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

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?

Faithe Day, University of Michigan

Digital Native Determinism: Deconstructing the Mythology of Adolescence and Addiction

            In Chapter 3 of Its Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, danah boyd discusses the propensity that many individuals have to describe teen internet usage as a type of addiction. Outlining the history of addiction as both a substance dependency and as impulsive behavior, boyd points out that while many teenagers frequently use the Internet to connect with their friends, social networking behaviors online are not accurately described using the language of addiction (80-83). Despite this fact, by labeling teen’s veracity for social media usage as addiction or as behavior that could lead to addiction we can come to understand how certain individuals are given the opportunity to define what is deemed appropriate and/or inappropriate behavior while others are left out of the conversation. As boyd goes on to explain, there are many ways in which society has constructed adolescence in an attempt to protect the welfare of teens through limiting their freedom to not only occupy physical places, but also the online spaces that they are left to inhabit (84-90). These attempts to protect teens through scheduling or limiting their time speak to neuropsychological beliefs which espouse that the brains of adolescents are underdeveloped and that teens are in need of consistent supervision and guidance. Although brain scans may indicate that the brain of a young person is in a less developed stage than that of many adults, in thinking about social media I would posit that it is also important to think about what a teenager’s brain is capable of in comparison to what an adult’s brain has learned.

            Through research in psychology, it is generally known that when you are younger your brain is in a stage in which it is easier to cultivate a fluid intelligence. This type of intelligence is understood as the ability to reason logically, learn new information, etc. As you get older, your life experiences and knowledge gained usually results in greater crystallized intelligence. The fluid intelligence of younger individuals consequently makes it easier to pick up new trends and technology in part because of the aspects of fluid intelligence which make abstract reasoning easier. In this sense, digital natives are geared to not only embrace new technologies but to be at the forefront of how those technologies are used (though it should be known that boyd has her own differing interpretation of what it means to be a digital native in a later chapter). For this reason, sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and the once popular MySpace developed not only based on the inventions and entrepreneurship of their founders and engineers but in response to the activities and predilections of the individual users. Therefore, instead of making the assumption that teen internet and social media use should be limited, we could spend time examining how these habits can spark innovation in the development of new iterations of these technologies. More importantly, how can parents and teachers harness the interest that teens have in connecting with friends to not only develop social skills but skills that teens will need in the future of collaborative work and learning?  In addition, when asserting that teens are irresponsible and need to be constantly monitored, to what extent do the narratives around teen behavior become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

            A final question to summarize: If internet/social media addiction is unlikely and the world is not as mean as we think, what ways can we think about the usefulness of taking part in social media? First, the need to label the social media habits of teens as addictive points to the reoccurring need to demonize technology through a language of determinism and negative effects (79). This rhetoric of the repercussions of technology precedes the Internet age and will more than likely continue after it has passed. However, a more fruitful way of examining the influence of technology is to think about the ways in which new technologies change societal norms and interactions. As boyd shows, and as it is commonly known, individuals in the 21st century (especially younger individuals) spend large amounts of time online due in part to the capabilities of devices that are not just sit down desktop or laptop computers. Being able to stay constantly connected has not only changed the way that we view the Internet but also the way that we view the world around us and the people within it. As many of the teens who were interviewed stated, social media gives them the opportunity to interact with their friends in an online world that is seemingly less dangerous than the outside “mean world”, an environment which many teens assert that access to is limited by their parents.  These interactions give them the opportunity to build friendships and, as many scholars have pointed out, to build and sustain social capital rewards. In this sense, teen social media usage should not only be examined as a detriment but instead as another way in which young people are creating new communal spaces for themselves and developing valuable skills. In examining the positive aspects of social media use and the barriers to what were once common teen socialization, boyd does a wonderful job of exploring this and other uses of social media. In light of the many arguments both for and against social media, boyd presents the more nuanced view that It’s Complicated and not just black/white or wrong/right.


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