Skip to main content UVA Health logo of UVA Health
Healthy Balance

Book Review: “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”

Mary A. Sullivan coordinates community advocacy, education and outreach efforts for the Teen Health Center. She’s provided health education to local students and parents for over 20 years. Here she reviews a recent book about social media and teens.

Cold and blustery days give me time to catch up on my reading, personal and professional.teensonsocial

I am no cultural alarmist when it comes to social media. I love Facebook for many reasons, and my children love Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. and use it wisely, I believe. The course of progress rarely runs smoothly and creative discovery and innovation are never purely positive or purely negative.

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” began as a doctoral dissertation for Danah Boyd, the principal researcher at Microsoft Research, research assistant professor at NYU and a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Boyd marries a search of current literature with numerous qualitative interviews in an effort to assess why social media is so popular with teens and its impact on their lives.

She deftly addresses seven issues related to teen use of social media:

  • Identity, including “impression management,” is a way of presenting one’s self to an anticipated audience. In other words, teens are likely to present themselves differently to an audience of their peers, and their social media “identity” may bear little, if any, resemblance to their “real” selves.
  • Privacy and its shifting norms feels different for teens. These new norms of privacy are what Boyd refers to as “public by default, private by effort.”
  • Addiction and the time-sucking nature of social media might also be called “flow,” psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term for being “in the zone.”
  • Danger, associated with teen use, is another concern of parents and may be overestimated. Boyd reports that, while inappropriate conversation is easier online, this does not always portend dangerous outcomes.
  • Bullying online is a very hot current topic. Boyd points out that what is called online bullying is more accurately defined as “reciprocal relational aggression,” not considered bullying in its purest sense and often referred to by teens as “drama.”
  • Inequality and cultural biases have not disappeared because of social media, and in fact, folks seem more comfortable expressing viewpoints that would be socially unacceptable in conversation.
  • Literacy, as in digital/media literacy, is a concept commonly used to divide teens and their parents. Boyd surmises that this perspective makes teens the “digital natives” and their parents the “digital immigrants,” but she also finds this perspective both distracting and reductive. These broad-brush terms may also negate the digital divide between teens who have more access to digital media and those whose access is limited, generally because of poverty.

Boyd posits that social media provides networked publics for teens eager for social interaction, in their own spaces and on their own terms.

Andrew Leonard, a journalist who recently interviewed Dr. Boyd, succinctly summarized her findings:

On one level it is designed to counter the paranoia and anxiety that many parents still feel about their children’s engagement in social media. (No, all those hours spent looking into a screen are not making our kids more vulnerable to online predators, or socially maladjusted, or liable to be bullied.) But on another level it is a poignant critique of contemporary civilization. Social media is a place that lets teens be teens — something that society, increasingly, does not. The briefest possible summary? The kids are all right, but society isn’t.

More Posts by Mary Sullivan
Summer Reading for Parents of Teens
Teens and Mental Health
April is STD Awareness Month
Preventing Teen Pregnancy

Boyd believes that the novelty of social media for parents renders it more threatening than it actually is. Social media, she states, fills the perpetual needs of teens: To hang out, to express their feelings and ideas without adult judgment and to be heard and understood.

My three children, now young adults, spent their teen years immersed in social media. How much screen time concerned and concerns me far more than what content they access or produce on Facebook or Twitter. In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised by the creativity social media sites evoke. As parents, we can be alarmist, especially about that which is novel to us.

Reply & View Comments Search Submit

Subscribe for Updates

Get stories & health tips every week