Book Review: It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd

Book Review: It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd

I started reading danah boyd's blog in 2005, after seeing she was an attendee at the very first BlogHer conference, 10 years ago. I met danah in person, at BlogHer '06 when she moderated my very first BlogHer panel, Outreach Blogging is not for the faint-hearted. She was more amazing in person than she was on her blog -- which is saying a lot, because she had an amazing blog. Being a mom of teens, not much younger than danah, I can't even begin to tell you how much reading her blog posts meant to me. I left BlogHer '06 saying "I want Michelle to grow up to be danah boyd!"

For the last 10 years, I've read pretty much everything danah's written online and I've told thousands of people they should read anything she writes. I suspect I'll be saying that until I'm dead. danah is smart and she causes me to think deep thoughts about all sorts of subjects but especially those related to teens and their use of the internet.

When I heard danah's book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, was going to be released at the end of February I rushed over to Amazon to pre-order. I was extra pleased to find it was shipping early and I had the book the very next day. I started reading it immediately and used an entire package of my special giraffe sticky notes to mark sections I was particularly interested in talking about in this review -- which means I marked so many pages that there's no way I can tell you about every point where I nodded my head enthusiastically or said "Yes! Yes, this!"

I have six kids between the ages of 30 and 15. My oldest kids learned to type in online chat rooms (does anyone remember The Palace, where you could create cool avatars and clothe them and give them accessories?) and started blogging young, on Xanga and LiveJournal. They had personal web pages on Geocities. The younger kids are attached to their iPhones, iPads, Kindles, macbooks and laptops but no more so than I am. They use Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. Some of them use Snapchat. I've pretty much seen it all, in terms of teens and online behaviors.

I have always seen my teens' online behavior through the lens of my own childhood -- hanging out with my friends was THE MOST IMPORTANT THING and that's exactly why all six of my kids enjoy using social media.

Our kids are over-scheduled. We don't believe it's safe for them to ride their bikes around their neighborhoods. Malls and diners often have restrictions in place that prevent teens from gathering in public spaces. Sometimes the only place our kids can hang out with their friends IS on social media. And, when they are with their friends, they aren't using social media to escape -- they're using their using the smart phones to connect with other friends, take photos and otherwise document their in-real-life experience, (which is not necessarily the way adults use their smart phones when they're out and about), an example danah mentions in the introduction her her book, from a high school football game:

They whipped out their phones to take photos of the Homecoming Court, and many were texting frantically while trying to find one another in the crowd. Once they connected, the texting often stopped.... And even though many teens are frequent texters, the teens were not directing most of their attention to their devices. When they did look at their phones, they were often sharing the screen with the person sitting next to them, reading or viewing something together.

The parents in the stands were paying much more attention to their devices. They were even more universally equipped with smartphones than their children and those devices dominated their focus. (page 3)

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens does a great job of looking at this very thing and danah helps adults get past the very confusing and often frightening stories we see often see about bullying, online sexual predators and teen addiction to the internet to understand what's really happening with kids online.

I found the chapter on Identity to be really interesting. It's been interesting to watch all of my kids online and see their online personalities evolve. It's not so much "typing themselves into being" (Links to a pdf), as it has been learning how and when to present various pieces of their personalities and beliefs to different audiences. It's about learning how to engage with people in the proper context -- context that we, as observers, may not immediately recognize and understand (which can be scary and confusing for parents.)

Also interesting was the chapter on Privacy. I've found a lot of parents struggle with trying to determine how much privacy to give their teens online and why their kids even want it, if they aren't doing anything wrong. One of the first rules I told my partner, when our relationship was new, was that I do not read my kids' Live Journals or Xanga blogs or Myspace pages unless they specifically tell me I can.

Surveillance is the mechanism by which powerful entities assert their power over less powerful individuals. When parents choose to hover, lurk, and track, they implicitly try to regulate teens' practices. Parents often engage in these practices out of love but fail to realize how surveillance is a form of oppression that limits teens' ability to make independent choices. Regardless of how they explicitly choose to respond to it, teens are configured by the surveillance that they experience. It shapes their understanding of the social context and undermines their agency. As a result, what teens' do to achieve privacy often looks different than what most adults would expect as appropriate tactics. Teens assume that they are being watched, and so they try to find privacy within public settings rather than in opposition to public-ness" (page 74)

Have you ever read a Facebook status from a teen that made no sense to you but was clearly understood by the other kids in the stream? Have you ever listened to kids have a conversation that left you completely clueless? They're doing that on purpose because they want to interact with each other but they do NOT want you to know what they're talking about. We all want privacy in public spaces, (vageubooking, anyone?), and we all do what it takes to get that privacy.

