It will come as no surprise to many teenagers that one method Angwin used to protect her data was a fake online persona—though her discomfort with entering “Ida Tarbell” on digital forms might puzzle them.
In fact, Angwin might find useful lessons in the ways teens protect their information online. For her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale University Press, February 25), danah boyd (she writes her name without capitalization), a compellingly observant researcher, spent seven years interviewing teens around the country about their online lives. The result is a work that, despite periodic dives into academic jargon, makes a compelling case that, rather than leveling the playing field with widespread access to information, the rise of the internet has led to the replication of real life, online.
From many teens’ perspective, the surveillance threat online comes from snooping adults rather than companies or the government. And since, boyd argues, teens use social media as a digital version of meeting friends at the mall in an era when adolescents’ mobility is circumscribed and curtailed by overprotective adults, it behooves them to find ways to keep their public missives on Facebook and Twitter incomprehensible to unintended, grown-up audiences. One teenage girl boyd interviews deactivated her Facebook profile every time she logged out to prevent adults from searching for it. Others fill in false information, a la Angwin, lying about their name, location, age, and income on social media profiles, as boyd observes:
A casual viewer scanning Facebook might conclude that an extraordinary number of teens are in same-sex relationships because so many have chosen to list their best friend as the person they are “In a Relationship” with . . . . Searching for social media users in Afghanistan or Zimbabwe offers an additional window into teen life, as many teens select the top or bottom choice in the pull-down menu when they indicate their location.
Teens boyd interviews felt that “it was ridiculous for sites to demand this information,” she writes. Indeed, as Zadie Smith noted in the New York Review of Books in 2010, Facebook’s profile questions still reflect its origins as the creation of a male college sophomore, concerned with the likes of other people’s relationship statuses and favorite movies. But the “it’s ridiculous” sentiment is also a savvy assessment of sites that purport to be in the business of connecting people while actually being in the business of monetizing the data users share for free.
That level of digital sophistication is hardly inherent in all teens simply by virtue of growing up in a networked society, though. As boyd shows, there is an internet literacy gap that largely breaks down along race and class lines, stemming in part from the fact that teens mostly use social media to interact with friends and connections they already have. That is, rather than the Web having a democratizing effect, which early evangelists espoused as inevitable, the internet recreates real-life inequalities in the digital space:
Social media does not radically rework teens’ social networks. As a result, technology does not radically reconfigure inequality. The transformative potential of the internet to restructure social networks in order to reduce structural inequality rests heavily on people’s ability to leverage it to make new connections. This is not how youth use social media.
This holds true, from the divisions in social media tools teens choose to use—when Facebook rose to prominence, boyd writes, its early adopters were whiter, more affluent teens, while lower-income teenagers of color largely stuck with MySpace—to a broader lack of sophistication about how to find the best information. This inequality won’t diminish without the help of adults, boyd says, who need to stop assuming all teenagers are “digital natives,” a mistaken belief that obscures a persistent need for digital education and that “end[s] up reproducing digital inequality because more privileged youth often have more opportunities to develop these skills outside the classroom.”
In a country where 22 percent of children are living below the poverty line, failure to address this competency gap means that more than 16 million youths may grow up not only without the tools to pull themselves into the middle class, but also without the framework to analyze, and make decisions about, the dragnet nation that Angwin describes. And in the post-9/11, Google Glass world, where the term “virtual reality” is increasingly redundant, being unaware of what we share, and who can scoop up and access that missive, means ignorance of who has the power to use our own information against us.
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