School forces kids to socialize online

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?

18 replies
  1. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    Yesterday a friend and I discussed why it seems that teenagers don’t seem motivated to get their driver’s license anymore. It blows me away the number of kids who turn 15 and aren’t begging to get their permit and take Driver’s Ed. The DAY I turned 16 I scheduled my driver’s test. It meant independence and the ability to go and get a job.

    I run into 18 and 19 year olds who aren’t even interested in getting their driver’s license.

    My thoughts were that this had to be related to the birthday party madness where ENTIRE FAMILIES ARE INVITED. Who in the world wants to go to a 5 year old’s birthday ON A SATURDAY as a family (unless of course they are close friends or family–even then, it isn’t my idea of a good time). But that’s the way it goes, people are fearful and don’t drop off their kids.

    So, kids grow up tied to their parents, and then, at the age when they typically want to shove off, they aren’t even thinking of it.

    I see more and more “failure to launch” situations within the homeschooling community. They can’t explore, can’t get jobs, can’t make money, can’t get with friends, can’t DO anything without a parent.

    I enjoy spending time with my kids, but I don’t want to hold them back. I want them to go, explore, have “alone” time.

    • Heather Sanders
      Heather Sanders says:

      Just wanted to say that I can see this within the homeschooling community because that IS my community. I can’t really speak to the public/private school environment as was referenced in this post.

    • zellie
      zellie says:

      “Failure to launch” – I was thinking more along the lines of the numbers of young people now graduating from college with debt and no job to pay it off and wanting to work for free and have their needs taken care of, having no vision of self-sufficiency or a future.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Heather, I can tell you why I didn’t get my driver’s license at 16 and why my kids won’t be getting theirs at 16. Simply put, we don’t need them at that age. I got to school on my own starting in first grade. I never had any extra-curricular activities I didn’t get to on my own. When I was 16, I was already in college, and didn’t need a driver’s license to get anywhere. I could walk from the dorm to the classroom, and getting from college to other cities was easy enough on public transportation. I managed to get around the States and Europe just fine by myself by the time I was 18. I didn’t get a driver’s license until graduate school. What for?

      I’m bringing my kids up in a city, and there’s no reason at all to think they will need a driver’s license at 16. They can have a transit pass instead; by then, they should be well aware of how to get anywhere they need to go with public transport. I figure that for my son (like for some of his friends) 12 should be old enough to go places by himself on the train. By 16, I have no question that he’ll be able to get anywhere in the metro area with no problem, easier than driving. And, to bring it around to the topic, traveling together on public transit should be a great time to socialize.

      It’s one thing if you live in a really rural place and can’t get anywhere at all without driving there. But we are becoming an increasingly urban people (82% of Americans), and cars are simply not necessary for most of the younger generation.

      • Heather Sanders
        Heather Sanders says:

        Commenter – I did not grow up in a rural area but within the suburbs of Houston. I rode my bike to friends’ homes, school, and the park when I was young, but when I grew older my school was a 35 minute drive on an Interstate, and any work that paid well was way beyond a bike ride; public transportation wasn’t readily available either.

        At present, I live within a 15 minute drive from a town of 39,000; but, even those IN town could not access what they needed solely by biking/walking or public transportation.

        The same could be said for our family’s time in August, GA, when my husband was in the Army–as well as the 5 other cities we’ve lived in together over the course of 19 years.

        It would be convenient to be within walking or cycling distance of friends, family, the grocery, etc…but it just has never been the case in my lifetime–and I’ve lived in both urban and rural areas.

        I’m curious what percentages of Americans living in urban areas can consistently get to work on foot/bike/public transportation. Even babysitting and lawn mowing gigs required a vehicle past a certain point.

        Naturally, I’m speaking from my perspective as you are from yours; however, I’d have to see the actual link to the statistics to think on it more. I simply cannot believe that the ability to drive or car ownership is unnecessary for 82% of Americans.

        With that experience, you can understand why I disagree that cars are unnecessary for the younger generation.

        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          Hi Heather,

          With regard to the shifting rural/urban demographics of the country, the 82% figure is from the 2010 census, adjusted for trend to 2013, following their categorization of urban area.

          “The Census Bureau identifies two types of urban areas:
          Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people;
          Urban Clusters (UCs) of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.
          “Rural” encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.”

          You can find further information at census dot gov.

          The Census has been tracking the percentage of rural versus urban population since 1790 (when it was 5.1 urban versus 94.9 rural). The trend has been constant, and we are currently climbing through the 80s.

          Most of the suburbs of Houston would probably meet the density requirements to be classified as urban per the Census (though neither you nor I would be likely to think of them as urban).

