Tag Archives: social media

An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media

In the days that followed Andrew Watts’ “A Teenager’s View on Social Media written by an actual teen” post, dozens of people sent me a link. I found myself getting uncomfortable and angry by the folks who are pointing me to this. I feel the need to offer my perspective as someone who is not a teenager but who has thought about these issues extensively for years.

Almost all of them work in the tech industry and many of them are tech executives or venture capitalists. The general sentiment has been: “Look! Here’s an interesting kid who’s captured what kids these days are doing with social media!” Most don’t even ask for my interpretation, sending it to me as though it is gospel.

We’ve been down this path before. Andrew is not the first teen to speak as an “actual” teen and have his story picked up. Every few years, a (typically white male) teen with an interest in technology writes about technology among his peers on a popular tech platform and gets traction. Tons of conferences host teen panels, usually drawing on privileged teens in the community or related to the organizers. I’m not bothered by these teens’ comments; I’m bothered by the way they are interpreted and treated by the tech press and the digerati.

I’m a researcher. I’ve been studying American teens’ engagement with social media for over a decade. I wrote a book on the topic. I don’t speak on behalf of teens, but I do amplify their voices and try to make sense of the diversity of experiences teens have. I work hard to account for the biases in whose voices I have access to because I’m painfully aware that it’s hard to generalize about a population that’s roughly 16 million people strong. They are very diverse and, yet, journalists and entrepreneurs want to label them under one category and describe them as one thing.

Andrew is a very lucid writer and I completely trust his depiction of his peer group’s use of social media. He wrote a brilliant post about his life, his experiences, and his interpretations. His voice should be heard. And his candor is delightful to read. But his analysis cannot and should not be used to make claims about all teenagers. I don’t blame Andrew for this; I blame the readers — and especially tech elites and journalists — for their interpretation of Andrew’s post because they should know better by now. What he’s sharing is not indicative of all teens. More significantly, what he’s sharing reinforces existing biases in the tech industry and journalism that worry me tremendously.

His coverage of Twitter should raise a big red flag to anyone who has spent an iota of time paying attention to the news. Over the last six months, we’ve seen a phenomenal uptick in serious US-based activism by many youth in light of what took place in Ferguson. It’s hard to ignore Twitter’s role in this phenomenon, with hashtags like #blacklivesmatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown not only flowing from Twitter onto other social media platforms, but also getting serious coverage from major media. Andrew’s statement that “a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter” should raise eyebrows, but it’s the rest of his description of Twitter that should serve as a stark reminder of Andrew’s position within the social media landscape.

Let me put this bluntly: teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background. Let me repeat that for emphasis.

Teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background.

The world of Twitter is many things and what journalists and tech elites see from Twitter is not even remotely similar to what many of the teens that I study see, especially black and brown urban youth. For starters, their Twitter feed doesn’t have links; this is often shocking to journalists and digerati whose entire stream is filled with URLs. But I’m also bothered by Andrew’s depiction of Twitter users as first and foremost doing so to “complain/express themselves.” While he offers other professional categorizations, it’s hard not to read this depiction in light of what I see in low-status communities and the ways that privileged folks interpret the types of expression that exists in these communities. When black and brown teens offer their perspective on the world using the language of their community, it is often derided as a complaint or dismissed as self-expression. I doubt that Andrew is trying to make an explicitly racist comment here, but I want to caution every reader out there that critiques of youth use of Twitter are often seen in a negative light because of the heavy use by low-status black and brown youth.

Andrew’s depiction of his peers’ use of social media is a depiction of a segment of the population, notably the segment most like those in the tech industry. In other words, what the tech elite are seeing and sharing is what people like them would’ve been doing with social media X years ago. It resonates. But it is not a full portrait of today’s youth. And its uptake and interpretation by journalists and the tech elite whitewashes teens practices in deeply problematic ways.

I’m not saying he’s wrong; I’m saying his story is incomplete and the incompleteness is important. His commentary on Facebook is probably the most generalizable, if we’re talking about urban and suburban American youth. Of course, his comments shouldn’t be shocking to anyone at this point (as Andrew himself points out). Somehow, though, declarations of Facebook’s lack of emotional weight with teens continues to be front page news. All that said, this does render invisible the cultural work of Facebook in rural areas and outside of the US.

Andrew is very visible about where he stands. He’s very clear about his passion for technology (and his love of blogging on Medium should be a big ole hint to anyone who missed his byline). He’s also a college student and talks about his peers as being obviously on path to college. But as readers, let’s not forget that only about half of US 19-year-olds are in college. He talks about WhatsApp being interesting when you go abroad, the practice of “going abroad” is itself privileged, with less than 1/3 of US citizens even holding passports. Furthermore, this renders invisible the ways in which many US-based youth use WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends who live outside of the US. Immigration isn’t part of his narrative.

