The Good, the Bad, the Ugly … and the Internet

The topic of social media prompts tremendous anxiety among parents. When it comes to their children’s digital practices, parents are both afraid of and afraid for their children. Fears pervade conversations about young people’s use of the Internet. However, these fears aren’t new. Because of similar fears, four generations of parents have slowly eliminated children’s freedom to roam in physical spaces. In turn, children and teens have turned to the Internet to reclaim social opportunities they’ve lost. In interviewing teens, I consistently find that they would prefer to get together in-person, but that parental fears, over-scheduling, and lack of viable transportation often make offline socialization difficult, if not altogether impossible. For many young people, social media fills this gap, and allows them to “hang out.”

Yet online spaces have different dynamics than offline ones. One such difference stems from the way in which the Internet makes interpersonal interactions more visible. Consider this: Most parents are convinced that the Internet makes bullying much worse, even though data suggests that the Internet has not increased the incidence rates of bullying. Furthermore, numerous studies show that children and teens are more likely to be bullied at school. Young people also report that face-to-face bullying is more emotionally devastating and has greater consequences for them personally. So how do we make sense of the disconnect between perception and data? If a child comes home with a black eye, her parents know that she was beaten up. Yet, if a child comes home sulky, her parents don’t necessarily know why. Today, when an argument breaks out on Facebook, there are digital traces of that incident. As a result, parents see meanness and cruelty online and perceive it to all be a form of bullying. Yet, they also misinterpret what they see and overreact. A song lyric might be taken out of context, or a teasing comment might be perceived to be of greater consequence than it is.

Heightened visibility is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, vigilant parents can have a better sense of what’s happening in their children’s lives. On the other, both over- and under-reaction are common. Teens I interview frequently tell me that their parents overreact to anything they see online. Meanwhile, I’ve also encountered numerous teens who are publicly crying out for help online in the hope that someone will pay attention. All too often, no one does.

Urban sociologist Jane Jacobs argued that healthy societies need “eyes on the street.” Society benefits when people are generally looking out for one another’s well being. The best way to understand the Internet is to treat it as a digital street. The Internet mirrors and magnifies everyday life, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Rather than being afraid of what we see online, we need to embrace what’s visible and develop new strategies for making sense of what we see. Too often, people respond to heightened visibility by trying to make it go away, or by blaming the technology for making it visible in the first place. My advice for concerned, engaged parents is simple: Observe, listen, and ask questions. Do not presume that you understand what you see, but also do not ignore when your children are clearly in need of your help.


Danah Boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.