Microsoft researcher and NYU media and culture professor danah boyd (who prefers to style her name in all lowercase) is one of my favorite people to talk with about teenagers and technology. That’s not because I agree with her all the time—often, I find that we see questions about privacy, use of technology, and online bullying a little or a lot differently. But danah is the best kind of sparring partner because she always tells me something I didn’t know along the way. That holds true with her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, which offers interviews with teenagers in communities across the country. By filtering them through her distinct danah lens, she gleans valuable insights.
We talked a couple of weeks ago by phone about the book and the key points it raises.
Slate: You have a real passion for getting teenagers’ own voices into the conversation about them. What’s the most important thing you learned in talking to them that you think adults don’t get?
boyd: The more I think about this, the more I want to focus on how devastating and destructive parental anxieties and stress about technology are. These anxieties continue to create a wall between kids and parents. In the window between writing my book and publishing it, I’ve given birth to a child of my own. I started reading studies about parenting and early childhood, and what’s really funny to me, in terms of the parallels, is how bad the effects of stress are. Take sleep—it’s important for babies but also for parents. The same stuff that holds true for newborns holds true for teens. Focus on the relationships, on whatever it takes to make the household as calm and centering and engaged as possible. That is so much the message of the book. It requires a level of stepping back and trying to be calm that is really hard in American society. And with technology, there is such a tendency for it to be a source of anxiety. I’d really like us to be in a place where we think of it instead as an opportunity for teenagers.
Slate: Can you give an example?
boyd: Yes, the new crisis hotlines via text. They’re like the old phone hotlines, but now you can text the counselors as well as call them. I’m on the board of Crisis Text Line, which provides critical counseling on topics as varied as coming out to dealing with abusive parents to struggling with addiction. It’s phenomenal to see how many young people are looking for people to help them, and using this technology. We don’t often enough see social media and texting as a way to engage and connect with young people, but this shows that it is.
Slate: How to you translate that principle into steps parents can take?
boyd: I tell parents to build a network for your child—the older cousin, the cool aunt, the awesome coach. That way, when they need advice, you’re not the only person they have to turn to. You should really encourage those other relationships, and they’ll form on technology, on social media or via texting. As a parent, there are times your kid won’t want to talk to you. So the more you’ve thought through how they have a support network that’s not just you, the better off they’ll be when they hit any bump. And increasingly, the way that happens is online. As a parent, you can also reach out to other kids in your friend networks, so you’re an adult those kids can turn to.
Slate: What about teachers and school counselors and administrators—how should they interact with kids on social media?
boyd: The moves educators have made away from using social media to talk to kids have been really destructive. Educators should have open-door policies for kids to reach out to them online. A teacher should create a profile that is herself or himself as a teacher, on Facebook or wherever your cohort of kids are. Never go and friend a student on your own, but if a student friends you, accept. And if a student reaches out to you online, respond. If you see something concerning about a student on a social media account, approach him or her in school. Give your password to the principal, so it’s all transparent, and then be present. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of teachers say they shouldn’t talk to kids outside the classroom. You can’t be 24/7, but when that connection is possible, it should be encouraged. And social media is an opportunity for more informal interactions.
Which social media sites are better? The ones the kids invite the teachers to join. A kid will ask, “Are you on WhatsApp?” So then the teacher knows that’s where to be.
Slate: What about kids connecting with people they don’t know on some sites?
boyd: I think parental concern is misdirected on that. The anxiety I have about kids who constantly reach out to strangers is not a fear of sexual dangers, but what emotional support are they not getting from their peer group that’s leading them to do that? Though sometimes, you know, it’s totally healthy. Your daughter has an esoteric interest her friends don’t have, so she found her community or that on Tumblr. It’s a question of who they’re reaching out to, and why.
Slate: Do you just talk to your kid about how to act online, or do you follow them onto the sites where they’re going?
boyd: Different stages have different training wheels. You pay much more attention at 13 than at 17. But even at 13, you have lots more conversations than you do surveillance. Then if you have concerns, you can amp it up. One way I encourage parents to deal with passwords is to think about it this way: You don’t demand your kids’ passwords to stalk everything they do. That violates trust, and you want to build a relationship of trust that lasts long after your child leaves home. On the other hand, sometimes you might need a password for access in case of emergency. So how about you buy a piggy bank for the whole family, the kind you have to break to get into it? Everyone in the house puts their passwords in. Parents, too. If the piggy bank gets broken, everyone knows. And the agreement is that it’s available in case of emergencies.
Slate: So most of the time, you don’t read what your kids write?
boyd: Right. I don’t think it helps kids. It’s more about being present in the room, looking over their shoulders, having a sense of what’s going on, and then releasing over time.
Slate: What grade do you give the social media companies for how they deal with teenagers? I’m skeptical that they’re doing enough myself.
boyd: The funny thing to me about Twitter is that it doesn’t treat teenagers separately from adults. Twitter tries to deal holistically with abusive content. I’m relatively grateful for that. Young people are more likely to have protected accounts than adults, and the boundaries of a locked account on Twitter, for anyone, is more obvious than it is on Facebook. The difficulties for these sites is the double-edged sword of getting involved in all the dramas of teen life. Without knowing the context, when Facebook jumps in, it’s not necessarily in the best position to make the best decisions. Just like the principal at school. It’s very difficult for me to figure out exactly what the right approach is. What I really want from the system is less for them to be parental and more for them to be a community, so the issues that come up get dealt with in the community where the kids reside. It’s frustrating to me that doesn’t happen more, and it goes back to why I want teachers to be on the sites.
Slate: Hmm. Isn’t that kind of a cop-out in terms of not demanding much from these companies—which have lots of resources—and putting the burden back on teachers, who often don’t? Isn’t it asking a lot of them to follow kids online and deal with their problems there, as well as what comes up in school?
boyd: But the dramas online flow into school. When teachers see conflict on Facebook, they have a context for it from the classroom. The point of intervention is much more viable at school, where kids are together, than when they’re in their separate homes. In my dream world, which I know doesn’t exist, teachers would be highly paid and have the time to engage holistically. It kills me that we don’t live in that world.
Slate: Tell me more about your dream world—what do you most wish for young people?
boyd: Teens so want freedom. We talk about how important freedom is all the time, but we don’t give it to them. We see their tech use and we don’t recognize that they’re trying to carve out their place in what we usually look at as the American narrative of freedom.
Slate: You’re not only pushing technology as the single avenue of freedom for kids, right?
boyd: Right. I’d love for young people to have more opportunities to interact in casual and unstructured ways. The reason technology plays such a powerful role for them is that it’s how they can just get together. Other ways to do that have so eroded in the last two decades. We’re talking about systemic changes: fewer part-time youth jobs. Less access for them to cars and gas. Kids are more likely to be in schools where their friends don’t live within biking distance. So I talk about technology not because I think it’s the end-all, be-all but because it has become the primary place where young people can hang out with their peers. Kids want to be on these sites because that’s where their friends are. That’s the whole thing.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.