Illustration of teenagers using the internet
© Shonagh Rae

A few years ago, “Carmen”, a 17-year-old Latino girl in Boston, split up with her boyfriend. She wanted to tell her friends how upset she felt and duly put a post on her Facebook page. But there was a problem. Carmen’s mother (like, I daresay, many FT readers) monitored her daughter’s Facebook page – and Carmen did not want to tell her about the break-up. So, to signal her loss to her friends, she posted a message with the Monty Python song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

Her mother thought this meant Carmen was happy: her friends, however, understood that Carmen was using private teen code, since they often communicated with songs. They started a conversation with text messages – away from her mother’s eyes. Carmen had thus maintained her “privacy”, even on a public space.

Just a trivial example of teenage behaviour? Danah Boyd, a digital anthropologist who now works at Microsoft Research, does not think so. She has spent the past decade analysing how teenagers use social media by watching the subtle cultural signals, rituals and group dynamics that a more traditional anthropologist might track in an Amazonian village or “tribal” Papua New Guinea. And after conducting extensive research in 18 states across the US, she argues in a new book, It’s Complicated, that some of the received wisdom about social media is wrong. Teenagers are not being corrupted by Facebook and Twitter, as (adult) pundits often fear. Instead, they are developing adaptive skills for this new digital age. As a result, the kids are (mostly) “all right”, she insists, even if their behaviour occasionally baffles adults.

That might be a hard message for many parents to swallow, particularly coming from someone employed by Microsoft. I am apt myself to flinch whenever I see my children spending too long at any screen. And the plethora of books that tell parents how to control their children’s internet behaviour demonstrates the fears this is inspiring. (Check out, for example, the sensible Raising Children in A Digital Age by Bex Lewis, published last week.)

Yet Boyd argues that we need to understand that teenagers have two basic impulses: they want to explore the world and socialise with their friends. In previous generations, children could do this by wandering around their neighbourhoods or congregating in places such as shopping malls and parks. But these days they often cannot – due to their parents’ fears about “danger”. “Many American teens have limited geographic freedom, less free time and more rules. In many communities across the United States, the era of being able to run around after school so long as you are home by dark is long over,” she writes.

Instead, children rush to the new frontier of cyberspace. “Teens engage with networked publics for the same reasons they have always relished publics: they want to be a part of the broader world by connecting with other people and having the freedom of mobility,” Boyd says. “Likewise, many adults fear networked technologies for the same reasons that adults have long been wary of teen participation in public life and teen socialisation in parks, malls, and other sites where youth congregate.”

As a result, teens use electronic media differently from parents. To illustrate that point, she describes a football game she observed in Nashville. The teens were clutching smartphones but “they were not making calls”. Instead, they were “taking photos of the event or texting each other to locate their friends” and “when they did look at their phones, they were often sharing the screen with the person sitting next to them, reading or viewing something together”. However, the parents used smartphones differently: they were “paying much more attention to their devices . . . and those devices dominated their focus . . . [they] were staring into their devices intently . . . and unlike the teens, they weren’t sharing their devices with others or taking photos of the event”. For adults, phones were isolating; not, however, for teens.

Parents might still deride this social interaction as a waste of time, like going to the mall. And, unlike earlier decades, it leaves permanent records that can be read. Boyd relates how college admission officers have screened teen applicants’ Facebook pages, for example, and completely misinterpreted them. But even here, the picture is nuanced. Take the issue of privacy. In theory, kids are now being monitored more closely by parents and teachers (or the National Security Agency). But just because adults are collecting data, this does not always mean they understand them. Teenagers are developing secretive codes in cyberspace, like Carmen. They often lie in their Facebook registrations and use different communication channels to segregate groups (for example, using Twitter for their closest friends or Facebook for everyone).

The key point is that social behaviour is adaptive, and people in power (ie parents) rarely understand the coping strategies being used by others. When adults start worrying about our children’s use of the internet, we should also ask what we can learn from our children – and then look in the mirror at our own behaviour too. And have the courage to give kids more freedom physically to roam in the “real” world – alongside their travels in cyberspace.

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