My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and 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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answers to questions from Twitter on teen practices

Before I headed to Atlanta to do fieldwork, I asked folks who follow me on Twitter (@zephoria) what questions I should ask teens. Many of the questions that I received were more general questions about teens, rather than questions for teens. Still, I’m going to take a stab at very briefly answering some of the questions that I received based on what I know and what I learned. I am not answering the larger questions that would require pages and pages and my apologies if my short answers are not sufficient but I wanted to at least respond. Thank you all who contributed questions and my apologies if I didn’t answer yours.

To all who asked questions about Twitter: average teens don’t use Twitter. They may in the future, but they do not now. Those who do are early adopters and not representative of any mainstream teen practice. Because of Oprah and celebs, some teens are starting to hear about it, but they don’t understand it and they aren’t using it.

@connyb: Parents’ concerned with what kids do online, right? I’d ask teens if they know what exactly their parents do at their dayjobs.

Teens do not tend to know exactly what their parents do, nor do they particularly care. (It’s important to note that parental concern stems from a position of power, not interest in the actual activities.)

@mauraweb: when they’re searching for info, how do they know what info to trust? esp. w/internet searches

Media literacy amongst teens is extremely varied, but the short answer is that most don’t know what to trust. They know that they are not supposed to trust Wikipedia because it’s editable (and they automatically recall Wikipedia when you ask about trustworthy information.. that’s so actively hammered down their throat, it’s painful). One girl told me that she trusts websites that “look” like they are reputable. When I asked her about this, she told me that she could “just tell” when something was a good source. And besides, it came from Google. Le sigh.

@AlterSeekers: According to Facebook Era, Teens see email as a “work” tool and prefer to Facebook message. Is this true among these teens?

I was surprised to find that email is deader than ever among teens. As more of their parents and teachers are getting on Facebook (or MySpace), they see little reason to email with anyone. Thus, email is increasingly needed for having an account on various sites and for getting access to or sending attachments. But even when teens do use email for “work”, they do not use it for social purposes.

@mirroredpool: What borders to teens place of social networking sites and education? How would they react to using an SNS to do class work?

@annejonas: i’m curious if they want schools involved in social networks or if they like it as a social space outside the realm of formal edu.

This is messy. Many teens have ZERO interest in interacting with teachers on social network sites, but there are also quite a few who are interested in interacting with SOME teachers there. Still, this is primarily a social space and their interactions with teachers are primarily to get more general advice and help. In some ways, its biggest asset in the classroom is the way in which its not a classroom tool and not loaded this way. Given that teens don’t Friend all of their classmates, there are major issues in terms of using this for groupwork because of boundary issues.

@shcdean: What future do they see for FB or Twitter.

They don’t use Twitter. When asked, teens always say that they’ll use their preferred social network site (or social media service) FOREVER as a sign of their passion for it now. If they expect that they’ll “grow out of it”, it’s a sign that the service is waning among that group at this very moment. So they’re not a good predictor of their own future usage.

@lazygal: Do they really care about/use school library websites? Twitter? Pageflakes? Libguides? or only if teacher insists?

Nope, they don’t. All but Twitter are categorized as school tools and are only used when absolutely necessary and Google won’t suffice.

@anindita: My favorite question: read anything good lately?

I asked “Recent book that you enjoyed” on my questionnaire. Half said “none” and most said books they read in school (with a *). Books that were mentioned: City of Bones, Ashes & Glass, A Year of Impossible Goodbyes, The Outsiders*, Drama High Series, Mice and Men*, Catcher in the Rye*, The Poisonwood Bible*, Twilight series (twice).

@texas_sooner: I’d be interested to know if teens denied access to SNS (by parents/choice/SES reasons etc ) feel left out/pressure to join, etc.

Parental restrictions are a huge source of frustration because of a sense of isolation. (As a result, they are typically ignored.) SES is not actually a predictor of non-use at this point except in more rural regions where Internet access is generally absent for the majority of teens. In these cases, teens don’t feel left out because they aren’t being socially isolated by it.

