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Busting Myths about Teens and Tech

  • May 3rd 2015

Researcher Danah Boyd has been called the “teen whisperer.” The author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens has focused her research for the past decade on how young people use social media as part of everyday life. A data whiz with a knack for getting teens to talk honestly, Boyd regularly busts myths about teens and technology — as she did during her conversation with The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival. Here are three examples:

Myth: Teens have no boundaries when it comes to privacy and often overshare on social media.

Reality: Posting something as trivial as what’s for breakfast is a way of signaling to one’s peers that, “Hey, I’m here; I’m awake,” and that a teen is available for social interaction, Boyd explained. Teens also have a way of communicating online in a kind of code to their friends, because social media can be so open and public.

“What young people are doing with privacy is, rather than thinking about it as control of the information, it’s about control of the situation,” said Boyd, who went on to give the example of a girl, who, after breaking up with her boyfriend, posted on Facebook the lyrics of “Always look on the bright side of life,” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The hidden message of the song — sung by characters in the movie who are being crucified — was immediately understood by the girl’s friends, who then reached out privately to offer her support during a tough time. Her Argentinian mother, on the other hand, thought it was merely a cheerful posting and did not worry or meddle unnecessarily.

Because privacy is no longer about constrained spaces, Boyd explained, “what you see is young people shifting from trying to control access to content, to controlling access to meaning.”

Myth: Teens prefer to hang out virtually than actually.

Reality: Kids would actually rather get together with their friends in person, Boyd found, but most of the time they can’t. Parental anxiety over dangers to their children has increased with the rise of 24/7 news and the decline of walkable neighborhoods. Kids’ lives are structured from morning until night with school, activities, and parents who shuttle them between everything. By the time they get past dinner, all they want to do is hang out with their friends, and the Internet is a far more convenient venue than everyone trying to sneak out, Boyd noted.

“We’ve got a sleep-deprived group who desperately want a chance to hang out with their friends, and the result is that social technology has become the relief valve,” said Boyd.

Myth: The Internet is the great equalizer that will change societal dynamics in a fundamental way.

Reality: Social networks often mirror the actual situation on the ground, and where racism or classism exists, it’s often amplified online. Boyd told the story of a progressive school in Los Angeles that claimed to have no race issues, but whose kids were completely segregated in their social networks. When one young woman told Boyd that My Space was “kind of ghetto,” Boyd realized that young people were actually reproducing narratives that exist in their physical worlds in their online social systems.

“We pretend that we live in an environment where race and class don’t matter; they are made extraordinarily visible online if we choose to look,” said Boyd.

The bottom line, said Boyd, is that “everything a teenager does — all the good, the bad, and the ugly — is made visible online, so rather than reacting to the online and thinking the online is making it so much worse, use the online to make sense of what’s going on not just with your own kids’ lives but with your community’s lives.”

A sense of curiosity and honest conversations with teens are more effective than surveillance and judgment, especially in an area where most of today’s parents are treading unfamiliar waters.

“Especially when it comes to technology, we know we’re not experts; we know our children are exploring landscapes we don’t necessarily know,” Boyd concluded, “but we’ve been taught that the only way to parent is to come in and tell them we know how it should be, rather than take it as an opportunity to ask hard questions, to ask questions that cause them to reflect.”

By Catherine Lutz, guest blogger

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