Book Review: It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd

BlogHer Original Post

I started reading danah boyd's blog in 2005, after seeing she was an attendee at the very first BlogHer conference, 10 years ago. I met danah in person, at BlogHer '06 when she moderated my very first BlogHer panel, Outreach Blogging is not for the faint-hearted. She was more amazing in person than she was on her blog -- which is saying a lot, because she had an amazing blog. Being a mom of teens, not much younger than danah, I can't even begin to tell you how much reading her blog posts meant to me. I left BlogHer '06 saying "I want Michelle to grow up to be danah boyd!"

For the last 10 years, I've read pretty much everything danah's written online and I've told thousands of people they should read anything she writes. I suspect I'll be saying that until I'm dead. danah is smart and she causes me to think deep thoughts about all sorts of subjects but especially those related to teens and their use of the internet.

When I heard danah's book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, was going to be released at the end of February I rushed over to Amazon to pre-order. I was extra pleased to find it was shipping early and I had the book the very next day. I started reading it immediately and used an entire package of my special giraffe sticky notes to mark sections I was particularly interested in talking about in this review -- which means I marked so many pages that there's no way I can tell you about every point where I nodded my head enthusiastically or said "Yes! Yes, this!"

I have six kids between the ages of 30 and 15. My oldest kids learned to type in online chat rooms (does anyone remember The Palace, where you could create cool avatars and clothe them and give them accessories?) and started blogging young, on Xanga and LiveJournal. They had personal web pages on Geocities. The younger kids are attached to their iPhones, iPads, Kindles, macbooks and laptops but no more so than I am. They use Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. Some of them use Snapchat. I've pretty much seen it all, in terms of teens and online behaviors.

I have always seen my teens' online behavior through the lens of my own childhood -- hanging out with my friends was THE MOST IMPORTANT THING and that's exactly why all six of my kids enjoy using social media.

Our kids are over-scheduled. We don't believe it's safe for them to ride their bikes around their neighborhoods. Malls and diners often have restrictions in place that prevent teens from gathering in public spaces. Sometimes the only place our kids can hang out with their friends IS on social media. And, when they are with their friends, they aren't using social media to escape -- they're using their using the smart phones to connect with other friends, take photos and otherwise document their in-real-life experience, (which is not necessarily the way adults use their smart phones when they're out and about), an example danah mentions in the introduction her her book, from a high school football game:

They whipped out their phones to take photos of the Homecoming Court, and many were texting frantically while trying to find one another in the crowd. Once they connected, the texting often stopped.... And even though many teens are frequent texters, the teens were not directing most of their attention to their devices. When they did look at their phones, they were often sharing the screen with the person sitting next to them, reading or viewing something together.

The parents in the stands were paying much more attention to their devices. They were even more universally equipped with smartphones than their children and those devices dominated their focus. (page 3)

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens does a great job of looking at this very thing and danah helps adults get past the very confusing and often frightening stories we see often see about bullying, online sexual predators and teen addiction to the internet to understand what's really happening with kids online.

I found the chapter on Identity to be really interesting. It's been interesting to watch all of my kids online and see their online personalities evolve. It's not so much "typing themselves into being" (Links to a pdf), as it has been learning how and when to present various pieces of their personalities and beliefs to different audiences. It's about learning how to engage with people in the proper context -- context that we, as observers, may not immediately recognize and understand (which can be scary and confusing for parents.)

Also interesting was the chapter on Privacy. I've found a lot of parents struggle with trying to determine how much privacy to give their teens online and why their kids even want it, if they aren't doing anything wrong. One of the first rules I told my partner, when our relationship was new, was that I do not read my kids' Live Journals or Xanga blogs or Myspace pages unless they specifically tell me I can.

Surveillance is the mechanism by which powerful entities assert their power over less powerful individuals. When parents choose to hover, lurk, and track, they implicitly try to regulate teens' practices. Parents often engage in these practices out of love but fail to realize how surveillance is a form of oppression that limits teens' ability to make independent choices. Regardless of how they explicitly choose to respond to it, teens are configured by the surveillance that they experience. It shapes their understanding of the social context and undermines their agency. As a result, what teens' do to achieve privacy often looks different than what most adults would expect as appropriate tactics. Teens assume that they are being watched, and so they try to find privacy within public settings rather than in opposition to public-ness" (page 74)


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