@SavvyPriya: what is one thing that teens are passionate about?

This varies across teens, but God comes up a lot. The only thing that really competes is friends. Family is also important to some teens. School and sports are also important to some teens. And then some teens have particular hobbies or activities that they love. But God and friends really dominate the passion list.

@paullowe: where do they get their news from and what kind of news do they want to get

Teens primarily get their news from word-of-mouth, not directly from any particular source. School current events and TV time are the other dominant place I hear about. Otherwise, it’s generally osmosis. They walk through the living room when their parents are watching the news. Or they pass by a news article when they get online. But they are not directly and intentionally consuming much news at all.

@thornet: ask ‘em how they judge whether a news outlet is credible.teens r good @ spotting fakes & phonies;wonder what their news criteria r

They don’t watch a lot of news and they have no media literacy training and they’re not even thinking about credibility of news.

@andrewmiller: how does having a smartphone change their interactions w/each other on SNS? more photos/videos? faster rumors? have/have-not gap?

A gap is definitely occurring. A smart phone means more more more more more – more SMS, more web consumption, more status updates, more photos, etc. Certain smart phones are desperately desired items. That said, teens are also doing quite well with the iPod Touch + wifi as an alternative. Smart phones are helping them stay more engaged and connected.

@shawncalhoun: Were teens more engaged in politics by Obamas #socialmedia storm? If so has engagmnt continued evolved in2 something new or faded?

Most teens are pretty oblivious to his social media practices. That’s actually hitting the college/20-somethings more.

@alexleavitt: Ask them if they feel like they’ll want to develop the social Net when they get older: eg., developers developers developers.

No. Most don’t associate using social media with computer science or developing software whatsoever. And the classes on programming in their schools aren’t helping.

@pbernard: do they still care about changing the ringtone on their phone, even though they make less and less calls?

Ringtones are tricky with American youth because it very much depends on who pays for the phone/ringtones. Among teens who can change their ringtones whenever they want, there’s still motivation. The phone still rings (and beeps with new SMSes) and having a cool sound is desired. But of course many teens spend most of their day with their phones on buzz-only.

@harraton: Do they care about their privacy?

VERY much so. But what constitutes privacy for them is often quite different than what constitutes privacy for adults. Privacy is not dead.

@simonchambers: I’d ask how they see themselves helping to solve problems like climate change and extreme poverty…

They don’t. Most teens are not that engaged with larger societal issues (except as activities to get into college). This makes sense – they are not part of public life. They have no voice. They don’t hear the debates. They aren’t exposed to much beyond their narrow worlds. And, for most of them, their parents aren’t involved either.

@dougthomas: Teens; what are their thoughts about downloading songs? films? software? without paying for it.

They want access. Their parents won’t pay for it. They don’t have credit cards. They get what they are looking for by any means necessary. And those who get access to it traffic in that content among their peers who may be less technologically savvy/economically privileged.

@jamesb: how does their mobile contacts differ from social network contacts? When do they crossover?

Mobile consists of their closest friends because of the economics of the phone. Social network sites are their broader peer group. Their closest friends are a subset of their broader peer group.

@alfredtwo: Do teens view all adults in social networking the same or are parents a special case? Young relatives friend me not their parents

Depends on the teen, but many are happy to connect with adults who don’t directly hold power over them or who they “trust” – aunts, older cousins, youth pastors, “cool” teachers, etc.

@mjmantey: how aware are they of general advertising/marketing ways and means?

If it has advertising, they think that it means that it’ll be free for a long time. But they don’t really think much about it.

@mojo_girl: how many email accounts do they have that parents don’t know about- do they use same password 4 all #socialmedia ? #teens

They don’t use email so it’s more a matter of which ones they forgot about. They often forget their passwords so I would guess that they don’t use the same password consistently. Of course, they also share certain passwords with their closest “trusted” friends so that gets messy really fast. And they change it when there’s a breakup.

@matlockmatlock: OMGSEXTINGWTF?

