The social life of the networked teen

On social networks, kids have found the unprotected, adult-free spaces now denied to them in the real world.

Norman Lewis

Topics Books

Danah Boyd is principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a research-assistant professor in media, culture and communication at New York University, and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, describes and explains the networked lives of teens to the people who worry about them – parents, teachers, policymakers, journalists and sometimes even other teens. It is the product of eight years of work exploring various aspects of teens’ engagement with social media and other networked technologies, and it is a very welcome antidote to so much of the superficial analysis of this issue in the media in recent years.

The principal strength of Boyd’s study is that it decisively shifts the debate from adult perceptions of digital and social-networking technologies to what children actually do and why they are attracted to these technologies in the first place. For the past decade, adults have simply projected their own discomfort with technological innovation and cultural change on to their children. This displacement has told us very little about the technologies involved, or children’s motivations and experiences of these technologies. Historically, children have been cast as objects and innocents incapable of resisting the lure of the media. While purporting to be child-centric, these views actually express an overwhelmingly adult-centric technological determinism.

Boyd decisively shifts the debate to ground that is far more fruitful. Her key insight is that young people have been attracted to these technologies not because of a natural predisposition to gadgetry or technology, but because of their lived experience. Her great insight is that teens are doing today what teens have always done – attempting to forge spaces where they can exercise their autonomy, interact with their peers and gain some freedom from parental control. While Boyd is a great evangelist of social-networking technologies, she does not allow herself to be carried away at the expense of recognising what has really changed over recent decades: childhood itself.

The rise of ‘bedroom culture’, and the decline of ‘street culture’, as other studies have recognised, is the result of how childhood has been reconfigured through the prism of risk. As a result of this focus on risk, today’s children have grown up more in the presence of adults than previous generations. Boyd also highlights specific US phenomena, such as the privatisation of malls, which have deprived teens of traditional areas to hang out. The rise of social-networking sites like Facebook, and applications like WhatsApp, is therefore the result of young people’s desire to escape the adult gaze, to create spaces of freedom, autonomy, experimentation, entertainment and peer-to-peer interaction. Social experience is what has driven the entire social-networking phenomenon, not the technology itself.

This is all pretty straightforward and welcome. And because Boyd sticks to this as her core insight, she is able to demystify many of the focal points of today’s policy obsessions; namely, identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality and literacy. For Boyd, and indeed for most teens today, being online is now normal, rather than geeky or idiosyncratic. And it comes with all the usual angst, pimples and hormonal ups and downs associated with teenage life.

While Boyd is very good at making her points truly teen-centric, there are some serious limitations to her study, which emerge once she ventures into the policy arena. Her discussion of privacy, and what she terms ‘networked publics’, brings this to the fore. She correctly counters the prejudice that teens today do not care about privacy. She insists (with data and interviews to back her up) that teens are acutely aware of their privacy, and that they consciously take measures to protect it, with many teens switching from one app or social network to another in order to achieve certain privacy ends. She also admonishes the policy-driven obsession with blocking and filtering technologies used by parents to curtail their children’s activities online, all in the name of protection. She points out that this disarms children and does not allow them to learn how to deal with any real dangers in the online environment. But when she takes the privacy question into the public sphere, her analysis is sorely lacking.

For Boyd, ‘networked publics’ are publics that are restructured and constructed by network technologies. As such, they are ‘imagined communities’. These publics, according to Boyd, provide space and a community for people to gather, connect and help construct society, as we understand it. Online publics, or networked publics, serve the same function as the mall or the park did for previous generations of teenagers. For teens attempting to escape adults’ gaze, this networked public presents a real opportunity and a challenge. Teens engage with networked publics for the same reason they have always relished publics; they want to be part of the broader world by connecting with other people and having freedom of mobility. While this may cause adult anxiety – and it certainly has in the past – the difficulty the new networked public represents is how teens can distinguish between being in public and being public.

But the problem with Boyd’s discussion of this critical issue is that unlike the rest of her analysis, where she highlights how changes in childhood have changed teen behaviours, here she assumes that the public sphere is essentially the same sphere it was decades ago, and that it plays the same role.

For a start, it is not network technologies that have changed the relationship between the public and private sphere. Yes, they are a factor – these technologies do allow for things that previous generations never encountered. But there are more fundamental social, political and cultural forces that have transformed the public and private spheres. The decline of politics, atomisation and the rise of victim culture are only a few systemic changes over the past 30-40 years that have reconfigured the relationship between public and private spheres. And most importantly, and not touched on at all in Boyd’s study, has been the fundamental transformation of adulthood, never mind childhood.

Adulthood and adult authority have been seriously eroded in recent decades. One only has to look at the example of so-called hate speech to see how far this process has gone. It now seems that words, never mind sticks and stones, are deemed capable of harming adults who, like children, need the protection of the state. Adulthood has been infantilised, which is a problem not just for adults, but also for children. What teens encounter on a daily basis in today’s ‘networked publics’ are not predators, sexters, and stalkers; they encounter their parents, who are now behaving more narcissistically than the kids.

Boyd fails to take account of the extent to which adulthood has been infantilised, how adult authority has been undermined, and how the relationship between the generations is not simply a repetition of what has happened in the past. How can we expect the teens to have any idea of what being in public and being public means when adults and society in general are equally clueless?

This is why Boyd’s call for tactics to help teens develop the skills they need to manage complex social situations, assess risks and get help when they’re in trouble, is so unsatisfying, and it’s why her analysis falls down. This approach assumes the existence of the very thing that is absent today: adult authority. While Boyd’s analysis does take us some way to at least grasping what is specific about children’s engagement with networked technologies, it falls far short of understanding the complicated and changed relationship between the generations. It is this shift in how adults and children interact with one another that will shape the twenty-first century, and, it should be said, the future of social-network technologies. In the end, It’s Complicated is disappointing. It may have taken eight years of rigorous research, but it is stuck in the past. The truth is that it’s a lot more complicated than It’s Complicated imagines.

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by Danah Boyd, is published by Yale University Press. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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