Review: IT’S COMPLICATED: THE SOCIAL LIVES OF NETWORKED TEENS by Danah Boyd

Jacket-medThe ways teens use social media spawn a lot of myths. Here are a few:

• Using social media makes teens vulnerable to bullies and sexual predators.
• Many teens are addicted to technology.
• The “digital native” generation has intuitive expertise in using technology.
• The Internet is an equalizer for disenfranchised social groups.
• Google is a more reliable source of information than Wikipedia.

Using research, interviews, and common sense to tackle these misperceptions, Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens provides thorough, relevant, and fascinating insights into how adolescents actually engage with social media.

Guess what?

• Teens are no more vulnerable to bullies and sexual predators online than they are offline.
• “Addiction” isn’t an accurate way to describe most adolescent tech usage, and if kids are addicted to anything, it’s their friends, not their phones.
• Those described as “digital natives” may have more familiarity with technology, but they do not understand how to use it critically and productively. They need help with that from adults who do know how to make technology work for us.
• The Internet doesn’t do a good job of pulling in disenfranchised social groups. (For example, Siri struggles with some Middle Eastern accents and others, and most facial recognition software is less accurate with dark skin tones.)
• Wikipedia’s parameters and protocols for posting accurate information far exceed those of Google.

As Boyd writes, “[T]he mere existence of new technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems. In fact, their construction typically reinforces existing social divisions.” Because adults tend to use technology differently from teens, we blame the phones for causing problems and the kids for being screen-based time-wasters. But maybe the problem isn’t the technology; maybe it’s us.

As parents, we put the phones in kids’ hands so that we can communicate with them, but we are also more reluctant these days to let kids wander and play outside, and many kids are scheduled to the nth degree. So with restricted time and roaming ability, how do kids hang out? Online. At night.

Many teachers tend to believe the Internet is full of junk information while textbooks and encyclopedias are full of valuable information. So, we restrict the ways students can learn online and require them to use print material, which is no more or less likely to be accurate than online information. Some educators are also less comfortable with asynchronous or “crowdsourced” learning than they are with teacher-centered learning. So, again, the technology is restricted, causing students to go online without the guidance of teachers. That’s a missed opportunity, folks.

To be fair, Boyd recognizes that some teens do not handle things well: “Not all youth are doing all right, just as not all adults are. Technology makes the struggles youth face visible, but it neither creates nor prevents harmful things from happening even if it can be a tool for both. It simply mirrors and magnifies many aspects of everyday life, good and bad.”

It’s Complicated clarified my thinking on many issues, and I highly recommend it for teachers and parents, especially those in a quandary about how young people interact with social media.

The entire book is available online here.

Boyd, Danah.  It’s Complicated:  The Social Lives of Networked Teens.  New Haven:  Yale                 University Press, 2014.

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