or by telling people to stay indoors. The same is true of the digital world. Parents need to intentionally forge relationships with other parents and children so they can collectively keep an eye out for one another.
It’s too much, boyd told the UW audience, to expect parents to bear the full brunt of responsibility for their children’s safety and wellbeing. Other parents can and should be interacting with your children to help understand when they might be in trouble and alert parents if there’s a looming issue. Involved participation with teens used to be the work of an entire community and needs to be again.
boyd believes schools should encourage teachers to interact with student online via whatever means kids are using today (Facebook, WhatsApp, etc.) “A teacher should create a profile that is herself/himself as a teacher, on Facebook or wherever your cohort of kids are,” boyd said in a Slate interview. “Never go and friend a student on your own, but if a student friends you, accept. And if a student reaches out to you online, respond. If you see something concerning about a student on a social media account, approach him or her in school. Give your password to the principal so it’s all transparent and then be present.”
Instead, schools have created policies prohibiting student/teacher interactions via social media. In the end, boyd says, “Teens need the freedom to wander the digital street, but they also need to know that caring adults are behind them and supporting them wherever they go.”
danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and a Research Assistant Professor in New York University’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication. She is also a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Boyd earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Brown University, a Master’s in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT, and a Ph.D in information from the University of California-Berkeley.