My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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where are the people?

Following SXSW-Interactive, i rented a car and headed to suburbs outside of Austin to interview teens. Between my interviews, i drove around the different suburbs to check out what i could see. It was completely eerie. While the streets of Austin are overflowing with SXSW attendees, the suburbs are startlingly silent. During the 3+ hours of touring various neighborhoods, i saw a total of two kids outside (on their driveway). While this may make sense for a typical weekday, it’s spring break in Austin. It might also have made sense if the weather was dreadful, but both days were in the mid-70s. I saw numerous sprinklers watering grass, but there were no kids playing on the grass.

The explanations that i heard outside of Austin were like the ones i’ve heard so many times before:

  • “There’s nothing to do outside.”
  • “My parents won’t let me.” (Typically followed with a remark of what the parents are afraid of.)
  • “None of my friends live nearby.” (Typically followed by a comment on needing parents to drive them anywhere)

Sometimes, i hear comments about the fast-moving cars and the lack of sidewalks. In the cities, i hear about gang turf wars. In newer suburban neighborhoods, i hear about not knowing/trusting the neighbors. Whatever the excuse, i rarely hear teens talk about things that they do outside in open space. (Sports typically happen outside in closed space.)

My mother remembers getting lost on July 4th in the suburbs of New Jersey a few years back. She felt like she ran into the twilight zone. There were no BBQs, no picnics, no pickup football games, no family gatherings, no chalk on the streets, no nothing. Everyone was indoors.

This makes me sad, very very sad.

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10 comments to where are the people?

  • Ugh, ugh ugh. I grew up in suburban New York, like John Waters suburbia, and my childhood is full of memories of pool parties, barbecues, outside parties where all the adults got loaded, playing kickball in the street, hanging around at the lake where my girlfriend lifeguarded, running through people’s backyards hiding under their decks and behind their toolsheds and stuff to play manhunt (a kind of group hide-and-seek game which I played right up into my mid-20s), flirting with boys at neighborhood get-togethers, riding my bike around both with my parents and my girlfriends, and this wasn’t 1955, this was 1981-1994, the height of “Stranger Danger” and paranoia over satanic cult abuse. Of course, in my later years we were getting up to no good, but it was always outside. Inside is boring and your parents are there! I will point out that my parents were very anti-TV and we had one 12″ TV with no VCR until I was about 14; but I got *P (prodigy) in 1988 and my own computer in 1990 and I did spend lots of time online, but I just find this all so weird. Is it really like that everywhere? I might have kids but I will never live in the suburbs again.

  • The real telling question might be — if you had done your drive through, how many *adults* would you have seen outside? I remember growing up in the suburbs, on weekends helping my dad in the yard, and then following up with a game of neighborhood kickball or something. Or my parents puttering around while me and my sister played in the tree. Yes, sometimes my mom kicked us out of the house to go get some fresh air, but a lot of the times we’d go for a walk after dinner as a family.

    So… is it that youth is accustomed to staying inside, or everyone? I have to admit, later working hours, 2 working parents, and many, many more cars don’t seem to be favorable pre-conditions. I also wonder how much the increasinly structured nature of kids activities — more sports, camps, clubs, etc. kills the ability to just bum around the neighborhood.

  • joeblo

    Hmmm… I grew up there so I can say that 30 years ago we spent quite a bit of time outdoors. I can also say that I’ve noticed exactly what you have as I’ve gone back home over the years. Mentioning it to co-workers with kids, they see it to a lesser extent in Cali as well. Even here, I see more Koreans and East Indians out and about than I do the rare “natives”.

    I have a few observations, and a suggestion.

    First, depending on which suburbs you were wandering through they could be awfully new. There may not have even been time to develop a community. The growth rate has been astounding to the north south and even west, and most of it has been out of state immigration (even Houston and Dallas aren’t in Austin’s state of mind) so they may not know anyone. It’s like the newly built little-boxes of the real OC.

    The new neighborhoods that have been built just don’t seem to be built for kids. The twisty-turny-passages of a subdivision don’t have anywhere for the kids to hide from their parents. There are no trees, there is no creek, no caves, no swimming hole. There are barely even open green parks or public swimming pools any more. I guess the buyers must love ’em though.

    Spring break is a great time to be there, and a great time for SXSW with most of the uninterested students are out of town (how many highschoolers head to Padre?). The university students used to be the driving force of Austin as they brought with them different ideas, cultures, and desires. When there were only 100k or even 300k residents, the 20-50k university students changed the town as they studied, stayed, and raised their kids… now the recent inter-state immigrants dominate. The older neighbor hoods have a little bit more community, but they tend to be older with few kids too.

    You might also try some of the less expensive neighborhoods. I saw many more kids out in east Austin where they couldn’t afford a new Xbox, and mom just wanted them out of the house (so she could watch TV?). A lot of young parents can’t afford a home in the ‘burbs anyway, and rent in town. There’s university married student housing, but that’s pretty young, and now predominantly foreign (ahhh memories).

