February 27, 2014


It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. By danah boyd. Yale University Press. $25.

     An apologia for teen behavior and a book that is a mixture of the obvious and the unexpected, presented at times with genuine insight and at others with overweening self-importance that borders on arrogance, It’s Complicated uses a combination of primary research and a large number of comments by teenagers – all taken at face value – to try to explain just how, why, to what extent and for what purpose today’s teens seem to remain electronically in touch with themselves and the larger world practically all the time.

     There are some genuinely fascinating insights here, but readers must decouple them from statements so bland that it is hard to take them seriously: “Childhood has changed.” “Learning is a lifelong process.” And it also helps to pass over lightly such non-revelatory revelations as: “A gap in perspective exists because teens and parents have different ideas of what sociality should look like.” Well, duh.

     Stylistic quirks abound here as well. One involves author danah boyd’s insistence on not capitalizing her name – a decision she explains (online, not in the book) with specious, self-indulgent reasoning that is so convoluted as to call into question her ability to make objective judgments in other matters. (The argument essentially comes down to “I get to define myself and call myself whatever I want,” the same sort of statement that has historically been used and abused in discussions over whether to use such words as Negro, colored person, black, Afro-American, African-American, person of color, and so on.)

     Another oddity, more germane to the book, is boyd’s insistence on using the plural word “media” as if it is singular, resulting, among many other things, in a chapter called
“Is Social Media Amplifying Meanness and Cruelty?” There are also many sentences along the lines of, “Social media does not radically rework teens’ social networks.”

     To the extent that these and other peculiarities become distractions, they interfere with the power of boyd’s arguments and the discoveries she has made. And that is too bad, because It’s Complicated does have revelatory elements. “Taken out of context, what teens appear to do and say on social media seems peculiar if not outright problematic,” writes boyd, and she then works on providing the context. One of her most interesting observations is that networked teens make a distinction between “being public” and “being in public,” which means, from teens’ perspective, that in many cases, adults such as parents and potential employers can see what teens are doing online but shouldn’t. This is a very naïve attitude (although as with other statements made by the teens she talks to, boyd simply accepts it at face value), but it is in line with typical teenagers’ feelings of self-importance and of being able to control their environment, shaping it to their liking. Indeed, one of boyd’s comments is that “teens fabricate information…seeking to control the networked social content”; this, boyd says, explains outright falsities posted online. Teens then claim to be puzzled or even angry (again, boyd takes the reactions at face value) when adults respond with concern or worry about false postings involving, among other things, sex and drugs.

     One of boyd’s theses is that “teens’ mediated interactions sometimes complement or supplement their face-to-face encounters,” with social-media communication today being in effect an update on teens’ endless talks on landline phones some decades ago; indeed, boyd remarks on the pre-cellphone days in which teens used portable phones to go into rooms where they could have some privacy while talking – those were, in a sense, prototypes of “chat rooms,” which are predecessors of social media (although boyd does not state the connection). The burden of accepting and understanding the behavior of networked teens lies squarely with adults, boyd argues – perhaps taking a little too seriously her own self-description as “a researcher passionate about the health and well-being of young people.” Teens have no obligation to explain themselves or their online behavior to adults, according to boyd: “Teens’ engagement with social media – and the hanging out it often entails – can take up a great deal of time. To many adults, these activities can look obsessive and worthless. …[A]dults must recognize what teens are trying to achieve and work with them to find balance and to help them think about what they are encountering.”

     It is certainly in the interest of adults, especially parents, to understand what always-networked teens are doing and why, although boyd’s overview of the matter is not entirely helpful in noting that “few ask why teens embrace each new social technology with such fervor. …Both entertainment and sociality are key reasons.” What is helpful in It’s Complicated is the way boyd explores some genuinely intriguing elements of teenage interconnectedness, such as the phenomenon of “digital self-harm,” in which some teens behave in ways that adults find troubling and puzzling, for example by posting nasty questions that appear to be thrown at them by others – and then answering them. This is an up-to-date version of the “cry for help” that teens have engaged in, often in self-destructive ways, for many years. Unfortunately, boyd does a better job of exploring the phenomenon than of prescribing a way for adults to deal with it, falling back on the tired “society has to be different” non-solution: “Although not all youth who are struggling cry out for help online, many do. And when they do, someone should be there to recognize those signs and react constructively. …But it requires creating a society in which adults are willing to open their eyes and pay attention to youth other than their own children.”

     The Internet, boyd repeatedly indicates, is not in itself a force for societal change (“the mere existence of new technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems”); but it certainly is responsible for changes in the ways in which teenagers relate to each other and to the world at large. It’s complicated, true, as the book’s title asserts. But ultimately “it” (whatever “it” is) is no more complicated than the angst-ridden uncertainty and immaturity of teenagers of prior generations. The difference is that “it” is now played out in a far more public and easily scrutinized manner, even if teens’ misguided sense of immortality and empowerment makes them feel that they can control what they do and how society perceives their activities, and that they have an inalienable right to exercise that control.

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