Nothing complicated about this: Read ‘It’s Complicated’!

danah boyd's book

By Anne Collier

Why is the title of social media researcher danah boyd’s new book “It’s Complicated“? Not just because “the social lives of networked teens” are complicated (the book’s subtitle), but growing up in a networked world is too. And I’d add that it’s further complicated when the adults in a teen’s life don’t have any idea how complicated it is – when they reduce it to “too much screen time.” What’s not complicated is the need for teens’ input in the public discussion about teens’ experiences in social media.

So I wish every parent, educator and anyone with even one young person in his or her life would read this book. It’s a rare window on young people’s perspectives coming from a geeky (tech-savvy) researcher with a fascination for how both youth culture and networked culture are changing society and each other.

As boyd studied those emerging phenomena (from 2005-’12), she kept bumping into two others: all the fears in society about youth and social networks and a real lack of input from young people themselves. Mike, a 15-year-old interviewee she mentions in her preface, pretty much says it all:

“As we were talking and laughing and exploring Mike’s online videos [of mixing Diet Coke and Mentos, among other “explosively” popular threads on YouTube in 2006], Mike paused and turned to me with a serious look on his face,” boyd writes. “‘Can you do me a favor?’ he asked, ‘Can you talk to my mom? Can you tell her that I’m not doing anything wrong on the Internet?’ I smiled and promised him that I would.”

A window on growing up

But she did more than that – about six years more of observation and formal and informal interviews, online and in person, with teens from “a wide array of socioeconomic and ethnic communities” in 18 states. And she talked with a lot more parents than Mike’s mom, as well as teachers, librarians, youth ministers and others who worked with youth. This book is riddled with stories of teens’ experiences in social media, based on conversations and observations. [I suspect her geekiness and genuine, respectful curiosity made talking with her fun and sometimes really helpful to her teen interviewees (this is the part that’s not complicated!).]

It’s hard to exaggerate the value those perspectives have to our society – not just to people working with youth but to the shaping of policy, protective services and, just generally, to our understanding of how to live well ourselves in this very user-driven, networked world as well as help our children prepare to run it.

Key takeaways

Here are some of my top takeaways from It’s Complicated, which has just eight chapters, each with a simple heading such as “Identity,” “Privacy,” “Danger,” “Literacy” and my own favorite, “Searching for a public of their own,” the focus of boyd’s groundbreaking 2008 PhD dissertation:

  • I’ll start with an insight from that last one: “Far from being a distraction, social media is providing a vehicle for teens to take ownership over their lives,” in other words it has become one of the navigation tools of growing up.
  • A mirror of society’s everyday life as much as teens’ everyday life. “The internet mirrors, magnifies and makes more visible the good, bad and ugly of everyday life. As teens embrace these tools and incorporate them into their daily practices, they show us how our broader social and cultural systems are affecting their lives…. In making networked publics their own, teens bring with them the values and beliefs that shape their experiences.” So the teen behaviors and activities we see in social media aren’t just a reflection on them. This seems to be a difficult one – easier to blame problems that turn up in social media on either the media or the kids and base policymaking, sometimes even research agendas, on that (see this).
  • Adults’ lack of context. What youth object to more than adults monitoring is adults taking what they see out of context and passing judgment, blaming or disciplining without understanding. Teens are sometimes “blamed for not thinking, while adults assert the right to define the context in which young people interact; they take content out of context to interpret it through the lens of adults’ values” (why talking with our kids about issues in social media is so important).
  • Privacy more than we think it is. And it’s important to teens and growing up. It’s certainly something much bigger than what happens in social media, but in social media it’s both a negotiation and a calculation – a negotiation over constantly changing conditions and a calculation of future impacts from what one posts now. What plays out in social media is partially a “struggle to manage their identity.” Although identity formation is a huge part of adolescence, this struggle to manage identity in social media is not unique to teens; everybody in social media deals with the self-presentation aspect to some degree (if they’re smart!).
  • Privacy and control. Privacy has a lot to do with being able to control a social situation, and to gain control, a person needs three things, boyd writes: “a certain degree of agency or power within a social situation [bullying targets have lost that agency],” “a reasonable understanding of the social situation and context in which s/he is operating,” and “the skills to manage the social situation in order to both understand and affect how information flows and is interpreted.” See what she means by “complicated”?!
  • Why teens want privacy: “Privacy is valuable because it is critical for personal development,” boyd writes. What I’ve learned from this book is that teens need and justifiably seek space free of surveillance (which mostly means free of judgment) to figure things out – identity, relation to others, their passion or purpose, etc. – none of which suggests that they don’t also seek guidance and adults’ attention (especially when not imposed on them).
  • Cries for attention. “All too often, teens who engage in risky behaviors do so in reaction to what’s happening at home or in the hopes that their parents might notice” (for examples, see this about her pioneering work on this and this for the latest tragic example in the UK).
  • Publicity not the opposite of privacy. To a degree, it can be part of managing both privacy and one’s public image (sometimes called “online reputation,” but that’s too narrow a term). “Sharing at least a little bit affords … more privacy than sharing nothing at all,” boyd writes. “In a world in which posting updates is common, purposeful, and performative, sharing often allows teens to control a social situation more than simply opting out.”
  • Fear not helpful. “In an effort to address online safety concerns, most adults respond by trying to quarantine youth from adults, limit teens’ engagement online or track teens’ every move. Rhetoric surrounding online predation is used to drum up fear and justify isolation. But neither restrictions nor adult or institutional surveillance will help those who are seriously struggling. And we need to address the underlying issues that are at the crux of risky behaviors rather than propagate distracting myths. Fear is not the solution; empathy is [emphasis mine].” An eloquent argument for getting social-emotional learning into every school.
  • Other people’s children. “The Internet is not just a place where people engage in unhealthy interactions. It’s also a place where people share their pain.” When youth “who are struggling cry out for help online … someone should be there to recognize those signs and react productively.” Increasingly, we need “a society in which adults are willing to open their eyes and pay attention to youth other than their own children” (e.g., see this).

This is a very accessible book (it’s just 215 pages long), made even more so with all the stories boyd has woven in. So I hope you’ll read it. It’ll be good for the kids you know and love. Learning from them, we can parent better, make better policy at school, state and national levels and maybe even lighten up a little with them and enjoy the journey together. We might even partner with them to co-create “a networked world that we all want to live in.” What a concept!

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