danah boyd Discusses her New Book, “It’s Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens”

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on March 19, 2014


danah boyd’s new book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, takes an intricate look at how teenagers are engaging and expressing themselves in social media spaces. She does this while addressing the fears and misconceptions that adults have about teens' use of social media; and reveals that online networks can be a lifeline and a safety valve for teenagers.

To write It's Complicated, Professor boyd spent about eight years studying teenagers and their social media behavior. She traveled to 16 U.S. states; visited different communities, rich and poor, urban and rural. She interviewed over 160 teenagers, promising them confidentiality. This book grew out of Professor boyd’s interest in how social media allows people to connect, and her passion for including young people’s own voices into the conversations about their behaviors, choices, and lives.

In an op-ed piece for Time, Professor boyd explains how social media serves a need teenagers have to connect with their peers.

Locked indoors, unable to get on their bicycles and hang out with their friends, teens have turned to social media and their mobile phones to gossip, flirt and socialize with their peers. What they do online often mirrors what they might otherwise do if their mobility weren’t so heavily constrained in the age of helicopter parenting. 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 …, they jump online.
        Let Kids Run Wild Online
        Time, March 13, 2014

The following excerpts are from several interviews Professor boyd has had with magazine and newspaper journalists and radio reporters. These are a random sampling of recent interviews; for a more comprehensive list, view the Reviews and Learn More pages on the It’s Complicated site.

Why do you feel this is the right time for It's Complicated?

To be honest, I wasn't thinking about this as a "right time" issue. I finished the book when I could get the book finished. It took me a lot longer than I intended. But I also wrote it to be relevant for a while, regardless of what new technology comes down the pipeline. Every year, the technology will change. But I've learned in this project that the underlying dynamics don't change that much and the fears are pretty cyclical. And, for better or worse, the anxieties keep ratcheting up as each year goes by.

My hope is that adults will step back, take a deep breath, and think twice about how they're allocating their time, attention, and concerns. Many teens are fine. Many teens are not. This is not new. But what worries me is that we've started to use technology as an excuse to focus on the wrong things, rather than leveraging what's there to help those who really need our support and attention.
        Social Media, Teens, and a Q&A With It's Complicated Author, danah boyd
        Huffington Post, March 10, 2014

Your book addresses etiquette issues that teens brought up, where they believe that adults should respect privacy and not check their kids' social network activity even if they can technically access it. Do you think this attitude is sophisticated or naïve?

Both. It's more like they are trying to define the contours, the boundaries, the edges of their world. They're trying to figure out how to make it work. What they know is that they want to hang out with their friends. They want the right to be left alone. They hear these languages of freedom as part of American society, and they don't feel like they have any. Sometimes what they do to make it work is stupid, sometimes it's naïve, but often it's quite innovative and it highlights that strength of character. It can be really goofy or silly, they can do really crazy things in delightful ways. The other thing is that many teenagers care deeply about their parents' concerns, they respect them. They're trying to negotiate that, like 'Don't you trust me?' They're not just doing it in a state of rebellion, they're really trying to negotiate their emotions and try to create a way where they have independence, and they also have the ability to respect the people they're trying to negotiate.
        What Your Teen Is Really Doing All Day On Twitter And Instagram
        Fast Company, February 18, 2014

You explain teens' use of social media in part so that adults are less anxious about it. Are there things that you still think adults should legitimately be concerned about?

Recognize that teens are under a tremendous amount of stress and pressure. Don't add to it, and help them frame ways of being calmer. Help them engage productively, helpfully with the technologies around them and with opportunities to hang out in face-to-face environments. The thing for me is it's less about focusing on the technology and more about focusing holistically on a particular young person and how they're doing. There are young people out there who are really doing poorly. Use the technology to figure out who's not doing okay, and figure out ways to intervene. Because most of the reasons they're not doing okay are classic--different kinds of stress or pressure, different kinds of family abuse. Mental health issues, peer social insecurities. Peer relationship dynamics, which is all the bullying issues. Let's not get distracted by the technology, and realize that technology is showing us what's happening in kids' lives, and use that as an opportunity to make a difference in their lives, as opposed to thinking that if we make the technology go away we can solve problems. Because that is not at all the way this works.
        What Your Teen Is Really Doing All Day On Twitter And Instagram
        Fast Company, February 18, 2014

Is it just human nature to be skeptical of these scary new technologies?

