February 28, 2014 1:13 pm

Teenage angst in a digital world

How the perennial power struggle between adolescents and their parents moved online – and became a commercial product
teen with hand covering his computer

‘Nicholas’ “No”’ from the series ‘Teen Tribe’ by Martine Fougeron. The book ‘Teen Tribe: A World with Two Sons’ will be published by Steidl later this year

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by Danah Boyd, Yale, RRP£17.99/RRP$25, 296 pages

The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, Yale, RRP£16.99/$25, 256 pages

The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move?, by Patrick Tucker, Current, RRP$27.95, 288 pages

Before social media platforms became the most public chronicles of teenage angst, that honour belonged to The Catcher in the Rye.

In among all the angsting, the narrator of JD Salinger’s classic coming-of-age novel frets over a once-common dilemma involving telephones and parents: “I couldn’t take a chance on giving [my sister] a buzz, because she was only a little kid and she wouldn’t have been up, let alone anywhere near the phone. I thought of maybe hanging up if my parents answered, but that wouldn’t’ve worked, either. They’d know it was me. My mother always knows it’s me. She’s psychic.”

That passage often came to mind in the mid-1990s, when some of my school friends started donning mobile phones. These gadgets would function as parental avoidance devices, letting you dial direct to a sibling or friend in their bedroom or back garden, bypassing the landline in the hallway. But the power also flowed in the opposite direction. (As one friend liked to say: “Yes, Mum, I’m on the bus, not under it.”) It might seem strange now but some of the earliest adopters I knew actually resented having to carry around a phone. That heft in their school uniform could amount to a wireless umbilical cord.

It’s Complicated, a new book about teenagers and digital technology by the media scholar Danah Boyd, places today’s smartphones, iPads and laptops in the context of this perennial power struggle between adolescents and parents. In doing so, it adds much to our understanding of a young generation of hyper-connected, hybrid consumer-producers – a cohort whose behaviour often unites parents, educators and investors in collective bewilderment. This month, for instance, Facebook’s surprise $19bn acquisition of the Whats­App messaging service gave us the spectacle of stock market analysts once again trying to busk it as youth culture pundits.

 

Boyd, however, does not need to busk or bluff. A researcher for Microsoft and an academic at New York University and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, she has made it her business to understand what goes on when new media and puberty collide. It’s Complicated, which takes its title from a common Facebook relationship status, is based on a decade of interviews and ethnography designed to put the voices of young people centre stage and cut through the whining middle-aged polemics that make up much of the literature on the subject. Her teenage respondents are no less whiny; they just whine about the problem of pesky parents, as if rehearsing for future therapy sessions.

“My mom doesn’t let me out of the house very often,” says Amy, a bi-racial 16-year-old from Seattle, “so that’s pretty much all I do, is sit on MySpace and talk to people and text and talk on the phone, cause my mom’s always got some crazy reason to keep me in the house.”

Boyd believes that this kind of cotton-wool parenting has fundamentally altered American adolescence – a warping that began during the decade or so that preceded social media. Combined with a more results-oriented school system, highly regimented extracurricular activities that serve as little more than CV-fodder and bylaws against congregating in shopping malls and parks, young people, she argues, have slowly been deprived of agency, spare time and the ability to socialise in public spaces that is crucial to coming of age. Against this backdrop, social media is not so much a drip-feed of digital narcotic as a release valve for circumscribed lives. For Boyd, this is the drama that drives many an adolescent’s attachment to gadgets: “Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.”

Overprotective parents also get a telling off in another recent book about youth in a digital milieu, The App Generation, by Harvard’s Howard Gardner and Katie Davis of the University of Washington. They argue that all this micromanaging and mollycoddling means “parents are unwittingly promoting passivity among their children and preventing them from developing a secure sense of autonomy”. But whereas Boyd views social media as a cure for these ills, Gardner and Davis see some aspects of digital behaviour as more of a symptom – in particular the growing dependency on apps that eliminate everyday risks, such as the chances of getting lost or the potential discomfort of having an actual conversation.

Of course, the removal of risk during such a precarious stage of life is arguably one of the main reasons teenagers are so smitten with technology in the first place – whether it be the risk involved in defining their own identity, detaching from their parents or impressing members of the opposite sex while speckled with zits.

