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About CNN’s ‘Being 13’: Let’s be fair

I know this isn’t parents’ or educators’ default thinking or we wouldn’t be seeing excellent advice like this, but our children are very smart where social media’s concerned. CNN made a big thing in the promotion around its documentary and study “Being 13” about a girl saying about her selfies, “don’t judge [but], maybe 200 sometimes if I really can’t get a right one.” What professional photographer wouldn’t take a gazillion photos in a photo shoot? And why wouldn’t a person of any age want to put his or her best foot forward, photographically speaking?

being13Of course they’re curating

And why did the teenager in question say right up front “don’t judge”? Could it be because we grownups so often do default to thoughts like, “that child shouldn’t be posting photos of herself”? Which would be like our mothers or grandmothers saying, “why do you look in the mirror so much?” It’s also a little like making a blanket decision about a child’s behavior without knowing anything about the child. Posting selfies, like just about everything in social media, is:

  • Individual – in terms of all aspects of who you are, including where you are in your life
  • Situational – where you are at a particular point in time, emotionally and environmentally
  • Contextual – where you are physically and culturally – at school, work, a party, a country, a digital environment, etc.

Based on those factors and what app you’re using, sometimes posting selfies is totally spontaneous (as it often is in Snapchat); sometimes it’s highly curated (as it often is in Instagram).

Acting from those factors is a form of media literacy. That’s why I say young people are pretty darn smart where social media’s concerned. They know they need to curate. According to YPulse research, curation is pretty normative: “83% of 14-32-year-olds make sure that what they post in social media reflects the personality they want to portray.” Is this not true of 32-year-olds too (and I suspect 92-year-olds)? And how is this a bad thing?!

We need context

When will we learn to take what they post with a grain, just a grain, of salt rather than gigantic doses of ratings-upping sensationalism? We need context for what we see in social media before we react, much less reach conclusions about it.

There were other things that troubled me about the “Being 13,” but the good news is CNN found some great parents to feature along with some great kids. It was sad to see two teens, Jonathan and Cimone, put on the spot about their social media posts, one for obscenity that was taken completely out of the context of his peer group and of what appeared to be the (hip hop) culture that the posts reflected (his dad handled the spotlight treatment gracefully and seemed to know that the thoughtful son in tie and jacket on camera was the real boy and the boy online was contextualized – at least, I hope nothing resulted at home but a loving conversation confirming that), the other put on the spot for hating the social struggles that come from being the new kid in more than one school, as her understanding mother acknowledged on camera.

The scary references to social media that sociologist Robert Faris used on camera – that it’s like “rocket fuel for teens” and a place for “social combat” – certainly reflect society’s views of social media and teens, but how helpful are they to parent-child relationships and communication?

Great advice

Clinical psychologist Marion Underwood had some good advice for parents – to talk with their kids about what they’re using in social media, sign up for the services themselves and follow their children in the apps and sites, advice we’ve been giving parents for years (here’s just a more recent example). Good for CNN to air that, finally! But why bury the part about how kindness is actually the norm of teens’ behaviors in social media to at least a third of the way into the show? Check out the New York Times “Motherlode” column for much more detailed advice from Dr. Underwood and other thoughtful experts.

I love these three tips in that piece: “Your most important job is to be a listener,” don’t rely on their social media posts as your “only barometer for how they’re doing” and “don’t overdo the watchfulness.” Let your child make his or “her make her own mistakes; don’t rush to assume something has hurt or offended her. Keeping the tone of your monitoring light will make it more acceptable to your child, and give your concerns more weight if you do need to say something.” If I can offer some advice, read the Times piece if you have to watch the CNN one.

Please let’s be fair

But it’s time, people – society, news media, policymakers – to get smart about kids and social media. Hyping and fear mongering about youth and tech seriously damages our credibility with them. Heed the advice from my research colleagues in Australia. Their headline reads, “Scare-mongering about kids and social media helps no-one.”

Besides, how is it that any child deserves to have his or her normative identity play, sociality, risk assessment and innermost feelings judged, much less spotlighted for vast television audiences? When was that ok? How fair is that to our children? Let’s exercise a little critical thinking and get some media literacy of our own!

Related links

  • kindnesswinsKindness Wins: It’s absolutely true, writes Robert Puff, PhD, Psychology Today, but Kindness Wins is also a book with some of the best advice I’ve seen for parents of digital natives. I completely agree with Nicole of the WiseMommies blog: “Kindness Wins shares tools for mothers, fathers, educators, friends and family to guide tweens and teens through social media in a heartwarming and supportive manner.” Unusually, its author Galit Breen really gets social media herself. Seems intuitive, doesn’t it – a parent who’s advising peers on good digital parenting understanding digital media herself? I think so.
  • Juvenoia, Part 1: Why Internet fear is overrated and Part 2: Why are we afraid? – my 2011 posts on leading U.S. researcher on youth and online risk, David Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. See also this post on his “three alarmist assumptions” about youth and tech, linking to his paper in the Journal of Child Psychology.
  • About the need for context: In her 2008 PhD dissertation, “Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics,” researcher danah boyd wrote, “While creating a tangible digital identity is relatively simple, negotiating the technology to engage in acts of self-presentation and impression management is complex and different from how these acts play out in unmediated environments. The processes of social signaling are complicated by technology, altering how teens can gain access to impression-management fundamentals: context, explicit feedback, and implicit reactions. The persistent, searchable, alterable, and networked nature of these environments makes it difficult for teens to locate their performances and thus they run the risk of being taken out of context.”
  • Teens’ perspectives so needed: I was touched by a request from a 15-year-old interview subject in boyd’s 2014 book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (reviewed and linked to here). In her preface she wrote, “As we were talking and laughing and exploring Mike’s online videos [of mixing Diet Coke and Mentos, among other “explosively” popular threads on YouTube in 2006], Mike paused and turned to me with a serious look on his face,” boyd writes. “‘Can you do me a favor?’ he asked, ‘Can you talk to my mom? Can you tell her that I’m not doing anything wrong on the Internet?’”
  • Digital & social: A teen’s perspective on parenting: a guest post by family therapist Jason Brand
  • “Media siege mentality: Antidote for Parents”
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