If you think your teenagers are using online social networking sites to flirt with dirty old men and learn how to make bombs, take a deep breath. The biggest threat for teens online isn’t sexual predators or militia nutbags, it’s marketers, scammers, and phishers, says Danah Boyd, a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley’s School of Information and a leading authority on youth digital culture.
The peripatetic Boyd, whose academic life is a blur of conferences, cross-country flights, constant blogging, and controversial papers (she recently identified a class divide between MySpace kids and more sophisticated college-bound Facebook users), likens online marketing to pickpocketing. “It’s unbelievably annoying,” she huffs via cell phone while driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Though teens are more than capable of recognizing the digital advances of “some sketchy guy,” they are troubled by marketers and scammers who lurk on sites where they hang out with their friends. Having been confined to their homes by nervous parents who increasingly see malls, parks, burger joints, and other public spaces as unsafe, Boyd says teens are being hunted down in the only place left to them—the digital world.
At 29, Boyd (who has legally changed her name to lowercase-only as a social protest) is a blogging veteran of ten years. She identifies with her teenage colleagues and functions as their advocate. “What the teenagers are doing on these sites looks a hell of a lot like what the parents did in the mall,” she says. “Life online is not nearly as scary as people think.” In fact, most teens are not even making new friends online but maintaining links with their offline friends from school.
Boyd estimates she has viewed more than 10,000 profiles on social networking sites including MySpace and Facebook. “The vast majority are unbelievably lame,” featuring pictures of teens at football games and “goofing around with their friends,” she says. A typical entry reads: “I want to go to college and my hero is God.” Boyd says, “A lot of these kids, you just want to reach out and hug them.” And in a way, she does, by leaving supportive messages for the rare troubled teens she encounters online.
Boyd calls this “digital outreach” and thinks it could be the key to counseling troubled kids, similar to traditional urban outreach on the streets. “It’s not about adults coming in and telling them, ‘I know how the world works.'” She is not aware of any organized digital outreach and says she doesn’t have time to do it herself due to research and writing commitments, a situation she finds “really frustrating.”
From the November December 2007 New Media issue of California.