I don’t for a second fault Andrew for not having a perspective beyond his peer group. But I do fault both the tech elite and journalists for not thinking critically through what he posted and presuming that a single person’s experience can speak on behalf of an entire generation. There’s a reason why researchers and organizations like Pew Research are doing the work that they do — they do so to make sure that we don’t forget about the populations that aren’t already in our networks. The fact that professionals prefer anecdotes from people like us over concerted efforts to understand a demographic as a whole is shameful. More importantly, it’s downright dangerous. It shapes what the tech industry builds and invests in, what gets promoted by journalists, and what gets legitimized by institutions of power. This is precisely why and how the tech industry is complicit in the increasing structural inequality that is plaguing our society.

This post was originally published to The Message at Medium on January 12, 2015

What if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong?

(I wrote the following piece for Psychology Today under the title “Sexual Predators: The Imagined and the Real.”)

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen the creepy portraits of online sexual predators constructed by media: The twisted older man, lurking online, ready to abduct a naive and innocent child and do horrible things. If you’re like most parents, the mere mention of online sexual predators sends shivers down your spine. Perhaps it prompts you to hover over your child’s shoulder or rally your school to host online safety assemblies.

But what if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong? And what if that inaccurate portrait is actually destructive?

When it comes to child safety, the real statistics don’t stop parental worry. Exceptions dominate the mind. The facts highlight how we fail to protect those teenagers who are most at-risk for sexual exploitation online.

If you poke around, you may learn that 1 in 7 children are sexually exploited online. This data comes from the very reputable Crimes Against Children Research Center, however, very few take the time to read the report carefully. Most children are sexually solicited by their classmates, peers, or young adults just a few years older than they are. And most of these sexual solicitations don’t upset teens. Alarm bells should go off over the tiny percentage of youth who are upsettingly solicited by people who are much older than them. No victimization is acceptable, but we need to drill into understanding who is at risk and why if we want to intervene.

The same phenomenal research group, led by David Finkelhor, went on to analyze the recorded cases of sexual victimization linked to the internet and identified a disturbing pattern. These encounters weren’t random. Rather, those who were victimized were significantly more likely to be from abusive homes, grappling with addiction or mental health issues, and/or struggling with sexual identity. Furthermore, the recorded incidents showed a more upsetting dynamic. By and large, these youth portrayed themselves as older online, sought out interactions with older men, talked about sex online with these men, met up knowing that sex was in the cards, and did so repeatedly because they believed that they were in love. These teenagers are being victimized, but the go-to solutions of empowering parents, educating youth about strangers, or verifying the age of adults won’t put a dent into the issue. These youth need professional help. We need to think about how to identify and support those at-risk, not build another an ad campaign.

What makes our national obsession with sexual predation destructive is that it is used to justify systematically excluding young people from public life, both online and off. Stopping children from connecting to strangers is seen as critical for their own protection, even though learning to navigate strangers is a key part of growing up. Youth are discouraged from lingering in public parks or navigating malls without parental supervision. They don’t learn how to respectfully and conscientiously navigate new people because they are taught to fear all who are unknown.

The other problem with our obsession with sexual predators is that it distracts parents and educators. Everyone rallies to teach children to look out for and fear rare dangers without giving them the tools for managing more common forms of harm that they might encounter. Far too many young people are raped and sexually victimized in this country. Only a minuscule number of them are harmed at the hands of strangers, online or off. Most who will be abused will suffer at the hands of their classmates and peers.

In a culture of abstinence-only education, schools don’t want to address any aspect of sexual and reproductive health for fear of upsetting parents. As a result, we fail to give young people the tools to handle sexual victimization. When the message is “just say no,” we shame young people who were sexually abused or violated.

It’s high time that we walk away from our nightmare scenarios and focus on addressing the serious injustices that exist. The world we live in isn’t fair and many youth who are most at-risk do not have concerned parents looking out for them. Because we have stopped raising children as a community, adults are often too afraid to step on other parents’ toes. Yet, we need adults who are looking out for more than just their children. Furthermore, our children need us to talk candidly about sexual victimization without resorting to boogeymen.

While it’s important to protect youth from dangers, a society based on fear-mongering is not healthy. Let’s instead talk about how we can help teenagers be passionate, engaged, constructive members of society rather than how we can protect them from statistically anomalous dangers. Let’s understand those teens who are truly at risk; these teens often have the least support.

