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Don’t stalk your children on the Internet

Slate

Microsoft researcher and NYU media and culture professor danah boyd (who prefers to style her name in all lowercase) is one of my favorite people to talk with about teenagers and technology.

That’s not because I agree with her all the time -- often, I find that we see questions about privacy, use of technology and online bullying differently. But danah is the best kind of sparring partner because she always tells me something I didn’t know along the way.

That holds true with her new book, "It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens," which offers interviews with teen-agers in communities across the country. By filtering them through her distinct lens, she gleans valuable insights.

We talked recently by phone about the book and the key points it raises.

Slate: You have a real passion for getting teenagers’ own voices into the conversation about them. What’s the most important thing you learned in talking to them that you think adults don’t get?

boyd: The more I think about this, the more I want to focus on how devastating and destructive parental anxieties and stress about technology are. Anxieties continue to create a wall between kids and parents. In the window between writing my book and publishing it, I’ve given birth to a child of my own. I started reading studies about parenting and early childhood, and what’s really funny to me is how bad the effects of stress are. Take sleep -- it’s important for babies but also for parents. The same stuff that holds true for newborns and teens. Focus on the relationships, on whatever it takes to make the household as calm and engaged as possible. That is so much the message of the book. It requires a level of stepping back and trying to be calm that is really hard in American society. With technology, there is a tendency for it to be a source of anxiety. I’d really like us to be in a place where we think of it as an opportunity for teenagers.

An example is the new crisis hotlines via text. They’re like the old phone hotlines, but now you can text the counselors as well as call them. I’m on the board of Crisis Text Line, which provides counseling on topics as varied as coming out to dealing with abusive parents to struggling with addiction. It’s phenomenal to see how many young people are looking for people to help them, and using this technology. We don’t often enough see social media and texting as a way to engage and connect with young people, but this shows that it is.

Slate: How do you translate that principle into steps parents can take?

boyd: I tell parents to build a network for your child -- the older cousin, the cool aunt, the awesome coach. When they need advice, you’re not the only person they have to turn to. You should encourage those other relationships, and they’ll form on technology, on social media or via texting. There are times your kid won’t want to talk to you. So the more you’ve thought through how they have a support network the better off they’ll be when they hit a bump. And increasingly, the way that happens is online. As a parent, you can also reach out to other kids in your friend networks, so you’re an adult those kids can turn to.

Slate: What about teachers, school counselors and administrators -- how should they interact with kids on social media?

boyd: Educators should have open-door policies for kids to reach out to them online. A teacher should create a profile that is herself or himself as a teacher, on Facebook or wherever your cohort of kids are. Never go and friend a student on your own, but if a student friends you, accept. And if a student reaches out to you online, respond. If you see something concerning about a student on a social media account, approach him or her in school. Give your password to the principal, so it’s all transparent, and then be present. I hear a lot of teachers say they shouldn’t talk to kids outside the classroom. You can’t be 24/7, but when that connection is possible, it should be encouraged. And social media is an opportunity for more informal interactions.

Slate: What about kids connecting with people they don’t know on some sites?

boyd: I think parental concern is misdirected on that. The anxiety I have about kids who constantly reach out to strangers is not a fear of sexual dangers, but what emotional support are they not getting from their peer group that’s leading them to do that? Though sometimes it’s totally healthy. Your daughter has an esoteric interest her friends don’t have, so she found her community or that on Tumblr. It’s a question of who they’re reaching out to, and why.

Slate: Do you just talk to your kid about how to act online, or do you follow them onto the sites where they’re going?

boyd: Different stages have different training wheels. You pay much more attention at 13 than at 17. But even at 13, you have more conversations than you do surveillance. Then if you have concerns, you can amp it up. One way I encourage parents to deal with passwords is to think about it this way: You don’t demand your kids’ passwords. That violates trust, and you want to build a relationship of trust that lasts long after your child leaves home. On the other hand, sometimes you might need a password for access in case of emergency. So how about you buy a piggy bank for the whole family, the kind you have to break to get into it? Everyone in the house puts their passwords in. Parents, too. If the piggy bank gets broken, everyone knows. And the agreement is that it’s available in case of emergencies.