Danah Boyd is someone who has influenced me a lot over the past fifteen years.
For example she did research about ten years ago to show that given the way we present ourselves online, the best models for how to prepare for the workforce were not parents at home but celebrities in Hollywood. In 2008 that research gave me a lot of the gumption I needed to launch my last company, Brazen Careerist, which was predicated on the idea of using social media as a career tool.
Totally obvious now, I know. But it was a controversial assumption at the time.
So I am happy to say that Danah Boyd’s most upcoming book confirms controversial assumptions about school that will not be controversial in five years. The book is It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.
She interviewed hundreds of teens and what she found, over and over, is that teenagers would love to socialize face-to-face with their friends. But adult society won’t let them. “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other,” Boyd says. “They’re not allowed to hang out the way you and I did, so they’ve moved it online.”
There’s a great review of the book by Clive Thompson in Wired magazine, and he says Boyd discovered what should be totally obvious to all parents, which is that kids would rather socialize face-to-face, but there is no time. School doesn’t allow kids to talk freely, and after school there is nowhere for kids to go to talk to each other without parents looking over their shoulder.
Do you know why football games are so popular? It’s not the game. It’s the chance to socialize with friends freely in person. You don’t see kids texting at a football game. You see them texting at home, because they are stuck at home. Most suburban kids can’t go anywhere without a parent driving them, and most city kids are stuck with an adult at their side for safety reasons.
Kids don’t want to see their friends at school and in dance class. They want to see their friends in unstructured environments, which homeschool families are in a much better position to provide than school families.
I learned to think about unstructured time when I was a graduate student for English. We read The Pleasure of the Text, where Roland Barthes talks about how the meaning of any piece of writing is in between the paragraphs. The blank space. Where the reader makes connections and interacts with the writer.
My brother pointed out a similar situation in NASCAR. The races are largely monotonous (unless there’s a crash) and the winner is largely determined by the performance of the pit crew during the breaks from the driving. That’s where there is the least structure.
The picture up top is my son doing a duet with his best friend. I think a lot about my son’s friends because most of them live four hours away where we take cello lessons. One thing I noticed is that the friendships are made not in the classes, but in between the classes. Just like adult life, it’s the unstructured time that opens possibilities for special connections.
So it seems that if we are going to worry about texting and phone time and video games, we should worry about giving kids unstructured time to be with their friends. And then, really, we should look at our own lives. Where do we get that for ourselves? Are we modeling a life where you text your friends all day (or email, or talk on the phone, or whatever adults do) or are we modeling experiencing the joys of unstructured time with people we care about?