(This piece was first published at Psychology Today.)

Whether it’s bikes or bytes, teens are teens

(This piece was written for the LA Times, where it was published as an op-ed on April 11, 2014.)

If you’re like most middle-class parents, you’ve probably gotten annoyed with your daughter for constantly checking her Instagram feed or with your son for his two-thumbed texting at the dinner table. But before you rage against technology and start unfavorably comparing your children’s lives to your less-wired childhood, ask yourself this: Do you let your 10-year-old roam the neighborhood on her bicycle as long as she’s back by dinner? Are you comfortable, for hours at a time, not knowing your teenager’s exact whereabouts?

What American children are allowed to do — and what they are not — has shifted significantly over the last 30 years, and the changes go far beyond new technologies.
If you grew up middle-class in America prior to the 1980s, you were probably allowed to walk out your front door alone and — provided it was still light out and you had done your homework — hop on your bike and have adventures your parents knew nothing about. Most kids had some kind of curfew, but a lot of them also snuck out on occasion. And even those who weren’t given an allowance had ways to earn spending money — by delivering newspapers, say, or baby-sitting neighborhood children.

All that began to change in the 1980s. In response to anxiety about “latchkey” kids, middle- and upper-class parents started placing their kids in after-school programs and other activities that filled up their lives from morning to night. Working during high school became far less common. Not only did newspaper routes become a thing of the past but parents quit entrusting their children to teenage baby-sitters, and fast-food restaurants shifted to hiring older workers.

Parents are now the primary mode of transportation for teenagers, who are far less likely to walk to school or take the bus than any previous generation. And because most parents work, teens’ mobility and ability to get together casually with friends has been severely limited. Even sneaking out is futile, because there’s nowhere to go. Curfew, trespassing and loitering laws have restricted teens’ presence in public spaces. And even if one teen has been allowed out independently and has the means to do something fun, it’s unlikely her friends will be able to join her.

Given the array of restrictions teens face, it’s not surprising that they have embraced technology with such enthusiasm. The need to hang out, socialize, gossip and flirt hasn’t diminished, even if kids’ ability to get together has.

After studying teenagers for a decade, I’ve come to respect how their creativity, ingenuity and resilience have not been dampened even as they have been misunderstood, underappreciated and reviled. I’ve watched teenage couples co-create images to produce a portrait of intimacy when they lack the time and place to actually kiss. At a more political level, I’ve witnessed undocumented youth use social media to rally their peers and personal networks to speak out in favor of the Dream Act, even going so far as to orchestrate school walkouts and local marches.

This does not mean that teens always use the tools around them for productive purposes. Plenty of youth lash out at others, emulating a pervasive culture of meanness and cruelty. Others engage in risky behaviors, seeking attention in deeply problematic ways. Yet, even as those who are hurting others often make visible their own personal struggles, I’ve met alienated LGBT youth for whom the Internet has been a lifeline, letting them see that they aren’t alone as they struggle to figure out whom to trust.
And I’m on the board of Crisis Text Line, a service that connects thousands of struggling youth with counselors who can help them. Technology can be a lifesaver, but only if we recognize that the Internet makes visible the complex realities of people’s lives.
As a society, we both fear teenagers and fear for them. They bear the burden of our cultural obsession with safety, and they’re constantly used as justification for increased restrictions. Yet, at the end of the day, their emotional lives aren’t all that different from those of their parents as teenagers. All they’re trying to do is find a comfortable space of their own as they work out how they fit into the world and grapple with the enormous pressures they face.

Viewed through that prism, it becomes clear how the widespread embrace of technology and the adoption of social media by kids have more to do with non-technical changes in youth culture than with anything particularly compelling about those tools. Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook may be fun, but they’re also offering today’s teens a relief valve for coping with the increased stress and restrictions they encounter, as well as a way of being with their friends even when their more restrictive lives keep them apart.

The irony of our increasing cultural desire to protect kids is that our efforts may be harming them. In an effort to limit the dangers they encounter, we’re not allowing them to develop skills to navigate risk. In our attempts to protect them from harmful people, we’re not allowing them to learn to understand, let alone negotiate, public life. It is not possible to produce an informed citizenry if we do not first let people engage in public.
Treating technology as something to block, limit or demonize will not help youth come of age more successfully. If that’s the goal, we need to collectively work to undo the culture of fear and support our youth in exploring public life, online and off.

(More comments can be found over at the LA Times.)

Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention

Most people who encounter a link to this post will never read beyond this paragraph. Heck, most people who encountered a link to this post didn’t click on the link to begin with. They simply saw the headline, took note that someone over 30 thinks that maybe Snapchat is important, and moved onto the next item in their Facebook/Twitter/RSS/you-name-it stream of media. And even if they did read it, I’ll never know it because they won’t comment or retweet or favorite this in any way.

We’ve all gotten used to wading in streams of social media content. Open up Instagram or Secret on your phone and you’ll flick on through the posts in your stream, looking for a piece of content that’ll catch your eye. Maybe you don’t even bother looking at the raw stream on Twitter. You don’t have to because countless curatorial services like digg are available to tell you what was most important in your network. Facebook doesn’t even bother letting you see your raw stream; their algorithms determine what you get access to in the first place (unless, of course, someone pays to make sure their friends see their content).

Snapchat offers a different proposition. Everyone gets hung up on how the disappearance of images may (or may not) afford a new kind of privacy. Adults fret about how teens might be using this affordance to share inappropriate (read: sexy) pictures, projecting their own bad habits onto youth. But this is isn’t what makes Snapchat utterly intriguing. What makes Snapchat matter has to do with how it treats attention.

When someone sends you an image/video via Snapchat, they choose how long you get to view the image/video. The underlying message is simple: You’ve got 7 seconds. PAY ATTENTION. And when people do choose to open a Snap, they actually stop what they’re doing and look.

In a digital world where everyone’s flicking through headshots, images, and text without processing any of it, Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you. As a result, I watch teens choose not to open a Snap the moment they get it because they want to wait for the moment when they can appreciate whatever is behind that closed door. And when they do, I watch them tune out everything else and just concentrate on what’s in front of them. Rather than serving as yet-another distraction, Snapchat invites focus.

Furthermore, in an ecosystem where people “favorite” or “like” content that is inherently unlikeable just to acknowledge that they’ve consumed it, Snapchat simply notifies the creator when the receiver opens it up. This is such a subtle but beautiful way of embedding recognition into the system. Sometimes, a direct response is necessary. Sometimes, we need nothing more than a simple nod, a way of signaling acknowledgement. And that’s precisely why the small little “opened” note will bring a smile to someone’s face even if the recipient never said a word.

Snapchat is a reminder that constraints have a social purpose, that there is beauty in simplicity, and that the ephemeral is valuable. There aren’t many services out there that fundamentally question the default logic of social media and, for that, I think that we all need to pay attention to and acknowledge Snapchat’s moves in this ecosystem.

(This post was originally published on LinkedIn. More comments can be found there.)

want a signed copy of “It’s Complicated”?

Today is the official publication date of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”. While many folks have received their pre-orders already, this is the date in which all U.S. book stores that promised to carry the book at launch should have a copy. It’s also the day in which I officially start my book tour in Cambridge.

In many ways, I’m thinking of my book tour as a thank-you tour. I’m trying to visit as many cities as I can that have been really good to me over the years. Some are cities where I was educated. Some are field site cities. Some are places where there are people who have been angels in my life. But I sadly won’t get everywhere. Although the list of events is not complete, I have discussions underway to be in the following cities this spring: Cambridge, DC, Seattle, Austin, Nashville, Berkeley/SF, Providence, Charlottesville, and Chicago. After that, I’m going to need to take a break. But I’m really hoping to see lots of friends and allies in the cities I visit. And I want to offer a huge apology to those outside of the US who have been so amazing to me. Given my goal of seeing my young son every week amidst this crazy, I simply can’t do an international tour right now.

I know that I won’t be able to get everywhere and I know folks have been asking me for signed copies, so I want to make an offer. Buy a book this week and send it to me and I will sign it and send it back to you signed. You can either buy it from your favorite bookseller and then mail it to me or have it shipped directly from your favorite online retailer.

Address:
danah boyd
Microsoft Research
641 6th Ave, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10011

When you send me the book, include a note (“gift note” for online retailers) that includes your name, email (in case something goes wrong), snail mail address for shipment, and anything I should know when signing the book.

If you have a local bookseller that’s selling it, start there. If you’d prefer to use an online retailer, my book is now available at:

IndieBoundPowellsAmazonBarnes & Noble

Thank you soooo much for all of your amazing support over the years! I wrote this book to share all that I’ve learned over the years, in the hopes that it will prompt people to step back and appreciate teens’ lives from their perspective. My goal is to share this book as widely as possible precisely because so many teens are struggling to get their voices heard. Fingers crossed that we can get this book into the hands of many people this week and that this, in turn, will prompt folks to spread the message further!

