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Home » Articles » Collett's media » Part 1 – ‘It’s Complicated: The social Lives of Networked Teens’

Part 1 – ‘It’s Complicated: The social Lives of Networked Teens’

(I have decided to split this review into two separate posts, as it ended up longer than usual. I believe that this allows for a more comprehensive review of the book, which is largely for my own benefit.)

‘Every generation worries about the behaviours of the next generation.’

‘It is common for people to label anything unfamiliar as dangerous, and social media platforms and gaming devices are no exception.’

These are lines from my new book. I even add this great quote (thanks to Dr Daniel Johnson),

“…[N]ovel-reading has become one of the great vices of our age. Multitudes care for nothing but light reading. The bookstores abound with works of fiction. The records of our public libraries show that there are more readers in this department than any other—perhaps more than in all the rest. The literature which finds its way into the hands of our people, as they journey by land or water, is almost invariably fictitious.”

~ NOVELS AND NOVEL-READING, J. T. Crane (from Popular Amusements. Cincinnati: Walden & Stowe, 1869; pp. 121-152)

But to use these arguments to imply that teachers, psychologists, carers and policemen/women who actually work with and meet hundreds of children every year, are somehow hell bent on suppressing, confiscating or spoiling their digital fun is simply a form of self flattery.

Lately, the critics of said professionals, who happen to mention digital boundaries in the same sentence as children, love to pitch themselves as the current, up-to-date, with-it, modern thinkers (doesn’t every generation assume they are ‘modern’?). They imply that these digital dinosaurs (an oxymoron if there ever was one) who also tweet, blog, ping and click regularly, get a thrill out of squashing ‘them yout of today’. These critics do nothing to dispel the unhelpful dichotomous discourse on technology and only compound the frustration of parents.

So it is with mixed thoughts that I completed and chewed over the recent book to hit the media frenzy – Danah Boyd’s ‘It’s Complicated’

Here goes…its complicated

At the end of her book, Boyd provides information about some of her subjects. It is notable that she interviewed 166 teens over 7 years (between 2006 and 2012). This equates to approximately 24 people a year. Please keep in the back of your mind that most High School Health Education teachers, Adolescent Psychologists and School Counsellors often work with triple her total amount every year. Many engage in small group counselling and psycho-education on a regular basis.

It appears that most of the young people interviewed for Boyd’s book were between 16 and 18 years old (only one was listed as 13 and three were 14 years old, although Boyd does state that the list is not comprehensive).  I would therefore like to highlight that iParenting would be markedly different for parents of 10 to 14 year olds, hence generalising everything in this book to apply to all children is not suitable.

Boyd does mention that she spent hours scouring the social media pages of teens, but her own work highlights the difficulty with which one may garner accurate information about the personality, sexuality or life choices of teens by observing SM sites alone. Not because teens are devious, but because they sometimes try on different selves as they strive for autonomy (among many other reasons).

NOTE: Boyd is a researcher for Microsoft Research, which will naturally inform her studies.

Let’s get to the content. I will start by telling you what I love in Boyd’s book and why.

  • The Title – This alone is enough to spell out the relationships on, off and with technology that young people have. I also think it could describe the way parents, teachers and carers have viewed their roles in assisting children with technology over the last few years. ‘Complicated’ indicates a necessary move away from dichotomous thinking about technology – that it is either good or bad.
  • The overarching message is that technology is not evil and that we should not demonise the tool. Yes!
  • The voices of young people – this book attempts to get us to tune into the voices of teens, which have been missing from the conversation for too long. Although I would have to say that Australia’s very own Young and Well CRC continues to make huge gains in this area.
  • Technology can be used for both harm and benefit. It provides both opportunities and challenges through ‘persistence, visibility, spreadability and searchability’.
  • Challenging our use of the term ‘digital natives’ – I love that someone has highlighted this misnomer. Although the term attempts to illustrate that the younger generation is the first to be born with a phone dangling off the umbilical cord, just because teens are comfortable with Social Media doesn’t mean they are fluent with technology. The digital divide is not simply generational, it can be socioeconomic, intellectual, ability based or (add your own here).

Natalie Hendry recently wrote, “We proclaim young people as the gatekeepers of new technologies as if they created them, funded them, built them, marketed them and controlled them. Some do create apps or develop tech, but others don’t. Some adults create apps or develop tech, but others don’t.”

  • To adults these (cyber) activities can look obsessive and worthless yet social media is an extension of relationships – I concur, because technology is now ubiquitous. I personally struggle to talk about: online vs offline, real time vs online time and face-to-face vs cyber chat. I don’t believe that we can separate ‘online’ and ‘offline’ as different ‘lives’ any longer.
  • Teens are not compelled by gadgetry they are compelled by friendship. I would add that many also enjoy the accomplishment, challenge and escapism that technology brings and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
  • Being exposed to information does not make someone a savvy interpreter. Teens may make their own media or share content online but this does not mean that they inherently have the knowledge or perspective to critically examine what they consume.
  • Networked publics – (What a great term!) Young people always want to find cool spaces in society, to see themselves as part of a broader community. They have a desire for social connection and autonomy, they want to socialise, share information and hang out. However, ‘networked publics’ can alter the social ecosystem and the social dynamics that unfold.
  • Content Collapse – Many teens are taken by surprise when various contexts or audiences suddenly collide. e.g. someone posts something funny intending it for a certain audience and then feel frustrated when others take it out of context.
  • The old offline world was private by default and public by effort. The iWorld is public by default and private by effort, because Social Media is designed for copy and paste, sharing, linking, favouriting, forwarding and spreading information.

Boyd also adds that children are over programmed and this leaves little down time for them to relax. I partly agree with this, but it is here that she and I begin to part ways…

You may like to take a break here and grab a cuppa, before moving on to Part 2 where I discuss the difficulties I have with the book. 

I don’t usually broadcast everything that I do in my working week, but to illustrate my professional ability to critique this book I think that I need to highlight some of what I do. My experience with teenagers involves private consults, liaising with schools around Australia, working in Africa, workshopping with teachers and psychologists, working with at risk youth, refugee families and working on the ground as a school psychologist IN schools, classrooms and staff rooms every single week. When I talk about technology and young people it comes from what I see and experience and hear from hundreds of families and children every year, not simply my own experiences as a mother or the stories that a handful of friends’ children have told me. Additionally, I surveyed 140+ teenagers in Nov/Dec 2013, for my own book, with more interviews to follow.