Why all that time texting is good for your kids. A Q&A with author Danah Boyd.

To America’s fretful parents of social-media obsessed teens: Chill out, the kids are all right. That’s the message of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” by youth and technology researcher Danah Boyd.

(Jens Büttner/DPA/AP Images)
(Jens Büttner/DPA/AP Images)

But what about cyberbullies and predators going after your kids? An exaggerated problem dished out by the media, Boyd says. Are smartphones making our kids  narcissistic and socially stunted? Um, parents, take a look in the mirror, or at least up from your own smartphone at the dinner table and stop sending mixed signals on the use of tech, she adds.

Boyd’s pro-technology message for youths goes against the strain of popular concerns that children are exposed to more media online than ever before. Child development experts have cautioned that a generation of “digital natives” may come out worse than previous generations from all the time they are spending texting, Snapchatting and gaming on the multitude of devices they have at their fingertips. Maryland and other states have enacted new cyberbullying laws, and federal lawmakers are considering similar action.

Author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” Danah Boyd (Cecilia Kang/The Washington Post)
Author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” Danah Boyd (Cecilia Kang/The Washington Post)

But the Microsoft researcher and fellow of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society says that time online can even be healthy. Particularly so for a generation that is more scheduled, stressed out and tied to home than ever.

Boyd, who was in town to promote her book, sat down for an interview about her views on helicopter parents, stressed-out teens, and the not-so-wild world of the Web. Her research from hundreds of interviews with teens across the nation has been warmly received by parents tired of being told to be afraid for their kids.

But she’s also drawn criticism from some parents, educators and law enforcement officials who have seen how the rapid-fire spread of cruelty online can take on a powerful whack that’s putting new stress on youths. The effects of the Internet on social development is still little understood, social scientists say, and it’s far too early to say the kids are okay.

Here’s an edited version of our talk.

Q: Why write this book?

A: It’s the culmination of a decade of research where I was seeing things that weren’t being reflected in the media. What I was hearing from parents and the media when it came to teens and social media was, “Be afraid, be very afraid.” But it was clear to me from the data that that shouldn’t be the message. Largely, kids are all right as ever.

Q: Why the fear mongering? You say bullying online and predators trying to contact kids is very rare. But it does feel like the Web makes cruelty online easier, and it’s much easier for strangers to contact youth.
A: We get so caught up in our imagination of the worst-case scenario. On the sexual predation conversation, the majority of youth experience sexual predation at the hands of a sexual peer. But instead of focusing our efforts on preparing a 14-year-old that a senior may rape her, we focus on the potential for a stranger online going after teens. The media is not helping this.

Q: But what about the growing number of bullying cases that involve social media and that are connected to suicides of youth? Rebecca Sedwick in Lakeland, Fla., for example, apparently sought help from adults and appeared to be targeted by middle school peers on various social networks. One problem her death highlighted was the challenge for parents, educators and law enforcement to even keep up with the many social networks being used by kids and bullying that occurs on those sites.
A: The challenge in that case is we don’t know all the nuances. Emily Bazelon at Slate has done amazing work on reports of previous cases of cyberbullying-related suicides. In many cases where the media was very prosecutorial of kids involved in bullying, she found that the stories were much more complicated and that mental health issues were involved.
There is a whole range of meanness and cruelty, but the media lumps it all into one category. And law enforcement has gotten much worse with overly broad laws that are very punitive.

Q: So what is the data on cyberbullying? Is it getting worse?
A: The problem is methodology. There is no methodology that everyone can agree on. But the problem is broader than tracking by numbers. It’s cultural. We live in a culture where reality television shows messages of cruelty and cruel behavior is rewarded. What we need to do is start the conversation on building bonds within a community.

Q: What can technology companies like Facebook do on this front? They are making gobs of money from young online users. What should they do to protect youth online?
A: Engineers aren’t exactly the best people to design empathy in their tools. And we don’t want them to. Empathy is shaped by one’s community.

Q: How does that happen, exactly?
A: You want teachers, aunts and uncles, coaches and other adults getting involved in young people’s lives and connecting with them online. And they need to have different accounts for their personal stuff -- forget the Facebook rules about online one account -- and another one for connecting with young people.

Q: That seems like a hornet’s nest for teachers. They have to maintain a bright line between themselves and students. And schools have very little, or very vague, authority to monitor kids online.
A: Teachers that I talk to in working-class communities want to do whatever they can do to help their students. When they see their teens struggling, being harmed at home or having trouble online, they want to help. But in our anxiety-driven society, these mechanisms won’t work.

Q: You say parents are terrible models when it comes to tech. Explain.
A: Let’s focus on distracted driving. When I started asking youth why they text and drive, they say that if they don’t answer their parents right away they would be inundated by texts from parents asking why they weren’t replying. Parents are giving mixed messages because they want to put a digital leash on young people but have no limits on their own behavior.

Q: How is this different from past generations? Our parents said no TV but couldn’t get enough of it themselves.
A: The difference is that when we were kids, we got on our bikes and checked in every once in awhile at home but weren’t expected to be connected to parents all the time. Young people just want to be with friends, and that is no different from any generation. But they have fewer opportunities to connect with friends.

Q: Where’s your data on this? I’ve suspected this but haven’t found data to back up this observation.
A: You have to look a confluence of factors that probably began with curfew laws in the 1980s. At the same time, a response to latchkey kids in the 1980s was to create activities and to overstructure the lives of young people after school. The suburbanization of families meant geographies in a school district became huge. Parents both began working, so kids depended on them for rides to see those friends who lived far away. Malls began to shoo away kids, and young people had fewer places to meet. There were fewer ways to make money, like babysitting or working at McDonalds, jobs that are not being filled by 50-year-olds because of the economy. And then, there is just much more homework.

Q:What’s the consequence?
A: Kids aren’t able to learn by making mistakes. They aren’t sneaking out and learning for themselves how to make decisions by trial and error. So it’s no wonder why they are flocking to social networks. They are so hungry to connect with friends. It’s very healthy for them to do so online.

Q: Do you have the same message for tweens, middle schoolers who are already owning their own smartphones?
A: It depends on your child. There is a huge range of maturity and development for middle school children. Gender matters, too. Boys are more interested in gaming and entertainment. Girls are more interested in social networks, and they are way way more sophisticated at working out the social dynamics of those social networks.

Q: So what’s your checklist for parents and other adults on how to talk to kids about social media?
A: There is no checklist. It’s an ongoing conversation. Be present. Be engaged. Listen. And that’s particularly hard in a town like Washington when everyone is way way too stressed and stretched in different directions.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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