The Social Lives of Networked Teens


However old you are, socialising has never been so complicated. In today’s world we have a myriad of platforms and devices to choose from, different friendship groups to update as well as family and colleagues; a busy work and personal life to balance.

Our social lives are played out on WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – and the list is ever expanding. But there is a new cohort of society which is of increasing interest to academics, who have had a lifetime of growing up alongside digital technology – today’s teenagers.

It’s teens who have had every aspect of their lives recorded since the creation of the Internet in the 80’s. They are the ones who have literally evolved alongside media devices and been on the receiving end of a questionable amount of privacy invasion. They are also the ones who are continuously experimenting with new platforms to escape the eyes of their policing parents and teachers.

A new book has triggered all sorts of discussions around teens and their digital behavior. “It’s Complicated” by Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and professor at New York University is an interesting proposition. It’s based on eight long years of research with interviews and focus groups with the teens of today.

The book aims to do away with myths around teenagers, focusing on their personal views on privacy and friendships. It appears that Boyd is more interested on how teens’ lives have evolved by using technology, not that the technology itself is the culprit for impacting their behaviour. Boyd says: “Teenagers like chatting to their friends; there’s nothing new in this. And most teenagers aren’t “addicted” to their phones, or their computers: they’re addicted to their friendship groups.”

Boyd says that lots of teens’ actions are not that different from previous generations. She says “Social media hasn’t radically altered the dynamics of bullying. But it has made these dynamics more visible.” Her argument seems to be that most of their actions are not due to the technology but they are just happening on public screens rather than a playground.

It’s an interesting point. However, just this morning I read an article about a teen who took 200 ‘selfies’ and turned suicidal after not getting likes on any of them. According to The Metro: “Addiction to taking selfies is apparently increasingly recognised as a ‘serious problem’ by psychiatrists.”

This suggests that a strong association between self image and apps or social networks is rife amongst teens and even leading to a few very severe cases. This also rings true of the teen YouTube phenomenon recently where young girls would record themselves on YouTube asking the public “Am I ugly?”

The Daily Mail reported this as digital “self-harm” and the concept of these teens ‘trolling themselves’ by becoming their own online bullies. The immediate danger wasn’t that the teens were being picked on out of the blue; but the fact that they were putting the limelight onto themselves through a public platform and opening themselves to major criticism.

Maybe bullying isn’t the main culprit in recent changes in teen behavior, but it appears that teens who overuse platforms as a tool of life-comparison, self-help and an outlet for depression could potentially lead to very dangerous trends in teen behavior.

Maybe social media hasn’t ‘radically altered dynamics of bullying’ as Boyd put it, but it certainly seems to be altering the way teens perceive themselves and by posting public photos and videos on the web they are potentially becoming more vulnerable to online criticism. It seems this discussion around teens’ online and offline personas and the battle for privacy is a conversation that is far from over.