          The number of teen drivers is decreasing steadily decade by decade at the same time as the urban population is increasing. Between 1983 and 2008, the percentage of 16 year olds obtaining driver’s licenses fell from 46.2% to 31.1%. The percentage of 17 year olds with licenses fell from 68.9% to 50%. For 18 year olds, 80.4% to 65.4% (per a widely-reported study by Michael Sivak, research professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute).

          I believe that these two trends are linked.

          I also believe that both trends are salutary. My recollections of the sort of socializing done by teenagers in cars lead me to suspect kids are better off without them.

          • Heather Sanders
            Heather Sanders says:

            Good morning “Commenter” – I could see how it might correlate that the two trends you pointed out are linked. My parents lived in Chicago, IL for a few years, and they did not need their cars to get to work, the grocery, or anywhere else. Living there, I would not have much need for a car. Living here, and the areas I grew up, would severely limit a child’s ability to see friends, get to jobs, etc…without parents driving them there.

            Honestly, I go back and forth regarding where I want to “plant” because the conveniences of living “in” town are wonderful, but being out on land without neighbors within spitting distance is wonderful as well.

            Regarding some of the types of “socializing” done by teenagers in cars…well, THERE you and I are in full agreement. :)

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        We live in an urban area with a really great public transportation system and enviable biking system, but I will still encourage my daughter to get her permit and license when she is eligible. I do this not so she can gallivant around with friends, but to enable her to gain experience so that when she is ready to do that, she won’t be inexperienced.

        When we first moved here I was stunned to find that teens didn’t get their license right away. It is a MAJOR pain to have to deal with that with baby-sitters. They might miss a bus, it is too late for them to take a bus, the bus schedule might make the timing inconvenient, it might be too cold or too late to bike and on and on. There are now closer options, but it always felt weird to have their parents drive them when that happened a couple of times.

        My daughter is 8 now, so everything is subject to change, but there is no way I foresee letting her loose with a transit pass at 12!! :D I am an alarmist so even though we live in a great area, I don’t let her roam, even to the adjacent creek, much, okay–at all, without a teenager with her. I love the thought of free-range kids, in theory. Here homeschooler are willing to drive all over the metro area for the right fit for their kids. My daughter’s bff lives 30 miles away in an area with public transit. If this trend of having far away friends continues, hoofing it won’t be much of an option.

        I think part of the license thing may be due to not having driver’s ed in school. Back in my day in NC, everyone took it sophomore year and then got their permit asap. Our town was about 50,000, but a lot of teenagers had cars right away. I did. First a VW bug that was almost as old as I was and then a spiffy 5 year old Prelude when I told my grandmother that “making my debut” was not my scene and I took the cash and drove!

        Just rambling now, but we live in a fairly walkable area, but one time we tried to walk to the library–a lovely 1/2 mile along the creek–but sidewalk, streets, and paths were so treacherous with ice that I turned back after a couple of nerve wracking blocks. In the summer the heat index can sometimes get over a 100, so walking with a dozen or so books is not advisable. I feel so lame driving, but there you have it!!!

        My husband used to ride the bus (20 minutes) or bike to work, but with his new job, the bus takes an hour each way. Sometimes he bikes but it adds an hour and a half verses driving if you include the necessary!! shower at work to an already long day. Sigh. I know, gripe, gripe, gripe…

        Interesting discussion.

  2. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    This post kinda reminds me of one the core reasons why I did not have a traditional wedding.

    We were married by a JP on a Monday morning. Just us and the JP. No family or friends. We told no one except our immediate family beforehand that we were doing this.

    When my friends and extended family found out, some were really surprised. Why did I do it they asked? Not we, I. Meaning, I was responsible for this, as the bride.

    I told them the truth, but not the whole truth. To keep cost low so we can afford a family is what I said.

    But that was only a small part. The real reason was: most people don’t like going to weddings.

    I was a banquet manager for a large hotel for 2 years. I managed about 250 weddings during that time. I’ve listed to hundreds of conversations among the guests and this is what I’ve learned:

    A lot of people don’t even know why they were invited in the first place.

    They came b/c they want a big turnout at their own wedding in the future.

    I’m missing the playoffs for this?

    Great, the only nice Saturday in two months, and I have to come here.

    I had the opportunity to make double time this Saturday @ work but no, I had to come to this wedding.

    I got my last DUI from the last wedding I went to, hope I don’t repeat the outcome (honest to God, someone said this)

    I had such a hard week @ work this week. All I want to do is curl up on the couch and watch Sex and the City.

    Do you know how hard it is to find a babysitter for more than 5 hours without breaking the bank?

    It goes on and on. What I decided to do in the end is have two BBQ’s that summer and invited friends and family (and kids and pets) and it worked out great. No fancy dress, no time constraints, no pomp and circumstance and it all worked out so much better b/c it was unstructured and relaxed togetherness on everyone’s own terms.

