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It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

danah boyd

(Yale University Press; US: Feb 2014)

In It’s Complicated, danah boyd pulls back the curtain on how teens choose to use social networks to take their social interactions to the next level. We’re in some kind of strange new world, surrounded by teens who’ve never known life before the Internet, who live and breathe Facebook and Snapchat, and who appear to publicly air every last grief and nasty comment for the world to see. Annoying and short-sighted, right?


boyd argues that it’s actually all business as usual. She has spent the last ten years gathering the data and stories that culminate in this text. As a result, It’s Complicated is an excellent example of the type of research needed to understand how and why the next generation is representing themselves on, interacting with, and manipulating various social networks. In a structured, academic way, boyd connects the reader directly with the experience of teens trying to make sense of their networked environment.


Whether it’s a drive-in theater, bowling alley, or mall, teens have always needed a place to congregate and socialize. Adults are perceived to have the freedom to come and go as they please, change their plans on a whim, and access spaces that, whether public or private, are generally off-limits to teens. As parents continue to veto unchaperoned bike-riding out in the street, or last minute plans to sleep over at Jane’s house instead of Kristy’s (Jane’s mom isn’t home), teens feel untrusted by adults and desperate for some space and privacy to just hang out.


boyd deftly describes the spaces teens inhabit both online and off, her knowledge gained through years of simply sitting down and chatting with them. There seems to be a lot of eye rolling from her interviewees. No matter the generation, teens are still teens, struggling to work out their own identity and make sense of the world by interacting with other people.


boyd also chronicles how teens have been deceiving and manipulating the data collection engines behind major social networks. Whether listing close friends as siblings, or a best friend as the person they’re in a relationship with, there are many ways teens thwart the efforts of administrators and data mining bots to map their relationships and personal networks. It turns out that many teens get a kick out of gaming the system or encoding their personal information so only friends in the know will get it. Teens will be teens. boyd notes that the number of Facebook users in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe is quite inflated, because those are the first and last countries listed in the drop-down list. Almost too clever.


Parents and other adults likely have just as much trouble as network admins in figuring out what teens are really doing online. Navigating the public-by-default aspects of networks like Facebook is a challenge for adults and teens alike. Teenagers who view their own content as insignificant may not bother to go through the steps of making it private, or purposefully narrowing the audience down from the public way Facebook wants users to share information.


Information that teens consider to be more sensitive will get more privacy-setting attention as they seek to limit the intended audience. Or they may turn to another medium and take the conversation off of a public forum. Indeed, it turns out that teens think more about their privacy then popular media would have us believe. By sharing selectively about things they’re OK with others knowing, they can deflect attention away from topics they consider truly private.


boyd argues that American teens by and large live in safer environments than in decades past. However, their time is more restricted than previous generations’ (taking into account that free time and even the concept of childhood/teenagedom is a modern development in human civilization, and even then only among teens of certain means). Despite a trend downward in dangerous situations involving strangers looking to take advantage of children and teens, it’s easier than ever for gadget-savvy parents to keep tabs via mobile technology. This easy access feeds into a cycle of constantly checking in on the young ones, watching their social patterns on online networks, and even using GPS tracking to find out why they’re mere minutes late getting home.


Fears about neighborhood safety and changes in commuting patterns means that kids and teens and even adults don’t know the people who live around them. ‘Stranger danger’ becomes a way of life, with anyone you don’t know being a probable rapist or kidnapper. A strong theme in boyd’s book is that of fear, with the media latching onto stories that have any possible connection to social media and pushing that connection even when it may have nothing to do with the tragedy unfolding. Parents tell teens to be wary of meeting strangers online, and teens are concerned about making their parents worried. Too much surveillance means teens have to try ever harder to carve out some online privacy.


Drama takes centre stage online, but it has always existed and should not, Boyd notes, be confused with bullying. That particular centrepiece of political rhetoric happens in a power imbalance and involves repeated offences. Boyd and fellow researcher Alice Marwick define drama as “performative, interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an active, engaged audience, often on social media.” A big problem with online drama is that it’s asynchronous, so while a parent would have to overhear a conversation or have their teen bring a problem to them at a particular point in time, it’s now possible to run across a drama conversation out of context, after it has all blown over.


Nora Young, host of CBC’s Spark podcast, interviewed boyd just before the book was released. One of boyd’s stories during the interview was a bike riding analogy. It’s hard not to fall and get hurt when you’re learning to ride a bike. But with an adult nearby to mitigate the harm, a child can be supported to keep trying until they get it, hopefully without any broken bones.


If you stop a child from taking any risks, like never taking off the training wheels even though you know they’ll probably tip over, you’re getting in the way of letting them grow up. As children grow into teens, they have to be allowed some responsibility and trust to mature and learn to reciprocate that trust. Dear parents: Requiring your kids to give you their Facebook password, however, is not building any trust.


See here for boyd’s list of further recommended reading.


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Lara co-hosts and produces the long-running tech and social media HD video podcast, commandN. She works in information management in Atlantic Canada after completing a professional Master's program in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) in 2010. Lara holds an MA in literature from Durham University (UK), and a BA from Boston College (US) in English and philosophy. She has been writing for PopMatters since early 2007. Her favorite authors include Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jasper Fforde. You can often find Lara on Twitter @larakillian.


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