How complicated is it for teens and adults to navigate an increasingly networked world?, I have been riveted by Danah Boyd’s research on this topic, and it has shed light on many of the issues I spend my time contemplating and occasionally fretting about as a parent.
It’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens (2014) is the result of years of ethnographic research into social media use by American teenagers. Boyd explores themes of identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality and literacy. She illuminates teen behaviours online and challenges common myths and assumptions held by many adults.
According to Boyd, rather than being addicted to social media, most teens are simply addicted to their friendships. Social media provide a means for teens to engage with friends in online public spaces at a time when their offline worlds are increasingly controlled and limited by adults. After- school activities, and fear of dangers lurking on every street corner, constrain the extent to which teens are able occupy public spaces. I hate to admit it, but this is comparatively the case for my teens when I think about the relative freedom I had as a child.
As a mother of a 15 year and a 12 year old almost-teen (my 10 year old too young to be interested in social media) this book helped me reflect on what I know of their online behaviours and also to think back to my experiences at a similar age. I recall being attached to my landline by an invisible thread, waiting for phone calls to make arrangements or plans; if I went out then I was desperate to get home so I could speak to my friends on the phone or wait for a boyfriend to ring.
In contrast, this sort of chat is threaded casually throughout the day for my teens by virtue of platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram or WhatsApp. How lucky they are I think! Whereas I wanted to be near a landline as a teen, my girls are only happy with a good 3G or Wi-Fi signal. So how different and how similar are our experiences? Many of the issues are analogous according to Boyd, but there is increased complexity growing up in a networked world.
Constructing and mediating reality
I am continually struck by the extent to which my teens construct reality through social media. For example, if we go to a restaurant and my meal looks more appetising than theirs, they will post a photo of my meal on Instagram, pretending it belongs to them. They continually create, shape and attempt to control their identity in social media spaces.
We filter our experiences, bolster our identity and mediate our lives through the stories we tell ourselves and others. Erving Goffman calls this ‘impression management’ (p.46). This is complicated for networked teens because there are so many more contexts in which to manage identity. The added complexity is that teens are still in the process of forming their identities. One of my teens is already on her third or fourth Facebook account, repeatedly embarrassed by photos and updates from the previous year, and keen for a clean slate at each stage of her development.
I don’t envy teens this complexity, but helping them to be self-aware and reflective is one way in which a parent can help. By criticising social media we are likely to forfeit this opportunity.
Parent/teen battles over privacy and personal expression are nothing new and Boyd finds a frustration from many teens about adults’ assumptions in this regard:
Teenagers, acutely aware of how many adults dismiss their engagement in social media, have little patience for adults’ simplistic assumptions about teen privacy (p.55)
Scratch beneath the surface of virtually continual Internet mediated conversation and it is apparent my teens have a well-honed appreciation of privacy. I am blocked from every social media channel that we both occupy. They go to some lengths to find my accounts and pre-block me before I’ve even attempted to converse with them. According to Boyd, they are avoiding ‘context collapse’ whereby content is intended for one audience but viewed by another. They want their relationships with their friends to be separate to those with their family and other adults. This makes perfect sense – nothing new here.
Recently when my 15 year old and I went out for a rare dinner date, we didn’t chat about school or converse about favourite TV programmes. At her instigation, we spent the entire meal on her Instagram account posting pictures of us both to see who would get the most likes, or on Snapchat sending silly messages to her friends. I was allowed in to her world, entirely on her terms, for a limited amount of time to engage in a very specific activity. But apart from that I am blocked – and quite right too in my view – I never let my parents listen in on my phone calls or invade my room when I had friends round.
However, when one of my girls posted a selfie with heavy make-up and a duckface pout to Facebook I was horrified – all I could think of was how that image would be viewed by a predatory adult or my disapproving friends. I made an ill judged decision to challenge her:
Unfortunately, adults sometimes believe they understand what they see online without considering how teens imagined the context when they originally posted a particular photograph or comment (p.30).
The main consequence of my challenge was it reminded her that I was her friend on Facebook and the time had come to block me. The second was that she was devastated by my disapproval. My adult interpretation didn’t make sense to her and she assumed I was criticising her. I still don’t like it, but that ubiquitous duckface selfie is not only commonplace, but was intended for her peers and not for adults. My challenge did more harm than good.
It became apparent to me that the only way to have a positive influence is for low-level exploratory conversations when the opportunity arises and to keep communication channels open by avoiding overt criticism.
Meanness and cruelty
The common cry in our household is ‘Don’t put that on Facebook!’ In fact, this is so frequent that we now have a firm house rule – no photos to social channels unless agreed to by everyone concerned. I occasionally post a wry comment about my children online but never without checking it out with them first.
My girls have been on the receiving end, as well as the perpetrating end, of various unpleasant behaviours online. When nasty behaviour happens offline it only comes to light if my teens admit to it or an adult tells me. In social media spaces there is not only increased visibility and amplification, there is also an audit trail.
One of my teens recently showed me screen shots of some very nasty things a boy had said to her on a social media channel. I fought my primeval parental instinct to use this evidence to contact teachers and police (it was that bad) and we talked it through. With a bit of back-up from me she sorted it out herself. And our communication channels remained open. If I had taken matters out of her hands she certainly would never have opened up to me about this sort of issue again. Despite parents often believing surveillance is the best form of protection it can be counterproductive according to Boyd:
When adults reframe every interpersonal conflict in terms of bullying or focus on determining who’s at fault and punishing the person, they also lose a valuable opportunity to help teens navigate the complicated interpersonal dynamics and social challenges that they face (p.136).
This reflects my experience and again points to the fact that parents needs to attempt to understand and converse with their children about their networked behaviours rather than attempt to controle or block them.
Getting it right?
Many of Danah Boyd’s analyses spoke to my experience as a parent of teens living in a networked world. I am thrilled by the affordances offered by social media for my children but am also highly aware of the complexity of the world in which they exist. I am also concerned about issues of commercialisation (not covered by Boyd). As a parent, I occasionally get it right, often get it wrong, and more often somewhere in between. But my main take-away message from Boyd’s research is that adults can only help their teens by attempting to understand this world ourselves and engage with them rather than attempting to block and control. In the words of Boyd at the end of her book:
Networked publics are here to stay. Rather than resisting technology or fearing what might happen if youth embrace social media, adults should help youth develop the skills and perspective to productively navigate the complications brought about by living in networked publics. Collaboratively, adults and youth can help create a networked world that we all want to live in (p.213).
Oh and I did ask my teens for their permission to post this blog and their response: ‘yeah it’s fine mum, no one will read it anyway…’