It’s complicated

School looks remarkably familiar, and many of the same anxieties and hopes that shaped my experience are still recognizable today. Others are strikingly different, but what differs often has less to do with technology and more to do with increased consumerism, heightened competition for access to limited opportunities, and an intense amount of parental pressure, especially in wealthier communities. All too often, it is easier to focus on the technology than on the broader systemic issues that are at play because technical changes are easier to see.

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Just because teens are comfortable using social media to hang out does not mean that they’re fluent in or with technology. Many teens are not nearly as digitally adept as the often-used assumption that they are “digital natives” would suggest. The teens I met knew how to get to Google but had little understanding about how to construct a query to get quality information from the popular search engine. They knew how to use Facebook, but their understanding of the site’s privacy settings did not mesh with the ways in which they configured their accounts. As sociologist Eszter Hargittai has quipped, many teens are more likely to be digital naives than digital natives.

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We hear a lot about how the online spaces that teens frequent are sinister worlds populated by sexual predators or bullies. But we rarely if ever hear that many teenagers are scarred by the same experiences offline. Bullying, racism, sexual predation, slut shaming, and other insidious practices that occur online are extraordinarily important to address even if they’re not new. Helping young people navigate public life safely should be of significant public concern. But it’s critical to recognize that technology does not create these problems, even if it makes them more visible and even if news media relishes using technology as a hook to tell salacious stories about youth.

danah boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Yale University Press; 1 edition (February 25, 2014)