I just finished Book 6 in my summer-long one-book-a-week tech book binge, danah boyd’s “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.” It’s a collection of answers to society’s most anxious questions about teens and social media based on boyd’s refreshingly nuanced research.
The week before, I took a science fiction break with Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother.” That’s a near-future fantasy in which a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil leads to the outbreak of a reckless surveillance society. The country seems all but willing to accept the loss of liberty until a resourceful tech savvy teen manages to snap us out of it.
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Both the fiction and non-fiction stories highlight a paradox about how adults view teens with tech:
They worry us. But they might also save us.
So what’s a good adult to do?
In boyd’s most insightful chapter, about privacy, she makes an excellent point: Privacy is about being able to control what people who have power over you can know about you. For adults, that might be corporations, the government, or employers. For teens, it’s first and foremost their parents.
“Teens are not particularly concerned about organizational actors; rather, they wish to avoid paternalistic adults who use safety and protection as an excuse to monitor their everyday sociality.”
And while we hover over teens, agonizing over what rules to set and trading horror stories about what can go wrong, we risk misreading healthy and even innovative teen behaviors as dangerous ones.
The adult-teen tension ran high in “Little Brother.”
“They forget what it’s like to be our age. To be the object of suspicion all the time!” a teen girl tells her friends.
“How many times have you gotten on the bus and had every person on it give you a look like you’d been gargling turds and skinning puppies?”
“It’s Complicated” is essential reading for anyone who wants to transcend the anxiety that permeates the teen tech discussion to something more honest and useful. And while “Little Brother” felt forced at times — it was clear early on that what drove the story was not character or credulity, but the fantasy of citizens using tech for good to reclaim their rights from a government using tech for evil — it’s a good test run of issues that have only become darker since the revelations about NSA surveillance.
In the end the best thing to do about teens and tech is something we’re no good at. Something much harder than jumping to conclusions, setting rules and reading surface-level articles.
It’s just to listen. Ask questions. Learn.
And then protect.
Next up, a look at pre-Facebook “social media” with Tom Standage’s “Writing on the Wall.”