Continuing to be present and very very messy. Sharing of naked photos seems to be more prevalent in certain teen groups than others and I’m still trying to work out what this means.

An interesting question from the comments:

maxoid: is there any data on teen usage of Capitalization and proper grammar vs. SMS-shorthand and all-lowercase? (is format now used as a way to stand out from adults as much as langauge has long been?)

You can definitely look to certain subcultural practices to witness distinctions, such as the culture around AzN pRiDe. But there are huge differences between linguistic practices that are meant to be distinct and culturally resistant (such as those that are actually hard to produce) and those that are meant to make communication easier (fast IMing) or accommodate techno-economic limitations (160 chars). It’s important to remember that a lot of our writing (and speaking) is intentionally redundant to account for issues in hearing and penmanship. With typing, a lot of this falls by the wayside and it’s hard to argue against shorthand except to cling to inertia. Language changes. New genres of media change language. Expect things to change. Expect new generations to be pulled between what they will see as “obvious” shifts and what they’ll be forced to accommodate by those who demand status quo.

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27 comments to answers to questions from Twitter on teen practices

  • Hi, danah, love these short questions and answers, although I know there are lots of variations . . . these strike me as right on the mark! Thank you everyone for the questions and danah for some useful answers. The one I really love is that parents who take interest in kids’ activities do so because of “power” which might also be called “parental love” (and that usage is, for most teens, exactly the issue–where is the line?). Really interested in how unseen and unexamined power makes and marks “concern” and “interest” not only in parents and teens but in global power relations, in inter-class race and class relations, in teacher-student, and, of course, in gender. All that! Thanks again cat

  • Seems to me, young people, & any person with low levels of resourcing, make use of the most economical means at their disposal. For NZ young people this means texting is the medium of choice, the pricing wars between the telecos keep it cheap. But my Japanese exchange student here is used to an email via mobile ph culture and my daughter who has gone to Japan has now transferred to this medium. Its all about what works economically creating prevalence, as well as transferability of skills. The smarter the mobile, the better as this affords flexibility for sms or email or updating the preferred social networking site. Whats used on the mobile is restricted though by costs involved.
    The use of the social networking site by friended adults is still contentious. Seems to me the expectation is you can visit but dont impose your own standards or you wont be welcome back. A territorial encounter is negotiated of whose space it is and what can be done inside of it. One of few spaces where a young person has exclusive ownership rights, if they dont like whats done in their space they can ignore you, unfriend you, have friends who set the tone, or create a ‘fictional’ space for the grownups benefit while maintaining the ‘real’ one with friends.

  • Great stuff, danah (and question askers). I have two questions for you…
    1) “Friend” — the verb. You capitalized it?
    2) How do you feel about your role as an intermediary between us and teens?

  • marek

    These short, sharp answers are wonderfully illuminating. Many of them prompt a desire to know more, but one in particular left me hoping you could expand just a bit:

    @harraton: Do they care about their privacy?

    VERY much so. But what constitutes privacy for them is often quite different than what constitutes privacy for adults. Privacy is not dead.

    Could you say a little about what your work is showing ‘constitutes privacy for them’?

  • jens

    God and no media litarcy training – enlightment 2.0 still has a lot of work to do.

  • samu

    I was about to ask the same question as marek; what constitutes privacy for them? What do you think are the relative likelihoods of their definition becoming the new standard on one hand, and changing as they age on the other?

    Fantastic post; very thought-provoking. Thanks.

  • Pablo

    A few quick thoughts in the early morn:

    1. My parents monitor my little sister (elementary school) online a lot more than mine or my brothers’ were monitored, because she is a girl. She asked me (the cool “other”…dang cool, as she might say) to help her set up a MySpace profile about 4 months ago, which required her setting up a gmail as well. Her friends had apparently been on it for some time. She was frustrated, as you say, by my parents reluctance to allow it. I helped her, and then gave the passwords to my mom. She is, after all, my baby sister.

