The Kids Are Alright, Says danah boyd

In the interest of full disclosure, I actually taped this talk for work. But during the course of talk, while I was having a few holy shit moments, I realized there were a lot of quotes to be memorialized from researcher danah boyd, who studies teen interactions online through social media.

The whole talk is worth a watch, but if you’re pressed for time, I’ve squeezed out what I think are some salient bits.

First, what drives teens to social media?  Boyd (whose name normally goes uncapitalized, but will drive me crazy if I continue this way) argues it’s a few major things:

  1. Our interest in keeping young people at home, particularly as a response to the earlier “latchkey culture,” where now kids are shoved into structured time, like playdates with friends, rather than being given reign of an empty home.
  2. The 24/7 news cycle that creates new anxieties for parents even as, Boyd argues, physical risks are actually on the decline.
  3. The move to suburbanization which led to choices for where parents would school their children.  This led to school friendships with people who might live much further away than in the past.

From this, she says, “the ability to hang out without surveillance from adults radically changed.”  Enter the digital age and the world wide web, a place for teens to “build their own public world.”


At the 16:00 mark, she states an interesting thesis:

The beauty of what’s happening in social media, is that it makes visible things at unprecedented levels. It makes visible the good bad and ugly and we spend so much time getting anxious about the technology, getting concerned about the technology for opening up this window, that we’ve lost track of the underlying dynamics.

Not all young people are doing that well.  Many of them are.  When they’re doing well in everyday life, they’re doing well online. But what’s challenging for me is that those who are really really struggling, they make it very visible in an online environment.

And so it creates this huge challenge of how do we use this opportunity this moment in time where we can actually see into young people’s lives, see the complexity of what’s going on, and figure out how to actually make a difference. How to step back as a community and participate and engage. And in that way it’s really complicated.


The Q&A starts at 17:24.  In summary:

Is Facebook on the fall? (Much like Myspace?)

“Its passion play is no longer there… you start to see young people engage with Facebook much more practically.”

Are youth today becoming better at using the written word, given the nature of online communication?

“There’s a lot of expression through text, but I wouldn’t necessarily say this was writing.”

Have you looked at how teens negotiate identity and multiple identities online?

“The practice of creating mirror networks… the idea of you’ve got your network that your parents know about… and you’ve got the separate network with the same people connected to all their ‘fake’ accounts… these networks were all extraordinarily common up until Facebook.”

How do you do fieldwork?

Boyd would scrape random Facebook/Myspace accounts to build content maps.  She also attended events (i.e. football games, etc.) and completed 166 semi-structured interviews on a variety of populations (based on models from the data).

What does this mean for the local now that people can participate globally?

“I assumed that young people would be engaging around the globe when I went on there – they’re not… What I think is actually challenging is that they’re not comfortable leaving those local communities… They were convinced the strangers were much more dangerous than their peers.”

Then Boyd jumps into a rough story:

The place where I saw this at its most heartbreaking and the piece of data that I haven’t been able to figure out well has to do with Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign.

So because young people were so not wanting to talk to strangers when the it Gets Better campaign came along, a lot of young people were like I’m gonna participate in this, this is gonna be this amazing place to connect. And I saw teenagers around the country make videos of It Gets Better telling their own story, expecting that they would find community and support.

And rather than finding community and support in that environment, in an environment where strangers are dangerous, what they ended up getting was chastised and harmed back home.

And I would say for a lot of young people it actually made things much worse rather than much better. And it was really hard for me to track because a huge number of LGBT-related suicides in the following year were of young people who had referred to making videos and things getting worse.

And so this is where I really struggle with these moments because those online communities can be really valuable but you need to know that you’re connecting to a person and in the light of stranger danger, we have so heavily discouraged young people from connecting, that they don’t get the support that my cohort really really did.

How can teachers engage with students online?

“Create a teacher profile. A teacher profile that is purely you as teacher… never friend a teenager.. but if a teenager friends you, say yes… This is not for every educator.” But she points out that now, “it’s only custodial parents that have meaningful interactions between young people and adults.”

What are the racial and class contours of the project and the findings?

When researching why teens chose one social network (like Facebook) and not the other (Myspace), a student told her, “I don’t really mean to be racist or whatever, but MySpace is kind of ghetto.”

The media language around MySpace has positioned it in race and class terms, “as the urban, as the dangerous, as the risqué place. Facebook had been held up as safe and quiet and protected.”

Interestingly, she comments that she encountered racist language between youth online or, “when young people run into each other in ways they don’t know how to deal with.”

You can get danah boyd’s book for free online here:

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