    It’s all a little discouraging, but I’d love to know where in town you went! If you want to ignore your friends for a slightly cultural couple of hours visit a free movie night at the Alamo… as if you’re lacking things to do:P

  • We actually spend a decent amount of time outside in our neighborhood, just hanging with the neighbors in our yards, but it took us about two years of getting to know each other, and each other’s kids… and all of our kids are between 6 months and 3 years old…

    Our neighborhood is in central austin, has lots of old trees to shade us, and we enjoy the neighbors.

    I’m not sure that’s true of the suburbs further out.

    One thing to keep in mind though about SXSW in Austin:

    Most “natives” stay away from SXSW, or are at the music events… meaning, if you drove around Austin looking for people on the weekend of SXSW, there’s a really good chance you won’t find anything.

    If they aren’t at SXSW with their kids, they’re probably out camping, playing ball at a ballpark, or something else. Most people in Austin do not just sit around… we’ve got great parks, lots of them, and lots to go do and see in the surrounding countryside… and the beach is only 3-4 hours away depending on how fast you drive… and there’s seven lakes to go have fun at within an hours drive.

    You picked a bad weekend to go looking for people not at SXSW.

  • joe

    That’s such an N of 1, no? How can you be sure that you knew there should have been kids outside?

  • Unfortunately, i’ve seen this in many more places than Austin. I was just hoping that the combination of weather and spring break would get people out and about to at least some degree. There is no doubt that the newer neighborhoods (such as the ones i toured in Round Rock) have no hiding places whatsoever… of course, that was where i saw the two children in their driveway. The other two places that i spent the bulk of my time were in the north east and due west. I was sticking to middle class neighborhoods intentionally. In the north east, i saw a few adults tending their grass/garden. In the west, i saw one adult walking a dog. I didn’t expect to see many adults because i was touring during weekdays, not weekends. In talking to the teens that i did interview, i got the sense that most of their friends were still in town for the week (although there seemed to be more plans for the upcoming weekend). The lack of familiarity with neighbors came more from those from newer neighborhoods (not surprisingly). None of the high school students that i talked to were doing SXSW or knew anyone who was because so much of it was 18+ or 21+; in downtown Austin, i saw no teens milling about but i wasn’t surprised by this.

    The problem is that i’ve done this kind of tour in every city i’ve visited for a long time now. I tend to see more people out after a fresh snow (plowing their driveways) than i do on a wonderful spring day. Can i say with statistical assurance that the numbers of people playing outdoors have gone down? No. But the eerie feeling i get when i enter non-commercial neighborhoods is increasing across the board. I find it much worse in newer suburban neighborhoods than in older suburban neighborhoods. While adults are often out in city neighborhoods, the fear keeps most kids indoors unless tethered to their parents. (In other words, this is not just a suburban thing. And it’s not just an Austin thing.)

    My grandfather is always remarking about how few kids are outside in his Long Island neighborhood (where old families move out and younger ones move in). It broke his heart a few years back when Halloween was officially cancelled for good. That was the one time he got to see all of the kids and all of the families on his street and he loved handing out candy.

    Anyhow, this is just one of those things that’s bugging me.

  • Steve

    Maybe I missed something, but I always thought Halloween was a traditional folk holiday, not a civic holiday. How could it be “cancelled”?

  • Sorry – Trick or Treat has been cancelled in many towns across the country out of fear that kids will be harmed by what might be in the candy that they receive.

  • We have similar issues in the UK. According to one “play advisor” I met kids in the UK have a footprint 80% smaller in range than kids did 20 years ago. That means on average they roam unaccompanied 80% less far than they did.

    The other salient fact was that at age 12 kids here are 2 years behind in cognitive learning terms than they were 20 years ago. The theory is that the reduced opportunities for unpredictable play has affected their learning abilities.

    As a dad of a 3 year old that is really scary.

    I explained it a little better here: http://www.gallomanor.com/2007/01/make_playground.html

  • I think you’ve articulated something that a lot of people have been feeling. I had the fortune of growing up in one of the then-modern (1970’s) subdivisions. We had trees and vacant lots and nearby woods, so as we got older we gravitated to these places or the one farmhouse with a barn. In return visits I still see kids playing outside. Ditto in other places I’ve lived.

    But these new subdivisions with no sidewalks, no playgrounds, and particularly no places to avoid the prying eyes of adults, are sterile and lifeless. I don’t understand why people want to move into these anonymous spaces, particularly when their kids can’t socialize with friends because (a) there’s nowhere to do it and (b) you make friends by meeting strangers and with no locations to play you don’t meet kids you don’t already know.

    This probably exacerbates stranger paranoia. I think Fast Food Nation hinted at some of this when talking about how cars and suburbs have influenced our culture. You’re on to the next level of pathology in an anonymized society – what’s it doing to the kids? Do you think that the urban renewal shift that’s going on is a reaction against this lonely style of living?