I've always believe that if my kids were getting into trouble online, I'd already know about it at home -- and, that's always been true. Always. danah makes this point as well, in the chapter about Danger. She's talking about kids and the myth of online sexual predators, (yes, it's a myth!), but in my experience it applies to every single thing a kid might write or engage in online.

Teens who are especially at risk are often engaged in a host of risky sexual encounters online. There's a strong correlation between risky online practices and psychosocial problems, family issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and trouble in school. In other words, teens who are struggling in everyday life also engage in problematic encounters online. Rather than putting all youth at risk, social media creates a new site where risky behaviors are made visible and troubled youth engage in new types of problematic activity. (page 113)

Speaking of problematic activity, the issue that's dominating all of our streams is the issue of bullying and specifically online bullying. It's horrible, beyond horrible -- all of the kids we've lost over the last several years. Kids who were dealing with stalking, harassment and abuse online and in school -- but should we call this "bullying"?

When Amanda Todd -- the fifteen-year-old Canadian girl discussed in the previous chapter--- died by suicide after posting a video about her situation to YouTube, the media widely reported her death as being a result of bullying. Although bullying played a role in Todd's story, the video she shared describes ongoing stalking, sexual harassment, and blackmail by a stranger followed by a whirlwind of public shaming, harassment, and physical torment...
Parts of what Todd described, particularly her encounters with her classmates, can fit into the rubric of bullying, but to describe her situation as bullying obscures the significant criminal harassment that was at the crux of her pain. When both teasing and horrific acts of aggression become "bullying," it becomes difficult for the public to fully understand the significance of any particular bullying claim. (page 132)

Which goes a long way toward explaining why when I ask my teens about bullying in their schools, they tend to say there's not much bullying going on, (even though there was a rash of "anti-gay messaging" at their school and on the school grounds last year.) Teens don't seem to define bullying in the same way that we do.

Repeatedly, my collaborator Alice and I interviewed teenagers who told us that bullying was not as significant an issue as adults thought. These teens confidently told us that bullying was so "middle school" and that teenagers "grow out of it." They positioned bullying as "immature," and as Caleb, a black seventeen-year-old from North Carolina, told Alice, "Once you get to high school is when the bullying really just stops." After telling us that bullying doesn't happen in their school, teens would continue to describe a host of different practices that might easily be identified as bullying by adults using different language -- gossip and rumors, pranking and punking, and above all, drama. (page 137)

It wasn't until I read It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens that it clicked for me. Drama. I've heard my kids talk about school "drama" for years and hadn't quite grasped what their definitely of drama was and how it might intersect with my definition of bullying. Now I get it! We're never going to make any headway into these types of problems if we don't understand what our kids think is bullying and what they think is drama.

Which pretty much sums everything up -- rather than stalking our children online, forbidding them access to social media or lecturing them on bullying, we should be keeping lines of communication open with them, we should listen to what they say and try to determine what they mean. We should give them the information they need in order to be savvy about the social media tools they are using.

danah closes with this,

Rather than resisting technology or fearing what might happen if youth embrace social media, adults should help youth develop the skills and perspective to productively navigate the complications brought about by living in networked publics. Collaboratively, adults and youth can help create a networked world that we all want to live in. (page 213)

Amen. Amen. Amen.

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens can help make navigating social media with your teens just a little less complicated. You should read it (and follow danah on Twitter, apophenia, @zephoria, danah boyd on LinkedIn, (where she has an excellent post about maternity leave, and on BlogHer.

(PS. Michelle didn't grow up to be danah boyd, but I'm incredibly proud of her and I do see some similarities between the danah boyd I met in 2006 and Michelle, today. They're both bright, beautiful, compassionate people and we can all learn things from them both.)

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