If your organization is trying to reach teens, you should buy this book. Really. I have known danah boyd for about 10 years and she is the number one expert writing and speaking about teenagers and social media today. Not only is she completely authentic and relatable, danah is incredibly smart. An exceptional academic who has chosen to make her research accessible to everyone. I asked danah a few questions about her new book to give you a sense of what you’ll find in “It’s Complicated.”
Ad Council: What do you think is the biggest misperception about teens and social media right now?
danah boyd: The overarching mistake that adults make is assuming that social media has made teens’ lives dramatically different than in previous generations. The specific anxieties or concerns ebb and flow, twist and turn. For a while, concerns about sexual predators were front and center. Then addiction, bullying, sexting, privacy. Right now, for better or worse, the media-driven anxiety is as fragmented across topics, and teens’ engagement is fragmented across services and apps.
But let’s just pick up one of these topics and drill in a bit. Take bullying, for example. The expectation is that social media must’ve made bullying much worse because it extends into the home and involves a much larger audience. And yet, study after study has shown that bullying happens more at school, with greater emotional duress and that teens consistently say that school bullying is a bigger problem for them than anything that happens online. Why is there such a disconnect then? The difference has to do with visibility. What happens online is far more visible to other people – including, and especially, adults. Adults don’t see the extent of and most hurtful incidents related to bullying in school, but they see the online traces. This doesn’t mean that online bullying doesn’t hurt or that some youth aren’t having worse experiences online, but if we want to address the problem, we need to think holistically and get to the root of the problem rather than focusing simply on the tools that make it visible.
AC: What is your take on the success of more “ephemeral” platforms like Snapchat with teenagers…and are they really leaving Facebook?
db: There is no doubt that teenagers are picking up many more social media services these days, but it doesn’t mean that they are leaving Facebook. That said, their emotional engagement with Facebook has certainly declined. For an adult audience, think about the time when the notion of “You’ve got mail!” was actually exciting, when you’d race home to see who had “e-mailed” you. Now, email is a painful part of everyday life. We don’t leave email but we don’t really love the platform itself. The same goes for teens and Facebook. They still use it for various goals ranging from sharing photos en masse to reaching out to a classmate whose phone number they don’t have, but most don’t hang out there. They’re hanging out with their friends elsewhere.
Snapchat fills one of these gaps. It allows people to share things that are just not important enough to be saved. It becomes a lightweight communicative tool whose value is in the constraints of the system. But it’s not simply ephemeral. Because the images disappear, they demand that you actively look at them rather than just glance as you scroll on by.
AC: Some have described this group of teens as being “post racial” and social media having an equalizing effect? What do you think?
db: ::sigh:: I wish. To my sadness and disappointment, I’ve witnessed so much racism and bigotry among today’s teens. Our country’s immigration policies and post-9/11 attitudes towards Muslims have introduced new lines of intolerance on top of much older histories of discrimination. Today’s teens are very much echoing the culture around them. Not all teens espouse racist views, but those who do pour hate out onto social media. This doesn’t mean that their racism is inherently tolerated. Consider, for example, when UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video about “Asians in the library.” Many people reacted with outraged and she was harassed incessantly, online and off. But, sadly, these incidents are a reminder that we still have a long way to go when it comes to addressing prejudice.
Racist dynamics also infuse teens’ attitudes towards tools that are dominated by people of different races and cultures. I’ve encountered many white teens who turn their noses at particular tools because those sites or services are “ghetto” or “for black people.”
AC: Do you think teens are really digital natives? Why or why not?
Younger people tend to appear more experimental with new tools because they are less concerned about breaking what’s in front of them and they have fewer pre-existing notions about how something should be used. Their willingness to explore gives the impression that they are inherently comfortable with whatever new thing emerges on the landscape. But just because young people are willing to play with a tool or use it to meet their sociable goals does not mean that they understand what’s happening. Yet because they appear more comfortable, adults often project onto them the notion that they are native in the environment.
The reason that the natives frame is destructive is that it implies that youth don’t need help, that they can just figure out technology. This is a dreadful attitude, particularly during a period in which we need more youth to understand how technology works, how to build technology, and how to engage healthily with technology.
AC: What should organizations trying to reach teens keep in mind when promoting a cause on social media?
db: Be authentic. Not performed authentic. Not purchased authentic. But truly, unquestionably, passionately engaged in the community in a meaningful way authentic.
About danah boyd
danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In 2014, she is starting a new think/do tank called the Data & Society Research Institute. Her research examines the intersection of technology and society. Currently, she’s focused on research questions related to “big data”, privacy and publicity, youth meanness and cruelty, and human trafficking. She co-authored “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media.” Her new book is “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” (Yale University Press).