Category Archives: Growing Up Online

Posts related to kids growing up in a digital age: their use of social media, phones, tablets, and so forth.

Book Review: It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Book Cover of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boydI recently finished reading danah boyd’s1 excellent, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (non-affiliate link). boyd spent over a decade traveling around the United States interviewing teens about their use of social media and has combined these interviews with a lot of research into this amazing, wonderful, and enlightening book. The central message is exactly what I have been feeling and starting to express here: that the vast majority of the evils and ills of social media are vastly overblown by the media and by parents who are largely ignorant of what is really going on.

She divides the book into the following chapters:

  1. identity: why do teens seem strange online?
  2. privacy: why do youth share so publicly?
  3. addiction: what makes teens obsessed with social media?
  4. danger: are sexual predators lurking everywhere?
  5. bullying: is social media amplifying meanness and cruelty?
  6. inequality: can social media resolve social divisions?
  7. literacy: are today’s youth digital natives?
  8. searching for a public of their own

In each she uses a mixture of quotes from her interviews with teens, findings from research performed by her and others in this area, and then her own analysis. Her anecdotes are insightful, sometimes moving, and always interesting. And I was pleased to find that my own thoughts on these matters were validated by her research.

The central message of the book is, essentially, chill out. Every new technology brings with it a certain level of hysteria over how it is going to destroy the world, or at least lives, or eyesight, or any number of other fears. boyd points out how novels were seen as a dangerous thing for women in the 1800s, and TVwas dangerous in the 1950’s (and my other examples besides). Fear of new technologies, especially ones that the older generation does not understand, leads to a mass hysteria of how horrible and evil it is. 

The chapter on addiction really got my brain spinning. I’m thinking back to the parent who raised those panicky issues at that meeting at my son’s school a few weeks ago (as referenced in “Fear and Panic vs. Education and Common Sense”). As I mentioned, he spoke out about his great fear of social media addiction. He was very effusive about it and clearly very concerned. I refuted some of that line of thinking in that article but this particular chapter in boyd’s book coalesced my thinking even more.

Teens today have far less freedom than their parents did at that age. When I was in the second grade, I walked the half-mile-plus to school, going up over the top of the hill my neighborhood sat on to the mysterious land on the other side: the next neighborhood over. When my son was in the fourth grade, we finally, grudgingly, let him walk to school. His school was downhill from our house, three streets down. The walk takes about 5 minutes. And we tended to shadow him to make sure he was OK. boyd points out that teens today have also had many other freedoms removed as well, including places to hang out. Many modern development neighborhoods lack public parks, malls actively discourage teens from hanging out. (The local outdoor shopping center near my house, I am given to understand, will not entertain the idea of teen-centric stores going in because it will increase youth traffic. They also play music that the Weather Channel would refuse to play in the Local on the 8’s weather reports quite loud as a further deterrant. Judging by the crowds of teens there on weekend nights, it’s not working.)

We’ve since relaxed, a lot. My son spent much of his 7th grade year hanging out after school with his friends. Part of this hanging out was to actually leave campus and go over to  the main drag in that part of town city where the local college students tend to hang out. It has a fun mix of eclectic, trendy, and the usual assortment of chain stores. Their big thing was to go into CVS, buy milk, and then go back to school to hang out. This year, school has enacted a 3:45 rule that no one is allowed on campus after that time except for approved activities. Now he comes home early and only sees his friends on weekends, when schedules permit.

What does this leave him and the vast numbers of teens in the same situation? Social media. When a parent says that their kid is always online and being completely anti-social, they are completely missing the point. Their teens are being completely social. They are using the tools at hand to make up for what has been taken away from them from what they need as growing, developing adolescents. boyd points out that in those rare cases where teens really do show the signs of actual addiction, you have to ask what is the underlying causeIt’s not the technology. Take it away, and it will be something else.

