Microsoft researcher and New York University professor Danah Boyd has some advice for parents fretting over the countless hours their teens spend on phones, tablets and computers: Go buy a ceramic piggy bank.
Seems peculiar, but then the 34-year-old explains her thinking. In her revelatory new book book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Boyd argues that teens need screen time to grow, learn and stay socially plugged in. And unlike those who fear social media is bad for our kids, making them sedentary and incapable of face-to-face interaction, she says the Internet is an essentially good (as well as inevitable) part of their lives. And they don't need anxious parents monitoring everything they tweet or post.
The key to a healthy parent-child relationship at any age, she says, is mutual respect and trust – and here is where the piggy bank comes in. Boyd tells families to write all their social-media passwords on a slip of paper and pop it into the pig, with the understanding that the information can only be accessed in case of an emergency. "If the need arises, the piggy bank can always be broken, but it creates a level playing field of privacy, which is everyone's right," she says. "It's a symbolic move that goes a long way."
Highly regarded by her academic peers as a tireless and enthusiastic child researcher and advocate, Boyd has painstakingly researched her book, befriending many of the 150 teens she interviewed along the way. "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," one of her NYU colleagues told the New York Times.
Boyd convincingly argues that parental paranoia should be dialled down a notch. The Internet – much like the sock hop or ice-cream shop – is a natural gathering place for teens to do what they have always done: flirt, gossip and swap secrets away from the prying eyes of Mom and Dad. In an animated interview during which she was clearly on the fly, Boyd explained why it's important for parents to cut kids some social-media slack.
Why is it important to give kids the freedom to explore online?
Kids need to be a part of public life, part of a broader society. By trying to restrict them from that accessibility, they're cut off, so when they're finally out of the family home, they don't know how to cope. Part of the challenge for parents is to slowly let go so that your child goes from being truly dependent on you, to being an independent creature. Social media engages them and gives contemporary coping skills that are important before sending them off to college.
You argue that the issues of cyber-bullying and sexual predation need to be put in the proper perspective. Explain.
With regard to bullying, the Internet makes more visible something that has existed for a long time, and we still haven't figured out how to cope with it. Technology does not cause bullying. People do. Saying it would stop if technology went away is wrong. I think it can be harnessed to give us new pathways to address this age-old problem.
Sexual predation is an uglier reality, and there are some horrible cases out there, but they are not as prevalent as the media makes out. Numbers-wise, sending your kids to school or church is much more risky, and we're not going to stop doing that. Kids are online, so parents have to make them aware of the sexual/emotional dangers they may encounter and empower them with the tools to know how to deal with those situations.
You've said the Internet was your "saving grace." Why?
I grew in Lancaster, Pa., in the first cohort of teenagers who really had Internet access. Early adopters of most major social media have always been self-identified geeks and queers, and I didn't fit in. I spent most of my teen years talking to people from all over the world. There were two encounters that meant a lot. One was with an active military member who was in the first Gulf War, and the other was with a transgender woman who allowed me to ask absolutely outrageous questions. They gave me insight into worlds I knew nothing about and told me amazing stories. I found it liberating.
How has over-programming our kids pushed them to embrace social media?
They have no time. Their lives are so structured. It's a middle- to upper-class phenomenon where they go from morning to night in activities that are "good for them." Kids are grabbing onto the Internet because it's something they can engage with in their limited – but precious – down time.
Why is there such a huge gap between what parents and kids think sociability looks like?
Parents forget what it was like to be young, and not have much freedom. We may complain about being busy at work, but it's nothing compared to what young people face in terms of restrictions and restraints. And we forget as adults how overwhelming that feeling of boredom was. Teenagers now feel they have the tools to fill that boredom. You may think they should be learning Shakespeare, but they're pretty much convinced that figuring out the peer dynamic of their friends is what they should be learning.
What's your advice to parents losing their heads over their kids' screen time?
Relax. This is what today's peer sociality looks like. You wanted to be wherever was cool. This group wants to be online. The question parents have to ask is: Are they engaging in this in a reasonable way, or is it reaching a tipping point? It comes back to conversations. Ask your child: What do you want? What is your goal? If it's to spend the rest of your life in this house on the computer, then that's a very different intervention. If it's 'No mom, I'm just trying to survive high school,' appreciate that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.