drwex (drwex) wrote,

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A book every parent should read

As often happens on these road trips, Pygment did the driving and I spent the hours reading. At the last minute I grabbed danah boyd's It's Complicated: the social lives of networked teens (Amazon link). This book is a must-read for parents who have or will have teenagers.

The book is the product of years boyd spent crisscrossing the US with her co-researchers talking to teens, parents of teens, siblings of teens, and attending (with permission) teen gatherings and events. (*) It's a fast read, organized into chapters that talk about privacy, identity, bullying, and so on. The book covers the trends during the past couple decades, including curfews and bans on youth in public spaces, social fears of violence driven by mass media, and so on. boyd is aware that the landscape shifts even as she's writing about it, but argues that her fundamental conclusions are valid and I think there's a lot to be said for that.

I don't think there's anything in this book that will surprise or be particularly novel for most of the people who read my LJ. We are not, as a rule, helicopter parents nor do we believe that the Internet is full of predators nor do we engage in moral panics over what our children may or may not say to strangers in chatrooms.

People who are panicked about this do exist - I was surprised a few years ago when I happened to be working with a coworker at his screen and a window popped up on its own. This window was created by spyware he had installed on his daughter's PC and it gave him real-time views of her screen. The companion module keylogged everything so he could retrieve passwords as desired. As you might guess, this engineer coworker of mine was well-educated, white, affluent, cis-male, and felt totally justified in what he was doing.

So even if you're not the audience here, you're likely to encounter the audience in your neighbors, your coworkers, in your kids' school DARE programs, etc. That's why you should read this book - it's well-researched ammunition for fights you may find yourself in whether you like it or not. boyd dismantles much of the popular hype and presents reasoned hypotheses for the teen behaviors that lead to the moral panics. For example, she asserts that teens are not 'addicted' to computers (while casting doubt on the whole use of addiction language) but rather are 'addicted' to each other and to the social interaction that electronic media facilitate. She points out that the meteoric rise in the use of social media by teens parallels a meteoric decline in teen access to physical social spaces.

When discussing gossip and status-seeking, she argues that kids are acting out the reality they see around them. No matter how much parents protest, the kids see that gossip and celebrity status are real commodities and are acting out what they see in the larger society. Nerds are certainly not immune to replicating these status-seeking behaviors - how many of us know someone who has a "Joss Whedon is my master now" tee shirt or similar?

If I have a criticism of the book it's along two lines: First, the material is very dry and extensively footnoted. Mostly not expository notes - they're more the sort that one would find in a published academic paper (citing author, publication, page, etc). It was also a bit eyebrow-raising when I saw she put in an explanatory footnote for "69". Yes, really. It feels like boyd hasn't quite made up her mind who this book is talking to.

Second, the book is very weak in addressing atypical teens. There are a couple of anecdotes and some footnotes on queer teens but the topic isn't specifically called out. And there's no mention at all of non-neurotypical teens. In a sense that's too bad because these two populations are minorities within the larger teen population but they're over-represented in many online spaces. All research has limitations - there's only so much time and money to collect data - and the book shows its limitations here.

Weaknesses aside, the book lives up to its title. boyd's analyses are nuanced and she argues that teens engagement with networks and social media is complicated and needs to be understood in a fully nuanced way that rejects both technological utopianism (the Net will democratize everything! our kids will grow up in a post-racial America!) and technological dystopianism (everyone in chat rooms is a predator! social media is warping our kids' minds!).

(*) boyd is quite clear about the limits of her research data. She's up-front in addressing issues of race and class and that her conclusions are very American-centric. She does include data from teens who are not born in the US or who are US-born children of non-native parents, but still, US.
Tags: review
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