In a recent New York Times profile, Danah Boyd was described by one of her colleagues at NYU as our first anthropologist “who comes from the tribe she’s studying,” meaning that the 36-year-old researcher is a digital native who grew up immersed in the same online culture as the teenagers she now studies. “Danah Boyd often dresses like her youthful subjects,” reads the caption on a photo of her wearing a fuzzy animal beanie and striped knee-highs, suggesting that Boyd is an emissary from a new and unexplored terrain. But what’s most surprising about this lucid excerpt from Boyd’s new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, is how little the dynamics between teenagers and their parents seem to have changed, and also how much online life resembles dynamics in the real world.
In 2007, as she was reporting the book, Boyd traveled to a suburb in Texas and met Sabrina, the 14-year-old daughter of military parents. Eventually their conversation turned to Sabrina’s fears about going online, the subject of Boyd’s research:
She liked to read messages in online communities, but she did not post messages or talk to anyone in online forums because “any person could be a forty-year-old man waiting to come and rape me or something. I’m really meticulous about that, because I’ve heard basically my whole life, don’t talk to people you don’t know online, ’cause they’ll come kill you.” Sabrina has never personally known any victims of such crimes, but she told me that she had seen episodes of Law and Order in which terrible things happened to people who talked to strangers online.
Sabrina is an extreme example of what Boyd finds everywhere—teenagers, but mostly their parents, gripped by fears of sexual predators and pedophiles lurking on the Internet. These are fears that are difficult to back up with any crime statistics but which nonetheless govern parental rules about Internet use. How to explain these fears, if they have no basis in reality? The explanation comes from much deeper shifts in parenting culture, which have affected not only kids’ Internet use but the entire way their lives are structured these days. Sabrina can’t roam freely online, but she can’t roam freely anywhere. Boyd notices immediately when she arrives in the Texas suburb that there are no teenagers in any of the public spaces—the parks, the malls, or the playgrounds. Although Sabrina’s parents have served in war zones, they perceive their own suburb as a grave danger to their daughter and don’t really let her go anywhere alone.
The norms of American parenting have changed dramatically in one generation. As I describe in an Atlantic story that will be published later this week, actions that used to be considered paranoid in the 1970s—walking third-graders to schools, holding your child in your lap going down a slide—have now become markers of responsible parenting. Just as parents are terrified of online predators, they routinely tell their children not to talk to strangers, even though a child has about as little a chance of being abducted by strangers today as he or she did in the 1970s. Boyd quotes geographer Gill Valentine's research on “moral panics,” specifically the stranger danger that took hold of us in the 1980s. As a result of that panic, Boyd points out, public spaces—meaning playgrounds but also the Internet—became demonized as places where kids could get hurt and face all kinds of sexual danger.
The most interesting thing Boyd does in her excerpt is narrow down exactly who is at risk of sexual abuse, and it’s not your average protected suburbanite. Most kids know what they’re doing. Alarmists often quote a study from the Crimes Against Children Research Center claiming 1 in 5 children has been sexually solicited online. But that study also found only 4 percent of solicitations came from people known to be older than 25 and that in 75 percent of the incidents reported, the teenagers said they were not upset or afraid. The kids vulnerable to predators are the same ones who are vulnerable in the real world: the ones who get drawn in, who participate all too willingly because they are neglected, or come from abusive homes, or are drug addicts, or starved in some way for adult attention. But because they are not the perfect victims, we don’t pay enough attention and instead scramble to build a fortress around the Sabrinas of the world. And in the case of the truly vulnerable kids, as Boyd writes, “fear is not the solution. Empathy is.”