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.