 

Gardner and Davis contend that digital living is making the mollycoddling worse. As my phone-owning school friends understood only too well, the power bestowed by personal technology works both ways – upping the ante by equipping parents with tools to infantilise their kids even more. Accordingly, some adolescents and adults interviewed for The App Generation note that it is not uncommon for college students to be in tech-enabled contact with their parents multiple times a day. The director of a summer camp tells them how parents often flout the camp’s no-tech policy by smuggling in handsets like contraband for furtive texts and calls home. And this is before we consider parents lurking on Facebook. One interviewee dubs these digitally empowered mums and dads “helicopter parents”.

For Boyd, teenagers’ defences against these hovering, parent-shaped Black Hawks lead to an interesting reformulation of the privacy question. Media pundits love to characterise young people as reckless publicity seekers who have surrendered their privacy in favour of selfies and tweets about their trainers. In short, they have ventured about as far as possible from the closing words of advice in The Catcher in the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything”.

On the contrary, however, Boyd’s respondents seem intensely protective of their privacy. But instead of trying to evade online surveillance from governments and corporations, they are more concerned with avoiding – you guessed it – their parents. More importantly, they increasingly do so not by tinkering with ever-changing privacy settings or migrating to newer, parent-free platforms, but rather by hiding in plain sight. For instance, Boyd points to so-called sub-tweeting – the use of subliminal or encoded references that render messages meaningless to outsiders. One social media post she examines includes ironic song lyrics that would likely be misinterpreted by eavesdropping parents: “Teens recognize that limiting access to meaning can be a much more powerful tool for achieving privacy than trying to limit access to the content itself.” She likens them to media-savvy celebrities who reveal a surfeit of titbits in order to conceal the stuff that actually matters.

Boyd perhaps pays too little heed to the popularity of messaging networks such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, whose rapid growth among teenagers clearly represents a more overt dive below the parental radar. But she is more concerned with principles than individual platforms. It’s Complicated includes her insightful research into teenagers’ exodus from MySpace to Facebook, in which respondents tellingly preface their rationale for switching with words such as: “I’m not really into racism, but . . . ”

Gardner and Davis, meanwhile, are sceptical about how empowering the newer messaging apps really are. They lament the modern tendency to juggle multiple instant message conversations simultaneously, which leaves young people “more focused on doing than on being”, denying themselves “the time and space to figure out their thoughts and desires”.

Gardner is a renowned psychologist who has long decried box-ticking behaviourist approaches to education. While the idea of the app as a metaphor for the digital human condition sometimes feels overstretched, he and Davis nonetheless build a strong case that a dependency on apps is having a reductive effect on young people. Quoting essayist Christine Rosen, they worry this might lead to the “ultimate efficiency – having one’s needs and desires foreseen and the vicissitudes of future possible experiences controlled”.

 

Reading The Naked Future, you might think we are already there. Author Patrick Tucker, a technology journalist, ruminates on how the masses of data thrown off by our digital lives can be used to generate predictions, speculating on how empowering this algorithmic magic might be when it is democratised and placed in the hands of individuals rather than corporations and governments.

Whether or not his optimism is justified, Tucker’s engaging book illustrates just how valuable all this personal information is. For instance, it recounts last year’s tie-up between Samsung and Jay-Z, under which the smartphone maker gave away 1m free copies of the rap artist’s album Magna Carta Holy Grail to users who downloaded a special app. The app in question gave Samsung access to data from each handset.

The example is a reminder that the economic product being sold is often not the app or the social network or even the album, but the user. This is a dimension of digital living that is missing from both It’s Complicated and The App Generation. Social media platforms and apps are not just utilities to facilitate “connectedness” or tools that ease the trials and tribulations of adolescence. They are commercial data-mining machines that sell their users’ information on to advertisers. Boyd acknowledges this omission from a book that otherwise deserves to be treated as the definitive work on this subject for some time to come. She points out that youth were the target of sophisticated marketing before the internet: “Rather than critiquing that dynamic, as many excellent scholars have done, this book instead takes it at face value because this is the only world that today’s teens know.”

But this is ducking a big question. It is no longer enough to ask whether young people are being shaped by digital technology or are themselves shaping it when both teens and tech are increasingly being configured by a commercial imperative to turn users into more readily sellable data. As the modern adage goes, Google knows you better than your own mother – even if she is psychic.

Gautam Malkani is a commissioning editor for the FT’s Business Life page

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