Why are things this way? Why have teens had their freedoms taken away? Why do parents misinterpret why they are online so much? What’s really going on here? There are two key factors at play here: First, mainstream media is a business, first and foremost. The companies only survive by getting eyeballs. So, the stories that get printed are the stories that sell. Two girls abducted by someone on My Space? Headlines. Later discovering that they were lovers and trying to escape their parents and My Space had nothing to do with it? Hardly mentioned. Sensationalism sells. Noam Chomsky2 has written a great deal about how the media distorts the truth because it can only print the stories that the public accepts. If the common zeitgeist is that social media is bad and teens are in danger, that’s what they will print. Otherwise, they risk losing customers because they are no longer printing “the truth.” Somewhere along the way, the idea got out that the Internet was a scary place full of sexual predators and causing horrible addictions, and so forth and that meme stuck and now is accepted as the truth with no evidence to back it up. Just scanning my daily search agent for teens and social media this morning, I find articles blaming social media for out-breaks of eating disorders, infantilizing the brain, and other such things. It’s self-reinforcing and, while a book like boyd’s will help, it will take a lot more than just this book to adjust people’s mindsets. It may be that we simply have to wait a generation. (At which time, our kids will be railing against the new-fangled thing their kids are into!)

Some weeks back, a review of the book was posted to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website. One of the comments illustrates the tenacity of these memes beautifully. “Parents have gotten so lax, when the possibility of foul play is so huge, despite what this book states” (emphasis mine). I replied, “The book is well researched, thoroughly documented, and states, quite clearly, that the danger is way overblown. Do you have sources for your contention that boyd is underplaying the risk?”

boyd’s book is a healthy, and much needed, dose of common sense and it should be required reading for all parents of teens. Parents need to be informed about their kids social needs and about how the technology works. They also need to relax and stop locking their kids up inside in a misguided attempt to keep them safe. And they need to learn the difference between a new way of socializing and having friends and when someone is really in trouble. Then they can make informed decisions and we can all stop the knee-jerk reactions that aren’t helping anyone.

1 danah boyd on the capitalization of her name. (Jump back)

2 See and, particularly, this Huffpost article that does a good job of summarizing Chomsky’s controversial views in this area. (Jump back)

Technology at Home

iPhone with a text message being written reading, "You're going to be late."
“You’re going to be late.”

I may not have grown up with technology the way today’s kids do, but I got my first personal computer, an Atari 800XL, when I was 16 or so and taught myself to program it. I wrote my own version of Lunar Lander and a Mandelbrot set generator (where images about 300 pixels by 100 pixels took over 24 hours to generate) and then went on to a Computer Science degree in college. I’ve been online since I was 18 and have worked with technology non-stop since I left college and, later, grad school. My point is that technology is a fundamental part of my life. I use it for just about everything from writing to researching to communicating and leisure. And, of course, employment. I take this stuff for granted.

The other day, my wife and I were talking to another parent of an 8th grader. This other parent is older than we are and was talking about how in their house, they often text their teen rather than bellowing across the house. He told the story as if he were telling us some great parenting secret, some amazing technology at home tip he had discovered. How clever! We were amused but I later thought about this and realized that wired parents like us are the exception, not the rule. Sure, there are plenty of you out there (and I would guess that the readership of this blog would trend in that direction by virtue of the fact that this is online in the first place!) but there are even more parents for whom this technology is much more the Undiscovered Country than Main Street. It helps account for why there is so much misinformation about teen use of technology: many parents just don’t understand social media beyond their own interactions with their friends on Facebook.

We didn’t have the heart to tell this earnest parent how we use technology. He was so proud of his texting discovery. And that’s great! I’m glad he found a use for technology that brings him closer to his teen in their world, rather than doing what a lot of parents do: refuse to meet their kids part-way.  I am not advocating that all interactions take place online. Rather, where the tools can make things better, they should be used. Here are some examples of ways we have used technology in our family:

  • Texting: Texting is insanely useful. Especially when our son is taking forever in the bathroom in the morning with the fan going, the heater going, and the music playing. Bonus: we can hear his phone vibrate on the sink so we know he got the message! It keeps us from bellowing across the house. And it is very useful when he has what has become a weekly sleepover with his best friend. It’s 2AM and they have woken me up being loud down in the basement/family room. I’m exhausted and half asleep. If I get out of bed to walk to the top of the stairs to call down to them, I’ll wake up fully. Instead, I roll over and text, “You woke me up. Be quiet.” He even knows not to text back a reply. They just get quiet. I go back to sleep.
  • Following: There is a fine line between keeping tabs on your child and violating their privacy. We follow our son on all of the various social media sites he is on. He gets annoyed at times about this but our policy is that when he was 13, when he first was allowed to go online and join these sites, he had no privacy at all and by the time he is about 16 or 17, he will have complete privacy. Between here and there is a spectrum of gradually increasing privacy. He’s 14 now and we’ve backed off somewhat. We read what he posts but we only spot check his conversations in any public space (Instagram comments and stuff like that). A few times he’s crossed one or another line and we made him delete the offending comment and explained the issue we had with it. Not in an angry, punishing way, but simply to educate him and explain how certain types of comments or behaviors can be damaging to him or hurtful to others. As a bonus, he posts regular pictures to Instagram of his art projects at school. Since, like all teens, his only report about school when we pick him up is that it was “fine,” these pictures are one of our only ways to follow the development of these projects.
  • Find My Phone/Find Friends: These two bits of stalker-ware from Apple are insanely useful. Our son’s school is in the part of town that hosts a number of colleges. Two blocks from school is the “main drag” with stores, restaurants, street vendors, and more that is heavily trafficked by college kids. Our son likes to wander that street with his friends after school (before you judge, read “Free Range Kids” (non-affiliate link) and then come talk to me.) He knows how to get to and from school but is lousy at being able to tell you on the phone where he actually is at any given moment. And since all the streets are one-way around there, it is nearly impossible to pick him up without knowing exactly where he is. Enter these apps. More than once my wife is in the car trying to pick him up and I’m at home on my iPad tracking his movements and telling my wife where to go to find him. Works every time! This is also useful for when he goes on walks around the neighborhood and I want to check up on his location without calling him and making him feel like we’re watching him (though, to be honest, I think I only did this the first time he went out alone like that). As an added bonus, the Find My Phone app allows you to make the other phone emit a loud, piercing set of beeps (you know, to help you find it). When I am waiting outside of school to pick him up and he’s clearly gotten lost talking to his friends and forgotten the time and cannot hear his phone (because it is probably in silent mode from being in school all day), I can make his phone make a loud beep anyway to get his attention.

There’s more but this gives you an idea of some ways we’ve found technology helps us all out. We’re still struggling with the concept of phone numbers and calendar events. I haven’t included him in any of our shared calendars or address books because I am scared he will accidentally delete something critical like, say, a job interview or a doctor’s appointment or something. I should get over it and either trust him or find a read-only solution. More than once it has been a problem that he hasn’t known about a given upcoming event or had a key phone number handy. Clearly there’s room to grow.

And lest you think we are all tech, all the time, we are big fans of shutting it all down and spending some quality family time together. You know, father and son sitting across from each other playing some Magic: The Gathering. Using the phone as a score keeper.

Fear and Panic vs. Education and Common Sense

The Scream, painting by Edvard Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch

I mentioned last week that I’d been to a meeting at my son’s school that talked about the current state of teen social media usage. One of the more interesting, and somewhat disheartening things that happened at the meeting was what I can politely call “concern” and more snarkily call “fear and panic” coming from one of the parents. When talking about Instagram, he asked whether kids know about not geotagging their pictures so that the wrong people cannot find them. When talking about Facebook and Twitter, he asked about the bullying that goes on there. When talking about phones and tablets, he described kids as being addicted to their devices, that they shake and get upset if it is taken away from them (thus showing all the clinical signs of addiction). I initially just did a mental shrug and waited for the conversation to get back on track. But then other parents began saying things like, “Thank you!” (emphatically!) for bringing these important issues up. I saw how fear and panic spreads among parents who are unfamiliar with technology or who base their knowledge on what they hear on the Six O’Clock News (“Coming up at six, are your children downloading drugs from the Googles? Up first, some pictures of a cute puppy!”) The solution is education and some good old fashioned common sense.

Parents today came of age in a time when computer and Internet use was left to the geeks. Now that it has all gone mainstream, these same people who avoided these things are getting phones, tablets, and  computers but do not have the depth of knowledge, experience, or understanding that those of us who have been doing this for decades have. Facebook and a few other apps, and, before that, America Online, are all they really know. This lack of knowledge creates the classic situation of fear of the unknown. And this is compounded by the fact that their kids know so much more about it than they do because they are growing up with it all.

