In Atlanta, I met a shy quiet 14-year-old girl that I’ll call Kaitlyn. She wasn’t particularly interested in talking to me, but she answered my questions diligently. She said that she was on both MySpace and Facebook, but quickly started talking about MySpace as the place where she gathered with her friends. At some point, I asked her if her friends also gathered on Facebook and her face took on a combination of puzzlement and horror before she exclaimed, “Facebook is for old people!” Of course, Kaitlyn still uses Facebook to communicate with her mother, aunt, cousins in Kentucky, and other family members.
Cross-town, I met up with Connor, a well-spoken 17-year-old who is more than comfortable in sharing his opinions with me. His manner of speaking and attitude means that he would’ve fit into Eckert’s “jock” category even though he plays no sport. In fact, Connor is more interested in gadgetry (Macs to be precise), but that no longer has the same geek ring as it once did. Connor tells me about how Facebook is the new thing that everyone is using and that, while he prefers MySpace, he now primarily logs into Facebook. His girlfriend deleted her MySpace profile and most of his friends now spend their time on Facebook. In fact, he can’t think of anyone at school who still actively uses MySpace. Connor is also aware of the presence of adults on Facebook. He messages with his mother and his youth pastor on Facebook and he waxes elegantly about how he thinks that Facebook is just as popular among adults as it is among teens. He believes that the reason that people switched to Facebook was because it was more “mature.”
These two narratives reflect different views about the salience of age in social network site participation. At one level, we can simply read Kaitlyn as rebellious, anti-authoritarian. Yet, that doesn’t quite work. Kaitlyn is not rebelling against her parents or teachers; she simply doesn’t see why interacting with them alongside her friends would make any sense whatsoever. She sees her world as starkly age segregated and she sees this as completely normal. Connor, on the other hand, sees the integration of adults and peers as a natural part of growing up. The difference in their ages is part of the story – Connor is two grades ahead of Kaitlyn.
Yet, there’s another important factor here. These teens come from very different demographics. Both teenagers are white and live in the deep south, but they are from different socioeconomic backgrounds and their public schools have quite different characters. Kaitlyn’s family income is near the median of Atlanta while Connor comes from a family that is better-off. Both have had many different opportunities afforded to them by loving and deeply involved parents. The biggest differences in their lives stem from their friend groups and the schools that they attend.
Connor was lamenting the presence of filters in his school (coupled with the sign in the computer lab that warned of punishment if anyone was caught on MySpace). I asked him why his school was strict and he responded by telling me that it was because they were the best school and they had standards. I asked him what made it the best school and he first started by saying that it was because they were strict and kept people in line, but then reverted course. He told me that in Atlanta, most schools are 60% or more black but his school was only 30% black. And then he noted that this was changing, almost with a sense of sadness. Kaitlyn, on the other hand, was proud of the fact that her school was very racially diverse. She did complain that it was big, so big in fact that they had created separate “schools” (think: Harry Potter) and that she was in the school that was primarily for honors kids but that this meant that she didn’t see all of her friends all the time. But she valued the different types of people who attended. These differences are reflected in their friend groups – Connor’s friends are almost entirely white and well-off while at least half of Kaitlyn’s friends are black and most of her friends are neither well-off nor poor.
Both Kaitlyn and Connor follow the crowd when it comes to social media and their instincts reflect more than just their own beliefs; they reflect what is normative among their cohort.
So going back to the question of age and maturity – why do these dynamics of race and socioeconomic factors matter? One argument made about the differences between teens from wealthy and poor environments is that wealthy teens are much more likely to integrate with adults than teens from poorer backgrounds. (There are obviously exceptions on all sides.) Now, Connor is not exceedingly wealthy and Kaitlyn is not poor, but I can’t help but wonder how much of what they’re reflecting is part of that more general trend.
Will Kaitlyn begin to embrace adults alongside her peers in a few years? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Might their differences be simply a personality thing? Perhaps, but I saw these dynamics occur across many other pairings of teens with similar differences and similarities.
Regardless of whether or not this factor explains the differences between these teens, I can’t help but wonder the significance of teens’ willingness to interact with known adults on social network sites. There’s nothing worse than demanding that teens accept adults in their peer space, but there’s a lot to be said for teens who embrace adults there, especially non-custodial adults like youth pastors and “cool” teachers. I strongly believe that the healthiest environment we can create online is one where teens and trusted adults interact seamlessly. To the degree that this is not modeled elsewhere in society, I worry.