A ‘Complicated’ look at teens and technology

Author danah boyd.
(Yale University Press)

Dr. danah boyd (she prefers to style her name in lowercase letters) is a cutting-edge scholar of technology (at Microsoft Research Center, New York University, and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society) and a youth advocate with the daunting research skills of an anthropologist and the political zeal of an activist. Her first book, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” (Yale University Press: 296 pp., $25), proves she is a writer and thinker in a category of her own invention.

This book is an exhaustively researched study of how teens use technology, a passionate polemic dispelling myths and moral panics and exposing inequality, and a manifesto on how parents as individuals and society as a whole let young people down when they insist on protection and paternalism over media literacy and critical thinking.

Even readers who are not parents, or teens, may well find this one of the most interesting books of the year. Her topic is technology — Facebook, smartphones — but her real subject is how people of all ages use the tools around them to build societies, where they fall short and how they can do better. She spoke last week by phone from her home in New York City.

Your first chapter opens with a college admissions officer Googling a promising student and finding his MySpace page. The gap between the student’s academic persona (he claims to want to leave his violent neighborhood behind) and his social networking persona (he flashes gang signs) makes the admissions officer reconsider admitting the student. You point out that everyone has gaps between their social and public selves — when these differences are made visible online you call it “context collapse.” Is the fear that online behavior can sabotage jobs and opportunities overblown?


If a young person of high social standing gets caught smoking marijuana, or even doing heroin ... we want to get them help, we want to figure out what’s going wrong. But if you are a working-class black urban youth and you get caught with heroin, you’re looking at jail time. The same holds true online — you are judged by what is considered socially acceptable for your class. My fear is that issues of context collapse will increase existing inequalities and structural divisions and reinforce people’s mental justifications for their racism and their classism. They will think, “Oh, those people.”

Parents often fret that their child’s online activity will compromise their privacy. But ironically, as you point out, many parents feel that the definition of “good” parenting is to violate their own children’s privacy in the name of protecting it.

The more we have technologies where we can look, the more we feel that we should look. There are other parallels. I have a nanny. We were having a conversation the other day about how many of her friends who are also nannies have to face surveillance in the home, which is such a bizarre dynamic. You’re entrusting the well-being of your child to this person who is, in theory, becoming part of your family, and yet you are not trusting them through these other mechanisms. We repeat that same dynamic whenever we have the ability to assert power over somebody, whether we are talking about our employee or whether we are talking about our children.

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, wrote brilliantly about the costs of surveillance on society in his book called “Discipline and Punish.” ... He writes about a kind of prison architecture that gives people the constant feeling of being observed, without actually having to observe them constantly. Technology has given us that same power. This is what we are normalizing with our children. Wherever they go, being watched is acceptable. How do we say: That creates a society that we don’t necessarily want to live in?

This generation of kids is often talked about as “digital natives.” But as you point out, that’s not the same as critical thinking. How do adults negotiate the boundaries of technology with teens in a way that helps them, especially when the adults themselves may know less about it than the teens?

One of my interests is in helping parents to learn how to ask questions. That’s different than giving answers. It’s making sure they have a sense of how to think about these issues. In the process of asking questions you also learn.

You have an example of a father who friends his daughter on Facebook and freaks out when he sees that she has taken a quiz called “What drug are you?” But instead of banning her from the Internet, or assuming she was on drugs, he used his discomfort to open a conversation with her. How can technology help parents and children better understand each others’ lives?

That was such a beautiful situation, getting to talk to both of them. ... The father talked through his interpretation of what she wrote and why he was bothered by it, then they talked through her interpretation and why it made sense to her. ... When you as a parent or a teacher erode trust early on, it’s very hard to regain it. This book is written about teenagers, but when parents of even younger kids talk to me, I say, “Look, above all else: Trust, respect and communication.” That will see you through the high school years.


Benfer is a writer in New York.