    2. My little brother (middle school) set up a Facebook profile last year to pose some questions to the experts. At the time (December), he didn’t have a single first-life friend his age on the platform. Now, all of his friends and his teachers have joined. Common practice these middle schoolers: Join the HS network.

    3. Your site looks plenty trustworthy-enough for me.

  • “@alfredtwo: Do teens view all adults in social networking the same or are parents a special case? Young relatives friend me not their parents

    Depends on the teen, but many are happy to connect with adults who don’t directly hold power over them or who they “trust” – aunts, older cousins, youth pastors, “cool” teachers, etc.”

    When I taught I found this to be a vicious cycle between teens and their parents (or others with power over them). As the parent (or other authority figure) felt more left out, he or she exerted more authority. As the teen felt more constricted by the authority or felt more invasions into privacy, he or she would shut the authority figure out.

    When teens began to include their parents just by agreeing to do more activities with their parents and by talking about their day and their friends, they were afforded more freedom, because their parents felt they knew what was going on in their lives and could trust them.

  • Schloss – I try to capitalize Friend when referring to the SNSs so as to distinguish between the terms on the site and the terms in everyday practices.

    Pablo – gender plays a salient role in parent/youth dynamics. Girls are typically monitored more because they are seen as more vulnerable. Unfortunately, this tends to start a pretty nasty cycle of gender imbalance, dependency, resistance, etc. That’s a topic for a much longer paper.

    Marek/Samu – the issue of privacy differences is precisely why I went back into the field. I’m still analyzing my data on this and hope to put out a much longer explanation in the future. It is a theme that runs through my dissertation if you want to dive into that topic more. http://www.danah.org/papers/TakenOutOfContext.pdf

  • I’ve been reading and writing about music marketing. To create a database of fans, musicians are encouraged to collect email addresses, both online and at shows. These days many are offering free music in exchange for contact info.

    So if teens aren’t using email these days, is it possible to gather information on who they are and how to contact them? And if so, what is the best way to go about it?

  • is there any data on teen usage of Capitalization and proper grammar vs. SMS-shorthand and all-lowercase? my guess is such things are reserved only for school writings and even then perhaps poorly understood/improperly utilized, but i’m curious if format is now used as a way to stand out from adults as much as langauge has long been.

  • Maxoid – you can definitely look to certain subcultural practices to witness distinctions, such as the culture around AzN pRiDe. But there are huge differences between linguistic practices that are meant to be distinct and culturally resistant (such as those that are actually hard to produce) and those that are meant to make communication easier (fast IMing) or accommodate techno-economic limitations (160 chars). It’s important to remember that a lot of our writing (and speaking) is intentionally redundant to account for issues in hearing and penmanship. With typing, a lot of this falls by the wayside and it’s hard to argue against shorthand except to cling to inertia. Language changes. New genres of media change language. Expect things to change. Expect new generations to be pulled between what they will see as “obvious” shifts and what they’ll be forced to accommodate by those who demand status quo.

  • zephoria – oh, i quite support changes in language–in fact i’m pretty sure it’s a given, and is accellerating. shorthand is especially fascinating and reveals much about the intended audience as well as the speaker, aZn-ness being a great example…

    the reason i ask: it occured to me teens right now probably do most, perhaps all their writing on keyboards/computers, and it also stands to reason they’re doing much more reading than even last decade’s teens (myself, as it happens). less books, but far, far more SMS/online messaging. surely language must not only be changing faster, but these changes are also more widely recorded and accessible than ever. fascinating times, to be sure!

    also: facebook (and myspace) status updates are but twitter in different clothing, i would argue. any word on how and to what extent teens are using this variety of broadcast-message?

    (thanks much for the response btw!)

  • zephoria – oh, i quite support changes in language–in fact i’m pretty sure it’s a given, and is accellerating. shorthand is especially fascinating and reveals much about the intended audience as well as the speaker, aZn-ness being a great example…

    the reason i ask: it occured to me teens right now probably do most, perhaps all their writing on keyboards/computers, and it also stands to reason they’re doing much more reading than even last decade’s teens (myself, as it happens). less books, but far, far more SMS/online messaging. surely language must not only be changing faster, but these changes are also more widely recorded and accessible than ever. fascinating times, to be sure!

    also: facebook (and myspace) status updates are but twitter in different clothing, i would argue. any word on how and to what extent teens are using this variety of broadcast-message?

