By Dana Boyd
Reviewed by Jarrod Longbons
Awakening Theological Imagination in the Congregation, 2014
Yale University Press, 2014, 296 pp.
This book review was first published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
Danah Boyd’s balanced book is a welcome addition to the public discussion on the relationship between teens and digital media, especially as concerns about the ill effects of technology on teens loom large. Of course, when it comes to the intersection of young people and technology there’s plenty of room for concern: that the digital age has opened the possibility for cyberbullying, for identity theft, for the phenomenon known as “catfishing” (people pretending on social media to be someone or something they’re not), and for other nefarious, predatory actions.
But safety is not the only worry. In Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other Sherry Turkle argues that digital networking creates only an illusion of community and actually results in increased levels of societal loneliness. In Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology Albert Borgmann argues that many technologies create a sense of hyper-reality, which fuels dangerous, abusive consumption of natural resources. We need to hear and reflect upon these analyses. But in the stew of techno-criticism, Boyd’s book offers a new and unique flavor.
The book’s title summarizes Boyd’s view that technology is neither the savior of the world nor the modern “bogeyman” that destroys everything it touches. Hers is a middle path, and I found it refreshing. Through countless interviews, stories, and analysis of studies, Boyd offers important points for parents and teachers to keep in mind about the reality of teen life in a networked world: that we tend to idealize the past; that fear-mongering is easy with things that are new; and, that the world is not all that different now from the way it used to be—kids, then and now, use any available tool to be social.
That teens are concerned with finding their place in the world is a fundamental truth for Boyd. Digital networks allow them to fit into and create networked publics, which “formed through technology serve much the same function as publics like the mall or park did for previous generations.” This comparison enables Boyd to take a measured approach to the dizzying worries about digital networks. For many social reasons today’s teens do not necessarily live in close physical proximity to their primary social group. In place of the postwar norm of neighborhood affiliation and community, today’s adolescents regularly connect with their friends via text, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media platforms. These digital networks help young people to socialize and identify with a group, much as malls and food courts did for the teens of the 1990s. Boyd structures her main argument on this analogy, a comparison that helps concerned adults make sense of the perceived teenaged “obsessive” interest in social network sites.
To flesh out her thesis Boyd analyzes, in a chapter each, eight basic points of concern regarding networked teens: identity; privacy; addiction; danger; bullying; inequality; literacy; and, community. Each chapter can be read on its own, and chapters can be read out of order. Boyd does not shy away from difficult issues, such as the sometimes-distasteful content that appears on Facebook “walls.” In this case Boyd argues that teens are “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” engage in networked spaces. Teens are damned if they are not on social media because avoidance risks social alienation. A person opting out may be perceived as lacking in social ability. Furthermore, today’s employers and colleges expect young people to participate in social media.
But teens are also damned if they do participate. Digital social networks function much like physical social spaces once did, displaying teens’ missteps. The difference? Whereas what teens might have said or done in a mall was isolated to that event and space, now their words and photos are documented online for all to see. The public nature of digital networks makes the repercussions of inappropriate social behavior larger and longer-lasting.
The life of a digitally networked teen is complicated. While it raises concerns, it is also quite natural. Boyd’s book is a helpful guide to parents, pastors, teachers, and mentors because it provides insights into the contemporary teen psyche and offers helpful proposals for how to help navigate the digital age.