Art Bamford of Fuller Youth Institute talks to danah boyd, author of the book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft, a Professor at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Fuller Youth Institute: A lot of parents and leaders ask us about how to help young people set better boundaries with digital media. What have you learned about how teens and families navigate this?
danah boyd: When parents are looking for limits, I start by asking: why? Are they trying to limit their child’s sociality? Most do not think of it in those terms but that’s what the limiting often creates for youth. Youth aren’t avoiding face-to-face; they’re going online because true, non-surveilled face-to-face is rarely an option.
I also find that many parents hate when phones are seen as a disruption, but are completely unable to check their own practices around this. So many teens that I meet complain that their parents place restrictions on their technology use that they don’t abide by.
Teens are fully aware of when their parents are being hypocrites. So my advice to parents is to start by collectively constructing household rules that *everyone* (parents and children) agree to. This is so much more productive when negotiated as a household, not top-down.
What do you see as the biggest disconnect between how parents think about media and technology as compared to their teens?
I get very frustrated when parents – and other adults – focus on the technology because it’s the thing that is new, rather than putting teens’ technological practices in context. Teens aren’t turning to technology because it’s inherently attractive. They’re doing so because it’s the one way that they have to connect with their friends in a culture in which we’ve placed heavy restrictions on teens’ mobility and social opportunities.
With this in mind, my first advice to parents is: step back and try to appreciate your kids’ practices in the broader context of their lives. Most youth are trying to find their way in this world and it doesn’t help when parents get all judge-y.
The second thing that I’d advise parents is to build a wide support structure for their kids, including other trusted adults they can turn to and a strong parent-child communication framework rooted in trust and respect.
What do you wish more adult youth leaders (pastors, coaches, extracurricular instructors) would talk about with young people regarding how they use social media and digital technology and the common issues that arise?
From my perspective, the key is for youth leaders not to focus on the technology but to help young people work through the struggles that are very much shaped by their age, status, and position in society.
When technology enters the picture, it’s often what makes teens’ struggles very visible. I often think back to the amazing work by Jane Jacobs where she highlighted how safety isn’t about law enforcement, but about a collective willingness to pay attention to everyone around us. 2
I wish that adult youth leaders would be willing to enter teens’ networked lives when they’re invited to do so and be respectful of what they find. But when it comes to talking with them, the key is to get beyond the technology and get to the root of what’s happening. It starts by neither fearing technology nor presuming it to be the center of everything. It’s simply that which mirrors and magnifies everyday life.
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