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.