Review of Chapter 3, Addiction – what makes teens obsessed with social media?
Pathologizing the Social Media Generation
Twenty-first century teenagers are exposed to a number of social media platforms, from Instagram and Tumblr to Facebook and Snapchat. These new platforms have helped create not only burgeoning online communities, but also shaped emerging forms of sociality unrecognizable to the generations that came before. It is this unrecognizability that undergirds many of the anxieties that surround teen social media usage. Fears of addiction are particularly prevalent amongst parents and critics. In her chapter, “Addiction - what makes teens obsessed with social media?,” danah boyd outlines the conversations and concerns regarding the online social lives of contemporary teenagers. The picture that emerges from boyd’s chapter strikes a balance between the concerns of onlookers, namely parents, and the lived experiences of the teenagers themselves, who are often pathologized as addicts, helpless to fight the pervasive and destructive influence of social media.
The pathologization of teenagers is nothing new. Boyd begins her history of teen addiction in the 1930s, when marijuana was cited as a dangerously addictive substance targeted at “vulnerable young people” (82). As the decades passed, drugs continued to be the primary focus of addiction narratives, especially as the abuse rates of substances like heroin rose in the fifties and sixties. While drug-related deaths raised legitimate cause for concern, the rhetoric of addiction began to dominate popular discourse surrounding youth culture. While American society is better able to understand and provide support for those suffering from addiction, the pervasiveness of addiction rhetoric has simultaneously pathologized non-normative behavior. “The problem with popular discussions about addiction,” boyd argues, “is that it doesn’t matter whether people are chemically or psychologically dependent on a substance or behavior. Anyone who engages in a practice in ways society sees as putting more socially acceptable aspects of their lives in jeopardy are seen as addicted” (83). Twenty-first century teenagers have unprecedented access to the internet as well as all of the communities and platforms contained therein. When they spend their free time (and, more problematically, their non-free time) online rather than engaging in more recognizable kinds of sociality, that behavior is interpreted as aberrant and subsequently pathologized as an addiction.
By providing interviews with the teens themselves, boyd is able to demonstrate the fundamental misunderstanding that lies at the root of the pathologization of teen social media usage. Where parents and research describe the online lives of teenagers as antisocial and isolating, the teenagers most engaged in social media are in fact engaging in their own kind of sociality: that which occurs online. As the moniker suggests, social media is, in fact, social in nature. In interviews, most teenagers characterize their need to be online with their need to see what their friends are doing and what events are coming up. These teens are also not, as is often commented, eschewing “real life” socialization in favor of social media. Boyd meticulously details the ways in which the social lives of contemporary teenagers are vastly different from those of their parents, due in no small part to the overly structured nature of their lives. From extra-curricular activities and curfews to more regimented transportation schedules and safety concerns, teenagers today simply do not have the kind of unstructured free time that allows for casual socialization the way their parents did as recently as a couple of decades ago. While their parents found time for socializing after school before walking home or while killing time out and about on weekends, teenagers today have had to move casual social interactions from sidewalks to smartphone apps. Social media becomes a way for teenagers to negotiate the boundaries of their free time and to adapt sociality to fit within those confines. The end result is a form of online sociality that parents and other media researchers simply don’t recognize. Boyd refers to this unrecognizability as a “gap in perspective” that helps fuel the pathologization of teen social media use (85).
What is especially frightening is the way in which teens are starting to pathologize themselves: in a number of interviews, teens self-diagnosed their behavior as an addiction. The internalization of addiction rhetoric also leads to a distinct anxiety that surrounds social media use. A number of teens from boyd’s study express feeling anxious about the amount of time they spend on social media with one teenager going so far as to “commit ‘Facebook suicide’ because he felt ‘addicted’ to it” (77). While social media addiction is a real, if rare, condition, the tendency to sensationalize such teen addiction stigmatizes the behavior as a whole. The fear, as outlined by boyd, is that excessive use of social media has damaging effects on teenagers’ “real life” social, academic, and professional lives. In turn, this places far too much emphasis on social media technologies as the sole determinate of “success.” This returns to the perspective gap as the myopic view of social media by parents and researchers overlooks other factors in teenagers’ lives as impactful (79). Unfortunately, the tendency towards pathologization also tends to negate any sense of agency for teenagers. As teens spend time on social media sites, adults attribute the supposedly destructive behavior to a lack of any kind of control rather than understanding new forms of sociality. Again, while the problem of social media addiction is not non-existent, the tendency towards pathologization is often counter-productive. “Instead of promoting a productive conversation, addiction rhetoric positions new technologies as devilish and teenagers as constitutionally incapable of having agency in response to the temptations that surround them” (83). The pervasiveness of addiction rhetoric, then, emerges from a fundamental misunderstanding of the technology itself and seems to be doing more harm than good.
Ultimately, boyd’s study is both well executed and well presented, striking a balance between outsider and insider perspectives in a way that allows for an unprecedented and more thorough picture of teenagers’ engagement with social media. She is able to track the research of addiction with particular regard to youth addiction narratives, the concerns of parents, the dynamics of pathologizing discourses, and the real lived experiences of teens engaged with social media. What becomes clear is that even the best of intentions can prove to be misguided. In the case of teen social media usage, what becomes most important is the recognition of online modes of sociality—how the need for that sociality emerges and how social media provides a productive site for such sociality. Boyd is careful to make clear that the dangers of social media addiction certainly exist, but that pathologizing an entire social practice unnecessarily stigmatizes a legitimate form of social interaction that has particular value in the landscape of contemporary teen life. While this end result is both compelling and dynamic, a more sustained examination of particular racial, ethnic, and economic factors could provide an even better rounded study. A broader demographic scope would be especially useful for conversations regarding the increasingly regimented nature of contemporary American teenagers. To what extent do demographics factor into the amount of unstructured free time teenagers have? Social media access? With regard to stigmatization, especially, what might the effect of lack of access have on teen sociality? These questions may be somewhat outside the parameters of boyd’s multi-year project, but could play a valuable role in continuing the important conversation boyd invites readers to consider in her book.