My own space: Supervision vs. surveillance


Art Bamford Image Art Bamford | Jul 22, 2014

Photo by Victor Garcia

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.

In a scene from the film Jurassic Park, one of the scientists explains how the velociraptors have been systematically testing the electrified fence all the way around the perimeter of their captive environment. He points out that rather than running into the fence and shocking themselves repeatedly, the dinosaurs were clever enough to start tossing sticks at the high voltage fence instead.

This image of savvy velociraptors is not unlike one of the ways that young people use social media. Researchers have found that new technologies have become an important part of the process of identity formation that occurs during our adolescent years.[[Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H. A., ... & Tripp, L. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Digital media.]] Digital technology has become a space where young people can “throw sticks” at the boundaries of their identity to see what kind of reaction they will get before they decide to break out beyond those boundaries completely.

It is important to begin by reminding ourselves what the process of identity formation is about. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains this developmental stage as follows:

“During our teenage years, we begin to discover that there exists a world of different ideas, different cultures, different people. We experiment with the idea that we don’t have to limit our life’s course, our personalities, or our decisions to what we were taught by our parents, or to the way we were brought up…when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or whom we believe we have something in common with. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music.”[[Levitin, D. J. (2011). This is your brain on music: Understanding a human obsession. Atlantic Books Ltd.]]

It used to be the case that you might start listening to heavy metal and try wearing all black to school, for example. If you received positive feedback from your peers, you would align yourself more with that identity; if you received negative feedback you would try something different. Goth? Zap. Try something else. Hippie? Zap. Try something else. Repeat as long as necessary. This experimentation was not all done in public, and there was not usually a permanent record of it (apart from an embarrassing photo or two).

Social media provide another space where identity experimentation can play out. However, researchers John Palfrey and Urs Glasser explain how this has changed in a distinct way thanks to digital technology: “One of the big differences between what Digital Natives are doing in creating and experimenting with their identities and in interacting with their peers online, and what their parents did as teens talking on the telephone, hanging out at the local mall, is that the information that today’s youth are placing into digital formats is easily accessed by anyone, including people whom they do not know.”[[Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2013). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Basic Books. p. 30.]]

So why not just share it all?

Digital technology lets young people explore their options and receive feedback from their peers in a seemingly lower risk, less intimidating space. They can post a selfie wearing all black and gauge the response of friends and followers before actually choosing to spend an entire day at school dressed that way.

But this is where it becomes frustrating for parents and youth leaders. It can be terribly difficult to discern what is a stick being tossed at the high-voltage fence of identity boundaries as opposed to something intended as genuine.

A lot of conflict can come from adult supervision of teenage online sharing because young people feel like their privacy has been violated. This is because adolescents want, and need, some space to go about the “work” of their own identity formation among their peers without an adult hovering around over their shoulders. Both having privacy, and negotiating between how we present ourselves publicly and privately, are key parts of becoming an adult in our society.

What’s that you say?

Adding to this confusion, there is a process of encoding that young people have developed as a strategy for preserving their privacy in digital spaces, where it is never quite clear who is looking. Teens will use “inside joke” types of clues from face-to-face interactions in order to conceal messages within what they share digitally. That is why the things that young people share online often seem like nonsense, or another language to parents and leaders. Author and scholar dana boyd helpfully explains that: “Rather than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are instead controlling access to meaning.”[[Boyd, D. (2014). It's Complicated: the social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press. p. 76]]

Young people very intuitively determine what, where, and how they share content and interact with peers digitally across various social media platforms. More often than not, they are intentionally being cryptic and speaking to a specific set of their friends. Researchers have generally found that teens do not expect their parents to understand what they are saying and sharing online—but also that young people often enjoy explaining it to adults! At their age, being consulted to explain something is a pretty rare occurrence.

It is really tough to respectfully and responsibly keep track of what young people are saying and sharing through social media. But remember that this is tough on them, too. They are trying to navigate through the difficult process of forming their own identities in uncharted waters, using the tools we have given them. It is important to allow some freedom for identity formation to be acted out through social media, and recognize that it is often the laboratory where they explore different aspects of identity.

The best thing parents and youth leaders can do is to humbly ask for help translating the stuff we don’t understand. Young people may be willing and eager to teach us to speak—or at least to understand—their digital language better, and sometimes even to join in the conversation.

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Art Bamford Image
Art Bamford

Art Bamford is a Ph.D. student in Media Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He completed an M.Div. at Fuller in 2015, and holds an M.A. in media and communication from the University of Denver where he worked as a research associate for the Estlow Center's Teens & New Media @ Home project.

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