    (thanks much for the response btw!)

  • Sinead Roy

    As a online teacher for students aged 12-18, I see many of my students use abbreviations both on Facebook and with me in IM such as Skype. When it comes to formal essays, they are able to make the switch and use formal educational language. It’s almost a form of bilingualism.

  • Obviously your fieldwork is geographically limited, but when you identify “teens”, are these practices the same across class, ethnicity, private/public/parochial education, socioeconomic status, etc.? Or your fieldwork limited to teens in certain segments of the population?

  • This is great. Thanks so much!

    I chaperoned a 16-year-old family friend on her college visits last month and it’s funny how she fits and doesn’t fit into some of these generalizations. She does update her FB status nonstop, but she also pays attention to the news, even goes out of her way to read articles about things she’s learned on a given day. She comes from a middle/upper middle class household and her parents have time to be super engaged, not with social media, but with politics, community work, and their kids’ lives. Can you say a little more about how these class/time variables impact the habits and perspectives of the teens you spoke with?

  • maxoid – Many teens use FB status updates and MS moods, but the audience there is quite different than on Twitter. Those posts are just to one’s Friends and, for many, the public nature of Twitter is going to be an auto-no-go, especially those who don’t want their parents to see their status updates.

    Deborah – My fieldwork is constrained to the US (18 states, mix of urban and suburban and small town w/ limited rural). I intentionally interview across race, socioeconomic factors, school types, and whatnot. These brief answers don’t do justice to the full context of my research and to properly answer any of these questions would require a lot more background. If you want a better sense of my methodology and findings, check out http://www.danah.org/papers/TakenOutOfContext.pdf

    Julia – the biggest determinant of whether or not teens are engaged with news (and politics) is whether or not their parents are. Unfortunately, most adults are not and thus most teens are not. But in educated communities where parents are engaged, it is unsurprising to find engaged youth. Sadly, they are the exception not the norm.

  • Enjoyed the format and the candor of the answers. It would be interesting to see how teens differ from culture to culture.

  • It seems that teens will always use SMS texting and other web tools social portals like Twitter. There doesn’t seem to be one tool or technology solution that can do it all for these early adopters. Even though cellphones cannot be used in schools as they are disruptive, they can be compelling homework assignment tools to be sure, if managed correctly. Google “SMS m4e” and the first few links take you to an interesting solution for teachers in high schools.

  • Lara

    As a high-school teacher, I wonder whether students in other schools feel entitled to have constant access to online and text-based communication. In my school, a huge subgroup of students express shock, outrage, or disbelief when teachers actually enforce the no-electronics-in-class policy.a

  • Andrew Raistrick

    Very interesting.
    I can see that most of these answers would map directly onto answers given here in the UK. However, I would be interested to know if “God” featured heavily in the passions of teenagers here. I suspect this would be the case in some sections of society, but overall, I doubt that this would rank highly in the UK

  • Thanks for answering my Twitter question (@texas_sooner)

  • Joseph Savirimuthu

    You may be interested in this news article concerning teacher use,
    professionalism and appropriate behaviour……
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/8063374.stm

    My question to all of you: should schools ban twitter?

  • As a online teacher for students aged 12-18, I see many of my students use abbreviations both on Facebook and with me in IM such as Skype. When it comes to formal essays, they are able to make the switch and use formal educational language. It’s almost a form of bilingualism.

  • This is great information. I got interested in this when doing research for my book Socialnomics which will be in stores 8-26-2009. I only cover this off at a high level as part of the grander world of social media.

    This is great stuff and I’m certain you could write a book on the trends of Teens!

    Best, equalman

    http://bit.ly/A1087

  • dj

    Thank you so much for content, you would track;)

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