It's Complicated review – 'online space is teenagers' only public space'

This study of teenagers' social networking habits shows that's it's not technology they are 'addicted' to – it's friendship groups

Forget the revelations about the NSA: one group in society has been living with surveillance for years. A group whose every move is tracked, whose freedom of movement is prohibited, and whose ability to associate with individuals of their choice has heavy restrictions placed upon it: teenagers. Or at least, the subject of this book: American teenagers.

It is based on eight years of research by Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft, as well as an assistant professor at New York University. She describes herself as one of the first cohort of teenagers who grew up online in the 1990s (which may or may not explain why she styles herself as "danah boyd") – and the book is grounded in hard academic research: proper interviews conducted with actual teenagers. What comes across most strongly, more so than the various "myths" and "panics" that the author describes, is just how narrow and circumscribed many of these teenager's lives have become. Policed by their parents, banned, in the US at least, from many open spaces such as shopping malls, not allowed to ride on a bus unchaperoned, online public space is for many of them the only public space they have.

The rise of Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat, says Boyd, is at least partly a quest for teenagers to find online forums that their parents haven't yet colonised, though the sheer speed in the change of technology is apparent on almost every page of the book. In many of her examples, these teenagers refer to MySpace, once the digital bleeding edge, now the embarrassing gran of the social media age, while WhatsApp, the latest tech sensation whose success has been largely fuelled by teenagers, isn't mentioned once.

But then, that's the point, says Boyd. There's an awful lot of stuff that looks different, but is essentially the same. Teenagers like chatting to their friends; there's nothing new in this. And most teenagers aren't "addicted" to their phones, or their computers: they're addicted to their friendship groups.

It's Complicated isn't the raciest of reads; it's dry, academic and Boyd does not shy away from the blindingly obvious ("Along with planes, running water, electricity and motorised transportation, the internet is now a fundamental fact of modern life.") but there are, nonetheless, a lot of interesting observations here: that most teenagers aren't "digital natives" as we like to believe. Everybody Boyd talks to, adults and teenagers alike, "expresses reverence to Google"; many believe that its results are checked by a human, and almost no one knows what an algorithm is or understands what it does. And the uptake of technology, is, like almost everything in life, shaped by class, by race, by economic circumstances. The white teenagers Boyd interviews have fancier phones than the black ones, and the social interactions online follow the same segregated lines she observes in American high schools.

Technology is neither the solution, nor the problem, she claims. And even our most cherished beliefs about teenagers' online behaviour – that they have no sense of privacy, that "sharing is akin to breathing – turn out to be more complicated than we suspect. "In North Carolina, I asked 'Waffles' about this issue, and he responded with exasperation. 'Every teenager wants privacy. Every single last one of them.'" Meanwhile, she notes Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Eric Schmidt argue that social norms around privacy have changed in order to justify their own business decisions regarding user privacy. Half the problem, Boyd suggests, is that many teenagers lack not just computer literacy but basic literacy: they simply don't understand how Facebook's privacy settings work.

There are weird things going on online, however. "Digital self-harm", it turns out, is a new way for teenage girls to punish themselves, but there's much, she says, that isn't new, or alarming or cause for panic. "Social media hasn't radically altered the dynamics of bullying," she suggests. "But it has made these dynamics more visible." Not that adults would necessarily recognise it. What looks like bullying to adult eyes ain't necessarily so.

Mostly, though, it seems that what teenagers want more than anything else is a social networking site of their own.


Carole Cadwalladr

The GuardianTramp

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