Is your son always on Twitter, your daughter on Facebook? Don't panic – these are key life skills. By Barbara McMahon
Growing up in the 90s, Danah Boyd was smart but rebellious. Her brother introduced her to the internet and her teen years were spent "conversing with strangers about sexuality, identity and all sorts of teenage angst". The internet, she says, was her saviour during that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood.
Now 34, she is a leading interpreter of young people's behaviour on the internet, a senior researcher for Microsoft, Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Centre and adviser to Lady Gaga's anti-bullying foundation.
Sitting in a Microsoft conference room, she quotes a report by Dr William Bird, a UK-based health adviser, which says that, over the last four generations, children have lost their right to roam. They no longer walk to school or play outside. "Because their physical freedom has been curtailed, teens hang out on social media sites," she says. "It's the equivalent of going to the mall."
Boyd is particularly interested in teenagers' privacy. She says teens come to social media understanding that their friendships will be played out publicly – but that they want an element of confidentiality. Because children do not have the power to prevent adults from looking in on their activities online, they are finding new ways to be "private in public", she says. Teenagers post in-jokes and use song lyrics or cryptic references only they and their friends can understand.
"It's important that their friends can see what they're saying and it's equally important that the adults cannot," Boyd says. She calls this "social steganography", a reworking of the art of hiding messages in plain sight. What children are doing today isn't any different from the behaviour of previous generations who posted "Keep Out" notices on their bedroom doors, Boyd notes.
Her research shows Facebook is fading, with Twitter and Instagram emerging as the tools that teens are passionate about. "They use them to follow celebrities and participate in public life," Boyd says. "But perhaps what's most surprising to people is that some teens turn to Twitter for more intimate interactions than are possible on Facebook because it's easy to create a protected account and connect with a small group."
Boyd acknowledges that she often sees "panicked parents misinterpret things and yell about the internet", but thinks their fears are overblown. "Social media makes many aspects of teen life very visible," she explains. "Parents don't often understand what they see. They're anxious about the amount of time teens spend on social media and are horrified by the cruelty that takes place there. It often prompts adults to believe that bullying is far worse online, even though data shows bullying happens more in face-to-face settings.
Meanwhile, social media creates a new kind of public space, what I call 'networked publics'. Parents worry about their children doing things that have long-term consequences, how they might be influenced by youths with different values and how they might meet strangers who will do them harm. These are not new worries, but they are increasing with the rise of social media."
In a posting on her blog, Boyd says: "The best way to understand the internet is that it's a digital street. The internet mirrors and magnifies life, including the good, the bad and the ugly. Rather than being afraid of what we see online, we need to embrace what's visible and develop new strategies for making sense of what we see." Her advice for concerned parents is simple: "Observe, listen and ask questions. Do not presume that you understand what you see but also do not ignore when your children clearly need your help."
She points out that teenagers engaged in risky behaviour online are usually those in trouble offline due to abuse, drugs, poverty or mental health issues.
Blocking children's access to the internet, or constant surveillance, is not the answer to parenting in the digital age, says Boyd. Parents should think of the internet just as they think of wider society. It throws up many social issues they need to talk to their children about. With constant dialogue, parents should be able to feel they don't need to stand over their teens' shoulders.
She says that family members should write their passwords down and deposit them in a piggybank: "I'm talking about the piggybank that you have to smash to open. Everyone puts their passwords in there, in case there is ever a real emergency, but after that it's about trust. If parents break that trust and snoop on their kids, it teaches them not to trust you."
Danah Boyd's book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, is forthcoming from Yale University Press