    • Shanna
      Shanna says:

      You’re the best! Weddings are usually awful. Especially if you’re in one. The best wedding I ever went to was at the parents house, totally casual, where we watched a video of the couples ceremony in Hawaii ( they went alone the month previous). No stupid color schemes etc, no extravagant dress with contrasting cheap food.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I loved the inside scoop on weddings. My first wedding was in New York City. My parents felt guilty about ruining my childhood, so they basically gave me a carte blanche on the wedding. Totally stupid, I know, but whatever.

      My husband and I had very few friends, and very small families, and they were spread out over the country. So, we ended up picking a venue where the minimum was 100 guests, and in the end, we only had 75. We couldn’t even convince people to bring dates.

      The wedding cost $125,000 and what I learned is exactly the same thing that Jenn said: most people don’t like to go to weddings.


    • Kelsey Langley
      Kelsey Langley says:

      Great post, P. And, Jenn- great point about the weddings. We scrimped and saved (and so did both our parents) to put on the wedding we thought we were supposed to have… Looking back, our favorite memories are of the unstructured times. Like they days leading up to the wedding when our friends were just hanging around for whatever preparations were needed- we had so much fun. Or when all our attendants showed up at our apartment after the rehearsal dinner and we had an impromptu party.

  3. Jeanice
    Jeanice says:

    We began homeschool last fall. My husband has a great comeback to the socialization question. He says “Friendships are not created on the playground. The playground is a place where you get to feel each other out, see who looks like they might be a good fit with you. Relationships are build one-on-one, after school.” We figure as long as we make sure those continue to happen, our kids will be happy and fulfilled in that department.

  4. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    I would love to hear more advice on how to be the parent that bucks the trends and gives their kids freedoms/responsibilities that the other parents won’t. Is the whole key just “Don’t care what anyone else thinks?”

    Already I get the side-eye and even comments when I let my toddler climb higher and don’t hover, and that’s at an indoor gym! Literally the entire room is padded!
    I know I want him to be able to be on his own, but when I already feel such judgment and pressure from other parents when he isn’t even 2, how do you do it when the stakes really ARE high, like trusting your teenager to navigate an urban area alone? I want to homeschool so he can learn how to BE HIMSELF and not be burdened with bullshit restrictions- but how can we do this when the other kids are being helicoptered so hard they don’t even learn how to play?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Something I’ve found is that even though I get a lot of grief for letting my kids do things other kids can’t do (unlimited video games), parents recognize how much bravery it takes to go against the grain. So people worry that I’m ruining my kids but they also worry they don’t have as much bravery.

      Or at least I tell myself that when I feel like people are judging me.


  5. marta amaral
    marta amaral says:

    I can’t comment on the homeschooling community in my country because HS is practically unheard of here, but I can comment on the private and public schooling and socializing for teens. I think it all depends on where you live (urban vs suburban vs rural), rather than on the school setting (HS vs private vs public)

    My family lives in a very central urban area and here kids start going to school on their own (walking or taking public transport) at around 10-11 yrs old. Some go to extra curricular activities on their own as well. My older kids have done so since they were 10 (they’re 11 and 13 now). Most of their unstructered socializing happens at the neighbourhood park, the walk to and from school and extracurricular activities (the 11yo only does sync swimming and goes there taking the tube; the 13yo does handball and swimming, both within a 15 minute walking distance). They also have a lot of unsctructered time at school. Around here we have 1 1/2 or 2 hours for lunch recess, and some days classes are only in the morning. There’s plenty of time andr freedom to socialize face-to-face without adults present.

    On the other hand, from what I read and hear about the US, both HS and tradicional schoolers are always being driven to places for special classes (HS) or school and extras. Even to meet up with friends they have to rely on an adult driving them! All the socializing is done with an adult at their side, because they simply can’t get where they want on their own (suburban and rural areas lack public transport or public hang-out places, cities may be a bit different and more interesting to explore with one’s friends).

    I don’t think this encourages Independence or social skills – and it’s immaterial whether you HS or not, if you’re always at your kids’ side even if they’re already 11 or 12… What does matter is where you live: does it have a variety of public transport? Are there parks, beaches, free sports facilities, cinemas within walking distance? Are the kids allowed to go to each others’ places without the presence of adults?

    in Lisbon, Portugal

  6. Karen Loethen
    Karen Loethen says:

    Honestly, Penelope, I want to APPLAUD reading this piece.
    I have been talking with the kids about this exact thing and they whole-heartedly agree…they would rather be WITH FRIENDS than texting them.

    Thanks again for a great post.

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