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Chapter 3: Addiction – What makes teens obsessed with social media? (review by Christine Chow)

Part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd


Review of Chapter 3, Addiction – what makes teens obsessed with social media? (pp. 77-99)

Christine Chow, Stanford University

In her new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, social media scholar danah boyd offers a highly readable account and insightful look at the emergent social media landscape. The third chapter explores the issue of social media addiction, arguing that social media is not inherently bad.  Given an increasingly mediated world, youth are learning and developing skills needed to navigate a networked environment of numerous possibilities, equipping them to engage and participate in meaningful ways. In specific, boyd presents a compelling case for striking the right balance between social media usage and the monitoring and critical reflection of such usage. Her discussion provides a timely topic for consideration, with relevance to our current digital age of dynamic social interaction and connection.

A well-known and prolific researcher, danah boyd has conducted extensive work in the area of social media.  She is known for her views and publications in social media studies. Having written about the characteristics of online social media interaction, she noted the properties of persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences in her article “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites” (boyd, 2007). She also described the evolution of what it means to participate and engage on the Internet in papers such as “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications” (boyd, 2010).

Since its emergence, there have been efforts to describe the trends and patterns that have developed in the use of social media. Along this thread, boyd’s new book contributes to the ongoing conversation by framing the reader’s understanding of networked environments as a changing space that continues to evolve in the 21st century. It shows another side to the relationship between youth and networked spaces, shedding light on the social phenomenon that has arisen. The third chapter of It’s Complicated opens with a vignette of a teenager who is able to unplug, question, and view the nature of social media with a critical eye and inquiring mind. Throughout this discussion, boyd includes stories in her chapter that enable the reader to gain a greater familiarity with the role of social media in the lives of youth.

At the beginning of the chapter, boyd addresses some of the tensions and anxieties that have surfaced concerning social media usage. She points to the concerns of parents, such as the worry that social media would interfere with or have an unhealthy control over their children’s lives. The chapter mentions the lengths that parents have gone to keep their children off social media, including a parent’s approach of paying his daughter to deactivate her account for a period of time and another parent’s tactic of shooting bullets through a laptop to drive home his disapproval of his daughter’s social media behavior. This is not to say that the concerns of parents are invalid. Instead, boyd recommends maintaining a balance and moderating the use of social media while recognizing its potential power. Far from being out of control, boyd argues, “When teens engage with networked media, they’re trying to take control of their lives and their relationship to society. In doing so, they begin to understand how people relate to one another and how information flows between people” (p. 92). Social media has the potential to become a source of empowerment, enabling youth to gain greater access to a diversity of ideas and perspectives as they negotiate their identities in relation with other individuals.

In line with the chapter’s focus, boyd describes the term ‘addiction,’ its legacy, and the meanings associated with it. She guides readers through some historical background of the concept and the rise of the notion ‘Internet addiction disorder,’ as coined by psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg in 1995. Boyd distinguishes between the negative connotations of the word addiction as commonly understood to mean substance abuse or compulsive behavior, and the positive meanings of the term as appropriated by youth to describe their engagement with social media. A far cry from being debilitating or detrimental, social media use actually offers a playground for informal and unstructured learning where youth can interact, engage, and enter a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) that adds another dimension to their social experience.

Boyd explains that many of today’s youth often find their lives structured around a spectrum of classes, extracurricular activities, and community service. As we advance toward a new era, various forms of media have emerged. Recent technological developments present a world of almost limitless possibilities. In contrast to following a set schedule, youth can roam around on social media, making creative use of their time and attention. They can gain freedom from the constraints of a highly structured and scheduled life. Boyd argues, “Social media has become an outlet for many youth, an opportunity to reclaim some sense of agency and have some semblance of social power” (p. 98). The world of mediated environments provides a flexible setting with greater latitude for youth to explore and experiment, creating opportunities for open-ended and self-directed learning. Through social media, youth gain greater autonomy and agency to pursue their own interests and connect with their peers in an informal space.

As opposed to making teens unsocial, social media activities engage them in social interaction as they communicate with one another in a dynamic, networked space. Youth learn how to negotiate and navigate new environments through connecting with others, learning to present themselves online, and interacting in a new space. Social media sites deliver fora for sharing with others and expressing oneself. In this way, boyd describes the new forms of expression and learning that happen, as young people use media to serve as an extension of self, establish their identities, and stay connected with the community. Many young people socialize by developing creative ways to hang out and spend time with their peers online.

Similarly, youth are actively learning as they participate in networked publics. Some classroom assignments and projects even call for increased outside collaboration that draws on the use of digital and social media tools. Besides this, social media scholar Mimi Ito (2013) wrote an article for The Atlantic that speaks to the phenomenon of social media usage and the learning that takes place while teens surf the Internet. In her article, she describes her exchange with her daughter. In the exchange, her daughter explains how she can pursue her interests and learn new skills by tapping into a wealth of information, knowledge, and resources available on the Internet. This demonstrates the ways that youth can leverage the Internet to enhance their learning and broaden their talents. Social media, then, can be incorporated more into the lives of youth as a way to nurture their interests and foster greater learning.

Throughout boyd’s chapter, the portraits painted parallel much of my own experience. Many of my friends are savvy with social media, which is a significant aspect of their lives. They switch seamlessly from one social media platform to another, staying current and updated on social news and simultaneously generating content about their own lives. At the same time, like the opening vignette, some of my friends also take time away from Facebook by deactivating their accounts. Instead of letting it dictate their lives, they manage their use of social media to suit their goals and purposes, connecting to others in meaningful ways.

Additionally, in the process of writing this review, I reflected on how the emergence of online social technologies has enabled me and the other participants to collectively write this crowd-sourced book review. Collaborative forms of technology empower us to build on existing knowledge networks and share our views in broader learning communities; such platforms make this type of interaction possible. Indeed, different types of media outlets, such as Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, create new implications for social interaction, opening up further avenues for us to share our experiences and transcend boundaries as we connect with people around the world. Ultimately, new and mediated forms of interaction increase our shared experience and collective knowledge.

Perhaps the point in the chapter that carried the most resonance for me is that these social trends and patterns speak to the human condition. Boyd asserts, “Being ‘addicted’ to information and people is part of the human condition: it arises from a healthy desire to be aware of surroundings and to connect to society” (p. 92). Social media sites offer a way to keep in touch and catch up with what’s going on in the lives of others and the community in general. Its development highlights the natural, fundamental instinct to connect and belong; and it demonstrates the human desire to engage and participate socially. In her book, boyd powerfully articulates the potential of social media to engage youth in significant ways and broaden the overall social experience.


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