EXCLUSIVE interview with danah boyd

What you wish you knew about teens and digital media

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people. Read Part 1 here: VIA MEDIA A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People.

If you’ve been around teenagers very long, you’ve probably found yourself scratching your head more than once about young people and digital media. What’s going on here? What does it all mean? Even the most tech-savvy adult can find it hard to keep up or comprehend.

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing danah boyd, author of the book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. (read FYI’s initial review of the book.) boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft, a Professor at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Fortune magazine nicely summed up boyd’s substantial resume by calling her “the reigning expert on how young people use the Internet."[[Ones to Watch: Danah Boyd <http://archive.fortune.com/galleries/2010/fortune/1010/gallery.fast_risers_under_40.fortune/index.html>]]

With that in mind, our hope was to draw from boyd’s expertise and provide some additional insights that relate more directly to Christian parents and youth leaders. We were pleased to find that a lot of what boyd had to say resonated strongly with the stories and strategies FYI has shared through this series, and in our new book The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family.

 

Fuller Youth Institute: A lot of parents and leaders ask us about how to help young people set better boundaries with digital media. What have you learned about how teens and families navigate this?

danah boyd: When parents are looking for limits, I start by asking: why? Are they trying to limit their child’s sociality? Most do not think of it in those terms but that’s what the limiting often creates for youth. Youth aren’t avoiding face-to-face; they’re going online because true, non-surveilled face-to-face is rarely an option. 

I also find that many parents hate when phones are seen as a disruption, but are completely unable to check their own practices around this. So many teens that I meet complain that their parents place restrictions on their technology use that they don’t abide by.

Teens are fully aware of when their parents are being hypocrites. So my advice to parents is to start by collectively constructing household rules that *everyone* (parents and children) agree to. This is so much more productive when negotiated as a household, not top-down.

 

FYI: What do you see as the biggest disconnect between how parents think about media and technology as compared to their teens?

DB: I get very frustrated when parents – and other adults – focus on the technology because it’s the thing that is new, rather than putting teens’ technological practices in context. Teens aren’t turning to technology because it’s inherently attractive. They’re doing so because it’s the one way that they have to connect with their friends in a culture in which we’ve placed heavy restrictions on teens’ mobility and social opportunities.

With this in mind, my first advice to parents is: step back and try to appreciate your kids’ practices in the broader context of their lives. Most youth are trying to find their way in this world and it doesn’t help when parents get all judge-y.

The second thing that I’d advise parents is to build a wide support structure for their kids, including other trusted adults they can turn to and a strong parent-child communication framework rooted in trust and respect.

 

FYI: What do you wish more adult youth leaders (pastors, coaches, extracurricular instructors) would talk about with young people regarding how they use social media and digital technology and the common issues that arise?

DB: From my perspective, the key is for youth leaders not to focus on the technology but to help young people work through the struggles that are very much shaped by their age, status, and position in society.

When technology enters the picture, it’s often what makes teens’ struggles very visible. I often think back to the amazing work by Jane Jacobs where she highlighted how safety isn’t about law enforcement, but about a collective willingness to pay attention to everyone around us.[[See: Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. Random House LLC.]]

I wish that adult youth leaders would be willing to enter teens’ networked lives when they’re invited to do so and be respectful of what they find. But when it comes to talking with them, the key is to get beyond the technology and get to the root of what’s happening. It starts by neither fearing technology nor presuming it to be the center of everything. It’s simply that which mirrors and magnifies everyday life.

 

FYI: Roughly one-third of the sample group of teenagers in your research self-identified as Christian (Protestant or Catholic). Generally speaking, did anything stand out to you about the Christian teens you interviewed?

DB: To be honest, not really. By and large, they struggled with the same issues as non-Christian youth, although they sometimes narrated their struggles in religious terms. For example, one young woman I met explained to me that bullying was not an issue at their school because it was a Christian school. And yet, she proceeded to tell me all about the various rumors, gossip, and drama that ensued—unable to recognize that this was precisely what many adults meant when they used the term bullying.

I did find that religious teens often had a wider variety of non-school social connections and were more likely to have a non-parent adult that they could turn to, but this applied to all religious youth, not just Christian youth. There’s no doubt that the church can and often does provide teens with a critical support structure, and this is very important.

 

FYI: A lot of churches and ministries have been trying to integrate social media into both their marketing and outreach, and their teaching curriculum materials for young people. Are there any best practices you might recommend with regards to using it more effectively in either of those respects? Any common pitfalls leaders should avoid?

DB: I get why folks want to use social media to market to youth, but youth want social media to be their own. Valuable marketing occurs when youth pull on something that’s created by ministries and make it their own, not when it’s simply broadcast out.

Thus, my advice would be to focus on creating media that teens can appropriate, remix, or otherwise engage in and see what clicks based on what they choose to share. But above all else, don’t try to be “cool” by directly targeting youth. Work with youth to co-create this stuff. That is the core of authenticity for them.

 

FYI: Youth ministries devote a lot of time to service projects and helping those in need. In your experience, what are some good ways to get young people active and more meaningfully involved with causes they care about online?

DB: There are two paths in which young people typically get involved with service-oriented and activist work – 1) it’s normative [[This term is used a lot in academic circles and refers to how what we are exposed to growing up we then assume and take for granted as being the normal way of doing things.]] in their communities; or 2) they personally develop an interest in the work.

The former used to be driven by religious organizations, but is now dominated by collegiate expectations that applicants have done such work. This has distorted participation in service and social justice work in problematic ways. The latter, developing a personal interest in the work, used to be more rare and harder to find. This was, in part, because even if a teen had an interest in, for example, an environmental cause, finding a way to engage deeply was difficult at best if it wasn’t normative in their hometown. 

Here’s where the Internet shines. Young people take their interests and find common ground, build connections and imagine how they might fit into the broader efforts. This cognitive and social work isn’t a waste of time; it’s a critical part of developing a sustainable service practice. Rather than dismissing their digital connecting around service, embrace and promote it. It’s step one. When young people are connecting online to develop passion to do service work, they’re much more likely to stay engaged than if they’re simply doing it to list it on their college application.

 

FYI: What are your thoughts on where things might be headed with digital technology and young people? What do you think will be the major concerns five or ten years down the road?

DB: While I expect that the specific fears and anxieties may shift, the general ones will remain. We are afraid of and for youth; we’re concerned about their sexuality, mental health, and social well-being; we worry about their status and position within this world. Whatever new technologies emerge, we will plug these into the broad concerns that we always have about young people. 

This is why I think that it’s so important to put technology into perspective. We used to be afraid of novels because we were worried that youth would disappear into fantasy worlds and be unable to connect. We feared radio, television, comic books. Each new media is feared, but the fears themselves aren’t that different. The key is to appreciate how hard it is for young people to navigate this world and appreciate their commitment to figuring it out. New technologies are part of that, but what youth need now, more than ever, is the freedom and support to explore. I worry that, in our culture of fear, we’ve done youth a significant disservice. And I’d like us to step away from fretting over technology and focus on the love and attention that teens need from us.

Our thanks again to Dr. boyd for taking time to connect with FYI. A digital version of the book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, has been made available for free to parents and youth leaders and can be downloaded here.

VIA MEDIA Part 1: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People
VIA MEDIA Part 2: How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

VIA MEDIA Part 3: Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying
VIA MEDIA Part 4: My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance
VIA MEDIA Part 5: Cheat Codes: A Quick Guide to Teens and Video Games
VIA MEDIA Shoot to Kill: The Real Impact of Violent Video Games