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How Shall We Think about Teens Online? danah boyd Explains It All to You

It's ComplicatedWhy are teens burying their faces in their screens? How can we protect young people from online predators? And stop cyberbullying? Oh, and can those digital natives fix our phones?

At a talk at the New America Foundation, communications scholar danah boyd showed why all these questions are the wrong ones to ask. Teens, she explained, are mostly using social media as a way to enable and enhance social life, often because their access to each other has been limited by curfews, suburbanization and school choice, and parental panic, to mention some larger social factors. So don’t blame them for texting, any more than you decried teen phone use or note passing in study hall in the past.

Stranger danger.

Danger online? There’s danger online as there is in meatspace, she explained. But the bad behaviors online are created or conditioned by the same social circumstances as in meatspace. “Stranger danger” fear actually keeps some teens from accessing communities that can support them when family and community’s rigid values and dysfunctions let them down. And “stranger danger” fears can keep us from noticing that friends and family are by far the most likely source of sexual and other abuse.

Cyberbullying happens, although bullying in general doesn’t seem to be increasing when you look at, ahem, data. Of course, it is typically the behavior of people you know well.  And the digital native thing—well, maybe digital naïves (a term another brilliant scholar, Eszter Hargittai, thought up), in need of the same critical skills adults need.


Is there anything that online changes? Yes, she noted. It creates greater transparency than ever before about problems that are endemic to a society. It creates opportunities to notice and do something about problems earlier than ever before. And it creates opportunities to address them. But you’d have to stop blaming both teens and technology to mobilize to use those affordances.

Much more is in her brand-new book, "It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens." It’s written in language that’s ready for schoolteachers, policymakers and above all, parents, a group that boyd herself recently joined.