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With Teens And Social Media, Lack Of Context Is Everything


You know, as I host this program, I'm on a social media platform - Twitter, as a matter of fact. There is no group that takes that new social media platform more than teenagers, and that's exactly what worries a lot of parents. Danah Boyd is a respected researcher in the world of social media. She spent years studying teenagers and how they interact online. Her findings are in a new book called "It's Complicated." In this encore broadcast, NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Danah Boyd is one of those people who seems to have memorized the maps of the World Wide Web.

DANAH BOYD: Hold on one second.

BLAIR: She roams, like the rest of us, but she also seems to know exactly where to go and what to do when she gets there. She's got a variety of different Twitter accounts.

BOYD: So, I have both my formal, professional Zephoria account but then I also have a personal account, which is me joking around with friends, and then I have an even sillier account where I pretend to be my 7-month-old son.

BLAIR: When she wants to share photos with friends, she goes to Flickr.

BOYD: Flickr has been a home for a long time.

BLAIR: For work, she goes to LinkedIn.

BOYD: This is when I want to engage with, you know, a professional world. I'll write posts here.

BLAIR: Then, with some eye rolling, Danah Boyd says, yes, she's on Facebook but she says it's a hard space to manage.

BOYD: I have to simultaneously deal with professional situations, friends from the past, friends from the present all in one environment, and I don't share the same thing in those worlds. For me, it's just, you know, a world of context collapse.

BLAIR: Context collapse. Danah Boyd, who attended MIT and works for Microsoft, isn't sure whether she or a fellow social scientist coined the phrase but she refers to it a lot. She says, like adults, teenagers are figuring out how to present themselves in different contexts. One of the chapters in her new book is all about why teenagers seem to behave so strangely online.

BOYD: They're trying to figure out the boundaries with regard to their peers. So, what is cool? What, you know, what is funny? What will, you know, get them a lot of attention good or bad?

BLAIR: And, as they get older, they want to look cooler.

BOYD: And so you see people being like, you know, Carebear 3344, and then they'd realize that, you know, they're no longer 13 and talking about Carebears is no longer cute. And so they have to write something more sophisticated. And so then we pick up, you know, a Jack Kerouac reference and all of the sudden somebody's is Dharma Bum.

BLAIR: To write "It's Complicated," Danah Boyd spent about eight years studying teenagers and their social media behavior. She traveled to 16 different U.S. states, different communities - rich and poor, urban and rural. She interviewed over 160 teenagers. She promised them confidentiality. So, I went to talk to some high school students in Washington, D.C. about some of the issues raised in Boyd's book, like context collapse. Fourteen-year-old Faith Sydnor told me that she and her friends use social media to talk to each other, and that's why they've left Facebook.

FAITH SYDNOR: 'Cause older people are getting on there and we want, like, our own social network to ourselves, I guess, so we won't get in trouble.

BLAIR: Teenagers, Danah Boyd writes in her book, are desperate to have access to a social world like that which adults take for granted. Jamahri Sydnor thinks a lot of adults don't understand that her smartphone is a place to relax and have fun.

JAMAHRI SYDNOR: My phone is my escape from, like, all of the things in school. So, like, and also other things that stress me out. So, I think that being on your phone is, like, a good thing. And, like, games and social networking is a good thing 'cause you can, like, escape.

BLAIR: Danah Boyd says for the most part teenagers are doing online what they've always done. The difference now is that if that teenager isn't careful, the world can see it. For her book, she also talked to a lot of adults - parents, ministers, teachers. Once, an admissions officer from any Ivy League school contacted her about an essay they'd received from an African-American teenager from South Central Los Angeles.

BOYD: And he wrote really beautifully about wanting to leave behind the gangs that surrounded him growing up.

BLAIR: The school loved the essay, says Boyd, but then they checked out his Myspace profile and found out it was full of references to gang activity. Boyd says the admissions officer asked her why would he lie to us?

BOYD: And this question was sort of fascinating to me because, you know, I didn't know this particular kid. But my guess, having spent a lot of time in that region of Los Angeles, is that he was working on survival.

BLAIR: Boyd believes it's possible he needed to affiliate with a gang for his own safety.

BOYD: And so what happened was Myspace became a place of performing those gang affiliations. Those Myspace profiles were never designed for the college admissions officer. And so here's this college admissions officer not understanding a context in which this teenager is operating.

BLAIR: Context is everything, says Boyd. She believes teenagers' behavior online is often misinterpreted without it. Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher and director of Teens and Technology at the Pew Research Center, agrees. Lenhart says Danah Boyd digs deeper.

AMANDA LENHART: She goes out and she does the leg work and she spends the time to talk with a bunch of these kids and then kind of glean it and digest it and put it out there for the rest of us to use.

BLAIR: Danah Boyd says she was going to call her new book "Like Duh," because so many of the teenagers she interviewed think all of this is obvious. But instead, perhaps to help adults feel better, it's called "It's Complicated: Social Lives of Network Teens." Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.