The Need to Connect Remains the Same

Last week, my buddy Meredith Stewart pointed me to a new book on the ways that teens use digital tools and social spaces written by danah boyd called It’s Complicated.

boyd’s work has driven my own thinking  for a long while.  Having spent the better part of the past decade researching what kids are REALLY doing with their cell phones, tablets and laptops, I find her insights to be far more reasoned and measured than the “sky-is-falling” paranoia that creeps into most every conversation about teens in a networked world.

One of the arguments that boyd makes early and often in It’s Complicated is that the driving force behind teen use of digital tools is the desire to connect with one another:

(download original slide on Flickr here)



boyd goes further, arguing that the desire to connect has ALWAYS driven teens to public spaces.

“The social media tools that teens use are direct descendants of the hangouts and other public places in which teens have been congregating for decades,” she writes.  “What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging and other social media are to teens now” (boyd, 2014, Kindle Location 388-393).

boyd’s point is a simple one:  Even though they’ve grown up with an Internet connection, a screen name and a thousand passwords to remember, today’s teens AREN’T all that different from the mythical sock-hop, soda-shop kids of yesteryear — and contrary to popular belief, they AREN’T digital natives drawn online because they are fascinated by new tools and technologies.  Instead, today’s teens are regular kids who are drawn online because they crave the opportunity to connect with their peers in spaces that aren’t crawling with concerned adults.

Think about it: Unmediated interactions with peers were WAY more common when we were kids, weren’t they?  How many hours did YOU spend running through backyards with the neighborhood kids until the streetlights came on, being dropped off at the roller rink to go four-wheelin’ with your friends, or eating cheap Chinese in the mall food court with your buddies?

Those kinds of interactions just don’t happen much anymore — parents are too worried about catching predators, building perfect college applications, or getting to soccer practices to let their kids run free — and growing up in a world where safety concerns and over-scheduled lifestyles mean that there are fewer opportunities to connect with one another  has pushed teens to the one place where they know they can gather without needing a homework-free night or a ride from their parents: The Internet.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about what’s happening in social spaces.  boyd points out that because digital content is permanent, searchable and remarkably easy to share, mistakes made in digital spaces are amplified.  What’s more, while gossip, peer pressure and bullying aren’t behaviors that are unique to 21st Century teens, there’s no escape from gossip, peer pressure and bullying when we literally carry the spaces where those behaviors happen in our back pockets.

But doubting today’s teens — and worse yet, sensationalizing their use of social networks without REALLY understanding why those spaces matter — is a failure on the part of the parents, teachers and coaches who claim to care about the kids in their lives.

Interested in learning more about how teens are using social media?  Then pick up a copy of It’s Complicated, follow #itscomplicated on Twitter, and join Royan Lee and I in a Google Hangout on April 3rd from 7:30-9:30 EST.

This is a topic worth talking about and a title worth exploring.



Related Radical Reads:

Classroom Technology and the Motivational Herring

Digital Immigrants Unite

Technology Gives Kids Power

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  • Becky Goerend


    Bill –
    Thanks so much for sharing about this book. Part of my new job is teaching a Communications course to sixth graders. This book will help me so much as I teach about digital citizenship and using these tool.


  • SandyMerz

    Crash and Choose

    The post reminds me of the scene in the movie Crash when at the scene of the accident one character muses to another that the reasons there are so many accidents in LA is because in spite of the isolaton that the city and freeways cause, people have to connect – even if it means crashing.

    It also reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s poem, Choose: 

    The single clenched fist lifted and ready,

    Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.


    For we meet by one or the other.


  • BillIvey

    Thank you so much for this!

    You’ve summarized neatly and clearly what I’ve been trying to say for years. 🙂  Perhaps it helps that I both work with adolescents and have an active online life myself – it keeps me grounded both in the realities (both transgenerational and modern day) of teen life and in the realities of what it actually means to have an online life. Yes, the permanence of the digital world is a legitimate factor, and one with which we need to be dealing openly, but in no way do I think the sky is falling any more than it was in the 80’s, or 50’s, or (in the famous example) Socrates’ day.

    With reference to the mall in the 1980’s… that argument lives on in my school even today! Many of you know we’re a boarding school, and so a weekly task is coming up with weekend activities. For a certain population of teachers and parents, the Mall Trip is a perpetual annoyance – seen as a focus on consumerism and materialism. I don’t deny there can be an element of that, and I think there are ways of mitigating that aspect… but in the end, I feel that for many of the kids, it’s primarily nothing more or less than an opportunity to get off campus and walk around together with their friends. And that, I can definitely and firmly support!