It’s not often that a book is best described as compassionate, but that seems to me the most apt word for It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, recently out from the technology researcher (and lover of lowercase) danah boyd. (The hard copy’s $25, but you can also download a free PDF of the full book at this link, for reasons that boyd explains here.) Adults are often writing about teenagers — how they think teenagers should behave, how they vaguely imagine that teenagers do behave (whether based on a few articles they read or the anecdotal sample of their own children or foggy memories of their own learner’s permit days). It is rarer that adults take the time to talk to teenagers, not merely as fodder for quotes, but as genuine sources of insight into their own lives. What I most admired about It’s Complicated is that it is based on nearly a decade of close observation and interviews with teenagers from a wide array of backgrounds, all around the country — Los Angeles to Nashville, Kansas City to Massachusetts. Not a finding is advanced without a basis in teenagers’ own experiences, and even better, not a finding is advanced without some consideration of the role of race, class, region, and other social variables.
I don’t mean to give the impression that the book is merely an uncritical summary of what teenagers say. Boyd candidly acknowledges that young people have, in some ways, a necessarily limited perspective on technological and social changes that they, because of their age and generation, take for granted. But what young people are experts on is their own experiences. And boyd really seems to care about her young interlocutors — and their feelings, their aspirations, their worries — and to take them seriously, on their own terms, rather than imposing some external or one-size-fits-all metric of success upon them. From nitty-gritty details of how teenagers interpret particular Facebook checkboxes to bigger-picture ideas about friendship and gossip, freedom and fear, there is much to learn in this book about how teenagers think and act simply because boyd went out and asked them, and asked enough of them that I felt confident in the accuracy of her findings.
I might write more on one of boyd’s central arguments, that teens have such active and tumultuous online lives in part because of legal and cultural changes that have constricted their physical freedom and mobility. But in the meantime, I wanted to write this post just to alert others to the book. It’s a quick and engaging read, and I highly recommend it for anyone remotely connected to academia, if only because academic institutions tend to be filled with teenagers (and recent teenagers). In my ideal world, this book would find wide readership among every profession whose members work with young people: police officers, judges, criminal and juvenile justice lawyers, social workers, youth ministers, high school teachers and college professors, “student life” administrators and the like, etc. It just provides a much more textured, grounded, and believable portrait of how young people use and engage with social media and communications technology than I’ve seen anywhere else in a single short volume. (And it’s not just about teenagers — I recognized myself in many of the dilemmas teenagers face in trying to balance professional vs. personal on social media and navigate the new permanency of ephemeral communications.)
From a scholarly perspective, I had some problems with the book, particularly its tendency to lapse into “for all time”-type formulations — references to “age-old teen goal[s]” (91) or the way “teens have always been” (212). As boyd herself gestures towards in her brief discussion of G. Stanley Hall (93), the great Progressive Era popularizer of the very idea of “adolescence,” there is a long and complicated history of how teenagers came to be defined as a discrete group undergoing a distinctive life stage, and certainly no such thing as a timeless or transcultural teenager (which is not to deny certain biological realities of the life course, only to deny that those realities have always been understood and structured in the same way). Even within our own time, ideas about what it means to be a teenager can vary quite a bit based on who is invoking the ideas and which young person they are applying the ideas to. Similarly, historians of science may cringe at some of the book’s necessary simplifications of debates about technological determinism.
But I say necessary simplifications because this is not really a book for historians of childhood or of science (qua historians, anyway — it certainly could be useful to them in their capacity as teachers), and its simplifications are better understood as colloquialisms in the service of the book’s intended audience, which is very broad. Boyd writes that she hopes to reach “scholars and students, parents and educators, journalists and librarians,” whether or not they are conversant in all of the various academic literatures underpinning her claims (26). In that light, what boyd presumably means when she says that teenagers “have always” done thing X or Y is not that humans who happen to be aged 13 to 19 have literally behaved in the exact same way for all time, but rather that they haven’t changed quite so much in recent memory within modern American culture as the “kids today” chorus would have you believe.
For college professors, the most directly applicable section is chapter 7, “Literacy,” in which boyd dismantles the popular myth that teenagers “automatically understand new technologies” (176) and are somehow innately capable of adeptly navigating the reams of information available to them. As education expert Sam Wineburg has observed, “Today, when information bombards young people from all sides, the question is not where to find it, but once found, whether it should be believed.” And as boyd emphasizes, having the knowledge and skills (not to mention the equipment and stability of wifi connection) to post prom pics to Instagram or maintain an active Snapchat correspondence does not necessarily translate into sophisticated mastery of online research, or for that matter, even rudimentary mastery.
I thought I was already appropriately skeptical of “digital native” talk before reading this book, but even still, some of boyd’s findings in this chapter were frankly rather startling to me. “Many teens I met,” she writes, “assumed that someone verifies every link that Google shares” (184). In other words, they had simply no understanding of what a search engine is and how results are generated, much less an appreciation for the nuances of Google’s algorithms and how Google’s profit imperative plays into the development of those algorithms. One thirteen-year-old tells the author that she eschews Wikipedia, because “‘it’s not true,'” and instead “‘usually go[es] on Google.’” This student, based on guidance from her teachers, assumed “that anything that appeared at the top of the Google result page must be true” (183). Boyd also reports that “virtually none” of these students she met knew that it’s possible to view the edit history behind a Wikipedia article (191).
Such findings highlight the importance of giving students explicit, sustained, and repeated instruction in how to navigate information, beyond simply “use Google” — lessons in how to identify the person or institution behind a website, what types of sites are more likely to be reliable than others, how to construct sophisticated Google searches and when Google might not actually be the best starting point, etc. For example, Tona Hangen does a great assignment in which she requires her history students at Worcester State to explore underneath the hood of Wikipedia. By reviewing the edit history and discussion pages behind a Wikipedia article, students gain a nuts-and-bolts familiarity with how the articles come to be, how to evaluate their biases, and what Wikipedia is and isn’t good for. In line with boyd’s findings, Hangen reports that her students find the exercise illuminating. As one wrote, “In high school, I was always banned from using it as a source … But after completing this project I have learned that when used properly, Wikipedia can be a valuable source … I never knew you could view the history of who edited the article until working on this.”
Tentative postscript: As boyd notes, commentators often seem to assume that kids born into the digital world have an advantage in navigating that world. But I almost wonder if they don’t have, in some ways, an affirmative disadvantage. Kids born after about 1995, certainly 2000, don’t remember any time before the Internet was a pretty dominant part of daily life. So whatever the informational structure of the Internet is, it seems sort of natural, “the way things are.” In contrast, my generation (born in the 1980s) grew up with the Internet, watching in real time as information was steadily placed there and became easier to find through the refinement of search engines; we followed as Google developed into what it is today; we retain some memory of which sources of information used to be authoritative in the pre-Internet days. Maybe I’m just imprisoned in my own perspective here, but I do think that having actually watched everything from university home pages to NYTimes.com to Wikipedia to Google develop helped me gain some appreciation of how information got onto the Web, who put it there, and what still isn’t there. I’m, to be sure, not that old, but I’m old enough (if barely) to remember when a research paper required consulting the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and other library-based references of that sort, and therefore the whole idea of there being a hierarchy to information and where it comes from just seems (for better or worse) pretty intuitive to me and something I superimpose over the digital realm. This perspective can certainly be a detriment to the extent that it leads we quasi-olds to be unduly skeptical of Web sources, but has its upsides insofar as that skepticism is often warranted. If this (very tentative) supposition of mine is true, then perhaps the upshot is that lessons in Internet literacy also need to include a heavy dose of Internet history, with field trips into the Wayback Machine.