Hey, parents, leave those kids online

It seems right to be snooping on your children’s digital lives, but dinah boyd, author of ‘It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens’, warns adults about sticking their noses in

Old problems, new environment: teenagers cherish privacy, even if much of their behaviour online seems to run counter to this. Photograph: Alan Betson

Old problems, new environment: teenagers cherish privacy, even if much of their behaviour online seems to run counter to this. Photograph: Alan Betson


Should parents monitor what their children are doing online? The answer seems obvious. After all, at the start of the week another survey popped up that showed the extent of “cyberbullying” among Irish secondary-school and college students, and the percentages of those parents who keep an eye on that communication. The implication was clear: the more parents look, the more they know.

And yet, at the same time, there has been an interesting new voice on the issue in the United States. A book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens , by dinah boyd (yes, all lowercase), has had a strong enough impact in the US that the writer could give it away as an ebook, at danah.org/itscomplicated, this week and still reach Amazon. com’s top 50 bestsellers.

What makes it so interesting? Because boyd has done her best to bring a voice into the discussion that is rarely heard: that of teenagers.

After eight years criss-crossing the US, she concluded that “so many people talk about youth engagement with social media, but very few of them are willing to take the time to listen to teens, to hear them, or to pay attention to what they have to say about their lives, online and off”.

Among her conclusions are that teens are looking for a public space to congregate, to develop relationships, to find “freedom of mobility” just as they always have. And just as adults have long feared teens congregating in parks, malls and elsewhere, so they’ve developed a deep fear of the unseen, but still “public”, spaces in which they now gather. Far from being the “digital natives” they are so regularly described as, however, she writes that teenagers don’t have some innate understanding and instead struggle to understand the complex rules of communication across different platforms.

It means that teens are dealing with old problems but in a new environment in which the consequences can be quick, devastating and lasting. “Although new forms of drama find a home through social media, teens’ behaviors have not significantly changed,” she writes in a chapter on bullying.

“Social media has not radically altered the dynamics of bullying, but it has made these dynamics more visible to more people. We must use this visibility, not to justify increased punishment, but to help youth who are actually crying out for attention. Blaming technology or assuming that conflict will disappear if technology usage is minimized is naive.”

Don’t snoop
Yet boyd makes a suggestion that many parents would find challenging: don’t snoop on your kids. Her argument is that when parents keep too close an eye on their children’s communications, they might not always understand the context of what they read, and such intrusion can have a knock-on impact on trust between them.

The result of standing over their offspring’s shoulder, so to speak, is also to push them to seek out other routes to privacy and to avoid sharing problems when they do come up. This is a key point in boyd’s book: that teens cherish privacy, even if much of their behaviour online seems to run counter to this.

Her chapter on cyberbullying is interesting, not least because she argues that the term itself is applied too broadly, that there is an obsession with the medium that distracts from the true causes. You could see elements of that, in fact, in the coverage of this week’s survey by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, which said that 16 per cent of students had experienced “cyberbullying” and that 9 per cent admitted perpetrating it. The details of the survey – methodology, sample size (small), definition of terminology – were missing from media reports, which focused instead on highlighting an “increase” in cyberbullying (without using broader comparisons). For parents or teachers, such coverage does tend to focus on the panic rather than the practical.

Which is not to minimise the issue. It’s Complicated is excellent on the culture of cruelty that modern teens must navigate, and how this mixes with celebrity culture occasionally in ways that can have enormous – even global – repercussions on ordinary people.

And it doesn’t simply tell adults to butt out but suggests better strategies, such as building stronger relationships with friends and family that will encourage a teen to talk when they want to (but not necessarily to their parents).

And here’s a tip that will test the trust in any family: she has suggested bringing an actual piggy bank into the house, into which everyone, parents included, puts their online passwords in case of emergency. When that gets broken, everyone knows.


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