Cracking Teenagers’ Online Codes
By PAMELA PAUL
WITH her coordinated zebra-striped scarf, tights and arm warmers (arm warmers?), spiky out-to-there hat and pierced tongue, 34-year-old Danah Boyd provides an electric Gen Y contrast to the staid gray lobby of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Mass., which she enters in a flurry of animated conversation, Elmo-decorated iPhone in hand. In a juxtaposition that causes her no end of mischievous delight, her laptop bears a sticker of Snow White, whose outstretched arm gently cradled the Apple logo.
But Dr. Boyd — a senior researcher at Microsoft, an assistant professor at New York University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard — is a widely respected figure in social media research. With a number of influential scholarly papers under her name, she travels relentlessly, tweets under the handle Zephoria and has fans trailing her at TED conferences, at South by Southwest and elsewhere on the high-tech speaking circuit.
She is also a kind of rock star emissary from the online and offline world of teenagers. The young subjects of her research become her friends on Facebook and subscribe to her Twitter feed.
“The single most important thing about Danah is that she’s the first anthropologist we’ve got who comes from the tribe she’s studying,” said Clay Shirky, a professor in the interactive telecommunications program at N.Y.U. and a fellow at the Berkman Center.
There’s no shortage of grown-up distress over the dangers young people face online. Parents, teachers and schools worry about teenagers posting their lives (romantic indiscretions, depressing poetry and all), leaking passwords and generally flouting social conventions as predators, bullies and unsavory marketers lurk. Endless back-and-forthing over how to respond effectively — shutting Web sites, regulating online access and otherwise tempering the world of social media for children — dominates the P.T.A. and the halls of policy makers.
But as Dr. Boyd sees it, adults are worrying about the wrong things.
Children today, she said, are reacting online largely to social changes that have taken place off line.
“Children’s ability to roam has basically been destroyed,” Dr. Boyd said in her office at Microsoft, where a view of the Boston skyline is echoed in the towers of books on her shelves, desk and floor. “Letting your child out to bike around the neighborhood is seen as terrifying now, even though by all measures, life is safer for kids today.”
Children naturally congregate on social media sites for the relatively unsupervised conversations, flirtations, immature humor and social exchanges that are the normal stuff of teenage hanging-out, she said.
“We need to give kids the freedom to explore and experience things online that might actually help them,” she added. “What scares me is that we don’t want to look at the things that make us uncomfortable. So rather than see what teenagers are showing us online about bullying and suicide and the problems they’re dealing with and using that information to help them, we’re making ourselves blind to it.”
These are issues that Dr. Boyd has lived with and knows well.
“At the age of 16, I thought I’d be dead by 21,” she said. “I lost 13 classmates to drug overdoses, suicides, accidents and a murder.”
Her parents divorced when she was 5 and her father largely disappeared. She was raised by her mother, sometimes in straitened circumstances, in Lancaster, Pa. Bored at school, she rebelled — challenging teachers, lashing out at her mother, hanging out with hackers and languishing in school.
“The Internet was my saving grace,” Dr. Boyd said. “I would spend my teenage nights talking to strangers online, realizing there were other smart kids out there.”
She also often reached out to adults online, many of whom acted as de facto counselors and mentors. Dr. Boyd’s own positive experience on platforms like Usenet and Internet Relay Chat fuels her dismay over attempts to restrict children’s use of the Internet today.
She asks, for example, how teenagers can be encouraged to become politically active when so much of that activity takes place online. And she wonders whether gay children grappling with their sexuality might benefit enormously from chatting online with adults who have been through similar situations.
“There are lots of places where it’s extraordinarily helpful for kids to talk to adults,” she said.
Moreover, grown-ups’ panic about teenage online behavior distracts from the potential benefits. Bullying, Dr. Boyd said, occurs more frequently in schools than on the Internet, and in neither case, according to data she cites, is it on the rise.
“The most deadly misconception about American youth has been the sexual predator panic,” she said. “The model we have of the online sexual predator is this lurking man who reaches out on the Internet and grabs a kid. And there is no data that support that. The vast majority of sex crimes against kids involve someone that kid trusts, and it’s overwhelmingly family members.”
A teenage girl who has been sexually molested by an uncle and who has nobody she can talk to in her hometown might benefit greatly from communicating with a counselor online.
Despite her own teenage rebellion or perhaps because of it, Dr. Boyd ended up at Brown, where she studied computer science, and at the Media Lab at M.I.T., where she got her master’s. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, working at Google, Yahoo and Tribe at the same time.
She now calls herself an activist and a scholar. Her Twitter handle is “social media scholar, youth researcher & advocate.” She is also working on a long overdue book for Yale University Press, “The Social Lives of Networked Teens.” (The title, she said jokingly, should really be “It’s Complicated.”)
In November she was tapped, along with John Palfrey, a director of the Berkman Center, to run the research arm of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, an organization devoted to empowering youth.
Dr. Boyd’s standard mode of research combines traditional quantitative work with deep ethnographic research — embedding herself in youth communities, whether it’s middle-class Muslim gangs in Nashville or Ivy League aspirants who navigate social media with startling sophistication.
One of her most influential and contentious papers showed that when teenagers transitioned from MySpace to Facebook, a kind of “white flight” occurred, in which Facebook became more associated with children who aspire to college.
By focusing on a range of issues — sexual predation, teenage suicide, bullying, sexting, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual trafficking — Dr. Boyd has shown, often to the dismay of those in the tech community who believe that the Internet is the ultimate equalizer, that issues of race, class and gender persist in the virtual world just as in the real world. The children in families characterized by alcohol and drug abuse, financial stress, divorce and sexual abuse reveal their struggles online just as they do off.
“She was the first to say that the teenagers at risk off line are the same ones who are at risk online,” said Alice Marwick, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft who works closely with Dr. Boyd. “It’s not that the Internet is doing something bad to these kids, it’s that these bad things are in kids’ lives and the Internet is just a component of that.”
Most broadly, with troubled teenagers and model youth alike, adolescent online behavior is a reflection of what teenagers’ social lives have always been: friendship, gossip, flirting, transgressing and keeping it all — good and bad — from parents.
One girl Dr. Boyd knows made her Facebook page sound as if she were depressed so that she could use her mental state as a pretext for breaking up with a boyfriend. When a teenager posts the lyrics to a suicidal love song on her Facebook page, her mother may panic while her friends know it’s just a reference to an annoying ex-friend.
“Teenagers try to hide what’s really going on in their communication online,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the M.I.T. Center for Civic Media. “Danah is very good at figuring out how to crack those codes. And she’s made a strong case that teenagers are using the Internet in ways that are far more productive and creative and less harmful than people assume.”
Most shocking to adults may be how similar teenagers are to them when it comes to online behavior.
“Teenagers absolutely care about privacy,” Dr. Boyd said, adding that like adults, they share things to feel loved, connected and supported.
“Teenagers are not some alien population,” she said. “When we see new technologies, we think they make everything different for young people. But they really don’t. Teenagers are the same as they always were.”