{{hug}}

blatant groveling: please buy my book

In less than a month, my new book – “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” – will be published.  This is the product of ten years worth of research into how social media has inflected American teen life.  If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ve seen me talk about these issues over the years. Well, this book is an attempt to synthesize all of that work into one tangible artifact.

Now I have a favor…. please consider pre-ordering a copy (or two <grin>).  Pre-sales and first week sales really matter in terms of getting people’s attention. And I’m really hoping to get people’s attention with this book. I’ve written it to be publicly accessible in the hopes that parents, educators, journalists, and policy makers will read it and reconsider their attitude towards technology and teen practices.  The book covers everything from addiction, bullying, and online safety to privacy, inequality, and the digital natives debate.

If you have the financial wherewithal to buy a copy, I’d be super grateful.  If you don’t, I *totally* understand.  Either way, I’d be super super super appreciative if you could help me get the word out about the book. I’m really hoping that this book will alter the public dialogue about teen use of social media.

 

You can pre-order it at:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Powells

thoughts on Pew’s latest report: notable findings on race and privacy

Yesterday, Pew Internet and American Life Project (in collaboration with Berkman) unveiled a brilliant report about “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy.” As a researcher who’s been in the trenches on these topics for a long time now, none of their finding surprised me but it still gives me absolute delight when our data is so beautifully in synch. I want to quickly discuss two important issues that this report raise.

Race is a factor in explaining differences in teen social media use.

Pew provides important measures on shifts in social media, including the continued saturation of Facebook, the decline of MySpace, and the rise of other social media sites (e.g., Twitter, Instagram). When they drill down on race, they find notable differences in adoption. For example, they highlight data that is the source of “black Twitter” narratives: 39% of African-American teens use Twitter compared to 23% of white teens.

Most of the report is dedicated to the increase in teen sharing, but once again, we start to see some race differences. For example, 95% of white social media-using teens share their “real name” on at least one service while 77% of African-American teens do. And while 39% of African-American teens on social media say that they post fake information, only 21% of white teens say they do this.

Teens’ practices on social media also differ by race. For example, on Facebook, 48% of African-American teens befriend celebrities, athletes, or musicians while one 25% of white teen users do.

While media and policy discussions of teens tend to narrate them as an homogenous group, there are serious and significant differences in practices and attitudes among teens. Race is not the only factor, but it is a factor. And Pew’s data on the differences across race highlight this.

Of course, race isn’t actually what’s driving what we see as race differences. The world in which teens live is segregated and shaped by race. Teens are more likely to interact with people of the same race and their norms, practices, and values are shaped by the people around them. So what we’re actually seeing is a manifestation of network effects. And the differences in the Pew report point to black youth’s increased interest in being a part of public life, their heightened distrust of those who hold power over them, and their notable appreciation for pop culture. These differences are by no means new, but what we’re seeing is that social media is reflecting back at us cultural differences shaped by race that are pervasive across America.

Teens are sharing a lot of content, but they’re also quite savvy.

Pew’s report shows an increase in teens’ willingness to share all sorts of demographic, contact, and location data. This is precisely the data that makes privacy advocates anxious. At the same time, their data show that teens are well-aware of privacy settings and have changed the defaults even if they don’t choose to manage the accessibility of each content piece they share. They’re also deleting friends (74%), deleting previous posts (59%), blocking people (58%), deleting comments (53%), detagging themselves (45%), and providing fake info (26%).

My favorite finding of Pew’s is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%). This is the practice that I’ve seen significantly rise since I first started doing work on teens’ engagement with social media. It’s the source of what Alice Marwick and I describe as “social steganography” in our paper on teen privacy practices.

While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them – parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc. To adults, services like Facebook that may seem “private” because you can use privacy tools, but they don’t feel that way to youth who feel like their privacy is invaded on a daily basis. (This, btw, is part of why teens feel like Twitter is more intimate than Facebook. And why you see data like Pew’s that show that teens on Facebook have, on average 300 friends while, on Twitter, they have 79 friends.) Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them. This practice is still only really emerging en masse, so I was delighted that Pew could put numbers to it. I should note that, as Instagram grows, I’m seeing more and more of this. A picture of a donut may not be about a donut. While adults worry about how teens’ demographic data might be used, teens are becoming much more savvy at finding ways to encode their content and achieve privacy in public.

Anyhow, I have much more to say about Pew’s awesome report, but I wanted to provide a few thoughts and invite y’all to read it. If there is data that you’re curious about or would love me to analyze more explicitly, leave a comment or drop me a note. I’m happy to dive in more deeply on their findings.