Helping adolescents navigate relationships and connections in a complex networked world

New book challenges adults to examine their fears and assumptions about teens’ everyday use of social media.

Adolescence is an important stage of life for young people. It’s a time when teens explore multiple aspects of their identities – including creating ways to express themselves through physical appearance, examining their emerging sexuality and wanting to be recognized as their own person. They’re balancing the need for autonomy, freedom and independence with ways to stay connected with the adults in their lives. If you ask the teens within your circles what’s most important to them, many will emphasize the value of friendships and social connections.

According to researcher and scholar danah boyd, the need for social connection and autonomy is no different for today’s young people than it was for previous generations – but what is different is where these connections and expressions take place. While many young people in previous generations had opportunities to gather in a wide variety of physical public spaces (neighborhoods, parks, malls and shopping centers, drive-ins, etc.), today’s teens are growing up within what boyd calls “networked publics.” In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, boyd defines networked publics as spaces that are structured by networked technologies, which are built on and through social media and other emergent technologies. Just as public spaces such as parks or malls have allowed teens to connect with one another and to see themselves as part of a broader physical community, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat provide spaces where today’s teens can see themselves as part of a “collectively imagined community.”

Although adults have historically expressed concerns about and imposed limits on the spaces where young people gather, boyd emphasizes that many of today’s adults may have heightened anxiety about young people’s involvement within these technological spaces. We have concerns about the oversharing of information, cyberbullying, sexual predators and too much time spent online. Boyd challenges us to explore our fears and assumptions about teens’ everyday use of social technology and advocates finding ways that we can help teens to become informed, thoughtful and engaged within the virtual world as they make this journey toward adulthood. 

A key aspect of this exploration involves examining ways that networked publics differ from traditional physical public spaces. Boyd describes four characteristics of technological spaces that are important for adults and teens to consider (keeping in mind that each involves opportunities and challenges):

  • Persistence: Online technologies are designed to enable the durability or persistence of the information that people share. Even though we might think about an online message, conversation or picture as fleeting or temporary, this content has the potential to exist online indefinitely. In contrast, a conversation in a physical public space will come to an end (although those involved may choose to repeat parts of the conversation to others).
  • Visibility: Whether or not we’re looking for visibility, the sharing we do online has the potential to reach much larger audiences than we may have desired. Compare this to a conversation we may have with a friend in a physical public space such as a coffee shop. Although people at nearby tables may hear all, or parts of our conversation, the potential for others to hear what’s shared is usually somewhat limited. Online sharing is compounded by the default settings of most social media systems, which are designed to make information more public and easy to share. As boyd points out, “in networked publics, interactions are often public by default, private through effort,” and we often choose not to make the effort. In the book, boyd does share lots of examples of ways that many teens have used a variety of other strategies to limit the visibility of information that they don’t want broadly shared.
  • Spreadability: With the ease of a few keystrokes, social media allows us to widely forward, repost, share and duplicate information. Depending on the kind of information being shared, the results can be powerful or problematic. For example, compare the outcomes of an online petition that successfully halts a hurtful practice versus a rumor posted online that ends up having damaging consequences for the people involved.
  • Searchability: Search engines make it possible for people to easily find the messages and content that any of us post online. When these kinds of messages are uncovered in a search, they’re usually lifted out of context – meaning that they lack information that could provide critical clues and meaning. This can make it easy for the searchers to misunderstand or misinterpret the original meaning.

As boyd emphasizes, the social lives of networked teens are complicated and it’s critical to keep in mind young people’s fundamental desire to use this technology to forge the social connections that are so important to this stage of their development. By investigating our anxieties about technology – as well as listening to the voices of young people about their online experiences – adults can better help them develop the skills and perspectives needed to navigate the world they live in.

Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of resources related to the positive development of adolescents. These efforts include the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and prevent issues like bullying and cyberbullying.

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