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danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She’s one of the most knowledgeable resources in the field of young people and social media. Her highly anticipated book, It’s Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens, based on ten years of field research with young people from a wide range of backgrounds, is officially released later this month. She agreed to share a preview with me and answer some questions for Digital/Edu’s readers.

danah boyd

Q. What do you think are the most common misconceptions held by media, educators, parents and the public about teens’ interactions online?

A. The overarching misconception that many adults have is that everything today is radically different than it was in the past because of social media. At the end of the day, what teens want – and what they do – actually looks a lot like it did 20 years ago. Technology certainly inflects those practices in new ways, but the underlying desires to hang out and socialize, gossip and flirt still dominate. Much to many adults’ surprise, the internet hasn’t made teens’ lives worse or more dangerous, although it certainly makes teens’ practices more visible. This visibility is often a source of anxiety, particularly when taken out of context.

danah boyd

Q. Throughout the book you take a nuanced, relatively optimistic stance toward technology. Can you explain how your research and views on, say, bullying or predators generally differ from the prevailing narratives in the media?

A. When it comes to online safety issues, there’s a tendency in popular discourse to extrapolate from extremely horrific cases and assume that this reflects what’s happening. Numerous scholars have been tracking issues like sexual predation and bullying for a long time and what they’ve found contradicts what the public thinks. For example, study after study shows that bullying happens more frequently and with greater emotional duress at school than online.

Likewise, when sexual crimes involving the internet occur, they rarely take the form of a stranger identifying a minor and abducting her/him. All too often, what happens involves abused or emotionally struggling youth seeking attention from adults knowing that sex is part of the picture. This is not to say that it’s not problematic – it’s _deeply_ problematic – but that the kinds of interventions that we need are very different than what is needed to address abductions.

One of the goals of my book is to take such online safety issues and tease out where there is merit to the concern and where the way that the concern is presented is a distraction from the real risks that youth face. I think that this is one of the things that I struggle with the most. There are many youth out there who are seriously hurting, desperately seeking attention, and otherwise making visible the pain that they are in. When we focus on the wrong things, we fail to help those youth who really need our help.

Q. Tell me about how Wikipedia is being used by students and the messages that educators are putting out about it.

A. Whenever I would ask educators about Wikipedia, they would consistently tell me that the site was inaccurate because anyone could edit it. This refrain gets echoed by young people. It doesn’t matter that studies have shown that Wikipedia is more accurate than the encyclopedia in many situations; the belief of misinformation is widespread. What saddens me about this refrain is that it undermines a fantastic educational opportunity.

Unlike other content that youth encounter, the very production of Wikipedia’s material is visible. Anyone can see who edited the page, what edits they made, and how they debated what they saw to reach the final text.

The example that I give in the book is from the American Revolution. This entry had to be resolved by both British and American contributors who saw this historical event from very different perspective. Even simple language like American references to “revolutionaries” are interpreted in British contexts as “terrorists.” Watching the discussion page unfold over how to construct this article is itself tremendously educational. And, yet, this opportunity is lost when we treat Wikipedia in a black-and-white way.

Q. Many of the people I talk to think that blended learning and one-to-one use of tablets or laptops will become the norm in American schools within a few years.How do you think this will affect the current patterns of interaction and behaviors that you observe among teens online?

A. It all depends on how devices are introduced and how they are contextualized pedagogically. Technology won’t determine outcomes, good or bad. But how teachers use that technology can.

The schools that I visited with 1:1 computer use had all introduced the machines very intentionally and with tremendous thought on the part of educators and parents. Social dynamics that shape classrooms definitely spilled onto the online interactions too, but when teachers saw this as an extension of the classroom, they treated what they saw online as such. What’s challenging to me is that I’m not at all sure how representative these early adopters are of what’s to come.

Q. Why are the social activities, both on and offline, that seem worthless or counterproductive to adults so compelling for teens?

A. Adults underestimate the value of hanging out. And yet, hanging out is where youth develop a sense of the world and their place in it. It’s where they learn to negotiate peer dynamics and social status. So much learning takes place when teens hang out but because it is not formal education, adults don’t recognize it as such. Teens want to hang out because it’s fun but I think adults need to recognize that hanging out is educational too.

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