Teens and social media: It's complicated

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2014 - 2:38 PM

One of the country’s leading scholars of online teenage behavior argues that adult fears are misplaced.

“It’s Complicated:  The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” by Danah Boyd

Teen social media mistakes make headlines.

Parents fret about everything from cyberbullying to inappropriate comments that can bring their sons and daughters notoriety. The recent case at Rogers High School — a student tweeting an inappropriate joke about a teacher — is just the latest example.

But Danah Boyd, one of the best-known researchers studying this ever-evolving topic, says those fears are exaggerated and misplaced.

In her new book, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” she makes an argument that might ruffle a lot of parents: Kids are more sophisticated than parents think. They understand privacy for the most part, and are just seeking a place to be social with their friends, she contends.

Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft, talked about engaging teens on social media without stalking them.

Q: Parents bemoan how much time teenagers spend online. What is it about social media that draws teens?

A: There’s been an amazing transformation in American society in the last 30 years. In the 1980s we saw the rise of curfew laws. On top of that, we saw an increase in suburbanization in the United States and an increase in school choice. Public spaces are much more likely to be geographically at a distance from people’s homes. We shoo away young people all over the place, Mall of America being a classic example of that.

On top of it you have a culture of fear, you have a fear that young people being out in public is dangerous. All of this sort of bubbles up and then what you do see? [Social media] becomes a relief valve. It becomes a place you can gather with your friends. You don’t even have to try to sneak out of your house.

Q: Are teens really up to no good on social media?

A: It varies. What you see online is a reflection of what else is going on generally. Sometimes adults know this and sometimes adults don’t know what’s going on in young people’s lives.

This anxiety typically comes from wealthier communities where adults are really concerned about all the things their children have to lose — without recognizing that the flip side of this same coin is young people who are spending a lot of time putting materials online crying out for help.

What saddens me is that we spend so much time focusing on what privileged youth put up [online] that’s embarrassing [but] that, frankly, most of them will live down. We don’t take the time to pay attention to all of the young people who are vocalizing things that it’s so clear they need support.

Q: You think teens should be connected to adults online — parents, teachers, coaches. But that’s taboo in some instances. How do we make that happen?

A: For teachers who are willing to, create an account on whatever the popular social media is. Never, ever friend your students. That’s sketchy. But if your students friend you, say yes.

Take your password for that account and give it to your principal. Make it the same open-door policy that you would treat your classroom. Make everything say, “I’m going to stay above board, but I’m going to be here as a teacher, and if you turn to me as a teacher, I will be here for you.”

If you see something, as a teacher that’s inappropriate, rather than sort of flipping out on social media, approach the student the next day and go, “You know you friended me right? I do see what you post.”

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