Nothing is more nerve-racking than capitalizing on the fear of adults about their kids. That’s one of the problems; we need to be resisting that culture of fear if we want to actually get anywhere. We need to step back and think about what we’re doing and the consequences of our decisions. It’s not like our conversations about security in this country. We can go hog wild and spend all of our resources trying to make it marginally more secure, but we will never make the world entirely secure. We will never make anything entirely safe. The question is, what is the level of resources, time, energy, money that we want to spend. There are diminishing returns on this.

We do this thing with kids where we try to keep them safe from every form of danger. Not only do we have diminishing returns in terms of time and energy, but we have unintended consequences just like we do with security, which is that we’ve eroded [kids'] opportunities to learn, to participate, to make sense of this world. They need this to come of age. We make it very difficult for them to be public. We make it very difficult for them to be a part of our political life. And we justify it through everything from brain science to mistakes that they’ve made and stupidity.
        The Era of Facebook Is an Anomaly
        The Verge, March 13, 2014

Why have teens taken to such a great variety of apps and services to communicate with each other?

The era of Facebook is an anomaly. The idea of everybody going to one site is just weird. Give me one other part of history where everybody shows up to the same social space. Fragmentation is a more natural state of being. Is your social dynamic interest-driven or is it friendship-driven? Are you going there because there’s this place where other folks are really into anime, or is this the place you’re going because it’s where your pals from school are hanging out? That first [question] is a driving function.

There was this one teen girl I talked to, a total One Direction fan. Twitter was her One Direction space. What that meant was that her friends all knew about her Twitter account, but they weren’t into One Direction, so they weren’t on Twitter with her. But they all were on Instagram together because that was a fun place where they were sharing photos. And what she was sharing on Instagram was not about One Direction because that just wasn’t the place for it. Meanwhile, they were also doing crazy things on Tumblr, where they were part of a little maker community.

Whereas in the Facebook era, you have to balance all these audiences simultaneously. You’re saying, "Are you going to get angry with me because I posted about One Direction? Are you going to think I’m lame because I’m posting this maker stuff?" Where does this fit? And I think that’s a lot of the reason why when you start to fragment your audience, you start to think about what you’re looking for, you’ll go to different spaces, and it parallels what we do as adults. You go to different bars when you’re in the mood for different things. You see different people when you want to go listen to music or when you just want to have a quiet drink with a couple of friends.
        The Era of Facebook Is an Anomaly
        The Verge, March 13, 2014

How should teachers, school counselors, and administrators interact with kids on social media?

The moves educators have made away from using social media to talk to kids have been really destructive. Educators should have open-door policies for kids to reach out to them online. A teacher should create a profile that is herself or himself as a teacher, on Facebook or wherever your cohort of kids are. 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. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of teachers say they shouldn’t talk to kids outside the classroom. You can’t be 24/7, but when that connection is possible, it should be encouraged. And social media is an opportunity for more informal interactions.

Which social media sites are better? The ones the kids invite the teachers to join. A kid will ask, “Are you on WhatsApp?” So then the teacher knows that’s where to be.
        Don’t Stalk Your Kid Online
        Slate, February 19, 2014

Recent podcasts of danah boyd discussing It’s Complicated:

Online, Researcher Says, Teens Do What They've Always Done
NPR’s Morning Edition, February 25, 2014

Author Danah Boyd on why teens and social media are 'complicated' (podcast)
C\NET, February 27, 2014

danah boyd: It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
Congressional Internet Caucus Luncheon Discussion, February 27, 2014

Professor boyd has made It’s Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens available as a free download through her website; though interested readers are also able to purchase copies of the book as well: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and Indie Bound.

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, Research Assistant Professor at New York University, and Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her research focuses on how youth integrate technology into their everyday practices and other interactions between technology and society.