Because so many parents know so little, they fear so much. And because the media (largely filled with the same people with the same fears) reinforce both the ignorance and the fears, a negative feedback loop is created. The solution is, of course, education. I know it is hard to tell someone who is as busy as today’s typical parent is that they have to learn more about something but it is a responsibility of parents to do so. By not understanding, they cannot properly guide their children. Worse, they may simply just refuse to let their kids use these things because of this ignorance and potentially remove an essential part of their growing up into a modern, digital culture.

There will be some natural road blocks, of course, Not everyone can really get comfortable with some of the new technologies, especially if they have had little prior exposure. For these folks, the antidote is to at least be informed. They should know what the real risks and issues are and know where to get good information when they come across a new-to-them situation. (I humbly submit that, in time, this site should become exactly that.)

Going back to the specific fears raised by this one parent, I want to take each of the three and examine them more closely.

Regarding the geolocation aspect, I’ve run into this before. When I was a Cub Scout Den Leader a few years ago (was my son ever that little?) there was a lot of worry about putting pictures of the kids on our website. While I agreed that we not put any names with any pictures, I thought it silly to never put any pictures online. The standard fear was some creep online, seeing a picture of one of the boys would find out who he was and where he lived, and then something awful might happen. While I am sure there are such awful people out there, there are two easy counters to this argument: First, I think the danger is much greater in one’s own neighborhood. Most predators take the path of least resistance and thinking that someone is going to do all that detective work and then travel is unlikely (not impossible, just unlikely). Second, the vast majority of predation is perpetrated  by relatives or other people the child already knows. In either case, the real answer is the same: teach your children to be smart. Teach them what to do if they are approached. Teach them what kinds of things strangers might ask them to do. Teach them to never be alone with a stranger, etc. In other words, teach them common sense. Teens posting pictures and leaving the geolocation turned on can be an issue but let’s not overreact and make it the only problem, or even the most important problem. If we do, then we ignore the larger issue of educating our kids to be smart and safe.

Regarding the bullying aspect, a lot has been written about this but I think the best counter was the two high school students who came to present the apps they use to the parents at the meeting. They said that, sure, sometimes people say some mean things online but it’s usually out of ignorance or due to their attempt at sarcasm or irony not coming through in their writing. Systemic bullying hasn’t been an issue of note. It helps that the teachers are involved and ask the students to keep them in the loop about things like this. Again, it does happen but the incidence is far lower than we are lead to believe. And, again, the solution is education. Parents need to be aware and they need to teach their kids how to handle bullying in any form (online or offline). In fact, bullying online can be actually easier to handle because a screen capture can be made of any online bullying so that even if offending posts are deleted, there is still evidence of the bullying. In the physical world, you rarely have that kind of proof and accusations of bullying turn into he said-she said situations.

Finally, regarding addiction to the phones and to being online, there are a number of different answers here. While I am sure (as with everything else in life) there are some who are addicted and who freak out if they cannot access things at times, the solution (as with everything else in life) is to teach moderation. Children need boundaries and solid rules. They do not need to be draconic rules but some that are quite straightforward. For example, in our family if one of us is talking to our son, he should pay attention to us and put the phone down. If he is in the middle of something with someone online, he is to tell them he has to go for a few and then speak to us and not respond if his phone buzzes. When he is doing homework and when we are having dinner he is also not to be socializing with anyone online. Some families go farther and require electronics to get turned over to parents an hour before bed so there is some offline time.

There is another side to this issue. All of the negative reactions appear to assume that there is something fundamentally less real about online socializing than real world socializing. Parents tell them to get off the phone and engage in the real world and don’t understand why this upsets their teens. My son called me on this recently and he was right to do so. From his perspective, there is nothing at all more or less real about his online and offline friends. In fact, in many cases, his online friends (even those he has never met in person) are as real as real can be for him. We live in a neighborhood where, through a twist of demographic fate, there are no kids his age who live nearby. His school friends are miles away and friends from other activities are similarly far away. On a day to day basis, his at-home socializing (what was, for my generation, going out and playing with the kids down the street) is this online world. To refer to his online interactions as not being real is to send a really bad message to him and invalidate his entire social life. We do tell him  that he needs to give priority to people in the same physical place as he is and to treat video chats as if that person was physically coming into our house. In other words, ask our permission first. (And we also make sure we wear bathrobes now if we aren’t dressed for the day yet. Just in case.)

