“It’s Complicated” Book review

by Katrina Kennett, ERC Consulting Practitioner

The number and technical capacity of digital devices in the hands of kids in growing up is unprecedented. It’s a big deal and danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated gives us a lot to think about.  I think it’s worth a read.

Are kids really ‘addicted’ to technology?

Boyd’s chapter on technology addiction in particular struck a nerve, especially how it made me think about how we talk about technology.As more schools go 1:1 or invite BYOD, we need to be careful with our language about technology and young people. It might be easy to say “kids are addicted to (insert social media platform),” that “they just can’t handle themselves,” and that we’re “battling” for their attention. But, invoking the language of addiction not only affects our perspective on technology as a problem, it also shapes and limits our available solutions.

Boyd describes two teens who, considering themselves dependent on Facebook, delete their accounts at the same time. I’ve heard stories like this before, with a decided ‘all or nothing’ approach to technology use. However, if quitting becomes the only way to “deal with” social media, it limits how we understand youth agency.

Part of the issue here might be the ways in which youth are raised in –and characterized by– our American culture. boyd makes the argument that kids today are coming of age without agency –and as many social scientists have pointed out, without a larger world to physically explore and learn within as they mature. She points to this new and relatively recent conception of adolescence:

“In buying into adolescence, what we’ve created is a pressure cooker. Teens are desperate to achieve the full rights of adulthood, even if they don’t understand the responsibilities that this may entail. They are stuck in a system in which adults restrict, protect, and pressure them to achieve adult-defined measures of success.”

I immediately thought of my students who juggled sports teams, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities and caring for younger siblings, with distant yet looming college admissions processes informing many of their choices. With limited physical freedoms, a highly-regimented life-style and an entire social world online, it is not surprising teens are on their devices so much.

Instead of acknowledging these broader pressures, it’s easier to look to technology as “the problem.”

“When socializing or play results in less sleep or poorer grades, parents blame the technology. Of course, it is easy to imagine that teens may prefer to socialize with friends or relax instead of doing homework, even if these activities are not societally sanctioned. Instead of acknowledging this, many adults project their priorities onto teens and pathologize their children’s interactions with technology.”

I’m not denying that some folks can have unhealthy relationships with technology. But these relationships happen in social contexts that include – and are often controlled by – adults. We need to acknowledge the systems of power and control that shape youth using their devices.

With that said, we all know social media can be distracting. But what is it distracting us from? I think about educational settings that maintain traditional top-down structures and teacher-oriented classroom dynamics, and ask “what meaningful choices are students invited to make?” If technology is only positioned, or tolerated, as an “add-on” to instruction, if sites like Twitter and YouTube are uniformly restricted on the school’s server, if students are given “Individual Responsibility Contracts” to sign, then schools are sending a pecific message about the role of technology in learning. It’s far more complicated than that, and we should treat it that way.

The language we use matters

When people frame stories about education with business language, they limit what learning can be. If students and teachers must be “held accountable,” then we focus only on learning “outcomes.” These outcomes must be “measurable,” so they necessitate end-of-year tests, leading neatly into recent arguments for beginning-of-the-year tests. As if we don’t already use - and lose - huge amounts of time to satisfy our testing mania.

This kind of language promotes a particular narrative about schools, and it occludes other markers of teaching and learning - less “measurable” dynamics like creativity, confidence, disciplined inquiry, construction of knowledge, and student voice. If we don’t talk about these moments, they don’t become part of the conversation around school, policies, or purpose.  And they severely curtail our ability to make the best use of things like digital devices and social media infrastructure.

Walking the Talk

We need to be asking, how are our teachers doing? Are they thoughtful in incorporating technology into their own practice? Is it even on their radar screen? Are they taking advantage of the social and collaborative opportunities that mobile devices make possible? How are they using social media to invite the strengths and interests that their students bring into the classroom? How can social media strategies be used to harness students’ passion and energies and move towards away from “presenting” and towards “coaching”?

Then, I look to the school and/or district - how are administrators supporting teachers’ use of technology?  Are they providing the infrastructure -wireless capability, firewall permissions, etc.-, and the professional development. time, external resources) to support teachers’ best efforts?

And how about the parents and caregivers? Are parents involved in commenting directly on the use of technology in their children’s schools?

Each of these stakeholders – teachers, school administrators, and parents – is used to making decisions and rules with adult-defined notions of “responsibility,” of “what’s good for kids.” Where can we invite and talk with youth and ask them to tell their version of the story that they’re participating in? When and how are students’ voices valued in meaningful dialogues about technology use in school?

Final thoughts and follow-up reading

Digital devices and social media platforms are a critical element of our increasingly connected world. What do we want them to be used for? Digital citizenship, connecting to important ideas and causes, empathy, collaboration, the opportunity for youth to change the world around them? If education matters, then we need to invite more voices into the conversation and to take care with the language we choose.

If you’re interested in exploring the broader argument that young people, especially teenagers,  are locked out of public discourse, and what that means for our schools and for young people in general, I would definitely read more of It’s Complicated,   (I’ve included some questions below). The teacher in me wants to help you dig in to boyd’s text until you get your own copy. So, I’ve created a Flipboard (an online “magazine” of curated articles, readings, videos, and websites, that includes some amazing work that young people are doing with the support from their teachers and schools.

I welcome suggestions for like-minded resources and any other comments at @katrinakennett or Katrina@educationresourcesconsortiumcom.

Classroom CornerA few other topics to consider, especially for conversations with students:

1. [Introduction] boyd talks about four affordances of online activity: persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability. What affects you most now when you post things online, and what do you think will affect you most in the future?

2. [Chapter 2] What does privacy mean on the internet, and what are the privacy settings you choose to use (and not use) - why?

3. [Chapter 5] What is the difference between bullying and ‘drama’? Does someone’s retaliation ‘balance’ the power dynamics at play?


boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.