My point in all of this is not to deny that there are problems and downsides to teen use of social media. As with everything, it is the job of parents to help their children become citizens of the world, including the online world. This means that it falls to parents to learn as much as they can or at least be as informed as possible. It also means that the usual rules of social interactions and personal safety apply to online and offline behavior equally. Teach your children how to be self aware, polite, smart, safe, and to be good, empathetic and compassionate people. It will benefit them offline and on.

The Digital Nomads

I have been trying to pin down exactly where social media use is happening. As much as I complain about it (and there’s lots to complain about), Facebook is where the majority of my generation is. Twitter too, though to a lesser extent. But as both a concerned parent as well as someone who works in the social media mobile app development space, I am trying to understand where things are headed. So, where is the next generation?

Photo of Instagram Profile Page on the Web

The answer is fascinating. Looking at the teenagers in my household (sample size of 1), we’ve had an interesting shift over the last year. Before his 13th birthday (almost a year ago) he begged us for a Facebook account. As I have written previously we were not going to let him have one until his 13th birthday. Well, said birthday rolled around and he had no interest in Facebook at all. At that time, all his friends were on Google+ and using it and Google+ Hangouts was The Thing. A few months later, he finally got interested in a Facebook account again and we got him set up. For a little while, Facebook was all the rage. And then the digital nomads moved on again and found new hunting grounds. Last I checked (a few days ago), they were using a combination of Tumblr, Skype, Instagram, YouTube, and plain old SMS. I’m sure if I looked tomorrow, it will have changed again. Meanwhile, friends of ours out in Seattle report that their son (slightly older) uses Facebook almost exclusively. However, that is, in large part, because the teens at his school have figured out that creating closed groups to talk about various classes is a great way to help each other out with homework, catch people up who were out sick, share notes, and more.

I attended a meeting for a parents group at my son’s school last night. The topic was the current state of social media use among the middle school and high school students and I went to see if what they were seeing echoes what I’ve been seeing. They are, mostly. Among the middle school students (including my son), Instagram and SnapChat are the most important apps in use. In the high school, it is the same list but Twitter is in generally heavy use as well. Few are using Facebook anymore. It is perceived as being for old people (that’s their parents).

My view, colored by having just finished a wonderful book called Genghis Khan And the Making of the Modern World, is that teens today are nomads, like the Mongols. While the old people (their parents) live in the big cities (Facebook and… well, Facebook), they are out on the plains moving from location to location, following the good hunting. They’ll set up shop on a few social media apps and stay there for a time. At some point, something new will come along or enough of their friends will have moved off for some or other reason, and they will pull up the tent stakes and head on to new things. Essentially, they are wherever is convenient at the given moment. It is wherever their friends are. It is wherever they can get together effectively and have a good time. In short, they’re all over the place.

And that makes a certain kind of sense. The adults came of age either before any of these apps existed (even before the web existed) and Facebook was the first real place where we could find all of our friends and virtually hang out (it could be argued that MySpace or even Friendster were but neither existed when the critical mass was reached). We have the inertia of everyone being there knowing that moving to a new system only works if they come with us, which is not likely. Teens, however, have none of that. They flit from app to app, hanging out with whoever is there at any given moment, making new friends, finding their current friends, and then moving on when something new comes along. It will be interesting to see if they settle down in their generation’s version of a Facebook (or, of course, on Facebook itself) when they get older or if this is the pattern of things to come.

The biggest challenge of any parent in this day and age is keeping up with their teenagers. I feel like I am joining a new service every other week or so. Just today, I joined (go ahead, ask me a question, I’ve not had time to use it yet) because I saw that my son had (and only because he posted about it on Instagram, and I only knew about that because I set up an If This Than That rule that emails me every time he posts something to Instagram. You following all of this?) And, in a strange way, I find I am becoming a bit of a digital nomad myself as I try to keep up with my son and where he roams online.