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For kids’ sake, don’t ‘black box’ social media

For our children’s sake, it’s more important than ever that we not “black box” our media, whether as researchers or as parents and educators. An essay from psychologist and media professor Sonia Livingstone in the new scholarly journal Social Media + Society got me thinking about this.

SocialMediaSocietyJournalDr. Livingstone observes that scholars in disciplines other than media and communications are doing that black-boxing – avoiding understanding what’s “under the hood” – and cautions against it. I think scholars aren’t the only ones tempted not to “go there” where social media’s concerned. It’s a very human tendency. Not concerning ourselves with the inner workings of complex things started a long time ago – probably when it got tough to understand how an early machine worked, certainly pre-printing-press – but it’s interesting that we’re now black-boxing media too. In fact, Livingstone says we did it with media back in the mass-media era, homogenizing its audiences. I think by its very nature mass media itself homogenized audiences, and – though comparisons of the two media eras can get too simplistic and binary, as the professor writes – this is a fairly significant difference between mass (top-down, one-to-many) media and social (peer-to-peer, multi-directional, produced-by-anyone) media: social media far from homogenizes its users (if only because they can no longer be called “audiences”). Very, very few generalizations can be made about social media users, even those in a single age group, such as teens.

Idealizing ‘face-to-face’?

I’ll get to why it’s more important than ever not to black box media in a minute, but first a couple of other interesting questions Livingstone raises:

“Why is face-to-face communication still prized and practiced in an age of social media? Or, has it also changed, remediated insofar as it now represents just one communicative choice among many? Indeed, are these core dimensions of communication themselves being reconfigured by digital networks in ways that matter? Even, are other dimensions of communication (persistence, share-ability, edit-ability, etc.) now making rival claims?”

Such great questions! For one thing, face-to-face has been “just one communicative choice among many” for a very long time – at least since people started communicating ideas on cave walls and at Roman-style forums – and I suggest that one reason why we fear social media is because we’ve somehow come to believe that, more than any other medium mankind has taken to through the millennia, it threatens to replace face-to-face communication. But no new medium ever has. In fact, as for today’s media, Pew Research has found that face-to-face is still very important to teens, even with the advent of texting and instant messaging. Social media scholar danah boyd pointed out in her book It’s Complicated that, for many US teens, the reason why digital communication is so popular is because, even when going to the same school, they’re so busy and live far from each other and so have to catch up and stay connected digitally in “in-between moments”; but even so, with Skype, Google hangouts, Snapchat, etc., these moments are by most standards “face-to-face.”

So digital communication is changing face-to-face communication, though in some cases only marginally, and most teens still prefer the latter. The advent of the telephone changed face-to-face too, though. Every new form of communication has. Maybe digital is so unsettling because it has introduced so many new forms, layers and choices of communication seemingly all at once – from face-to-face across great distances (Google hangouts and Skype) to social gaming to image- and video-only “conversations” in Snapchat, Instagram and Vine to social mass media in 144 characters or less on Twitter. But we don’t have to be overwhelmed if we take the time to learn what media and technologies are useful and meaningful to our own children or students and why. And they’ll help us understand.

Why go into the ‘black box’?

We need to go into the media black box because that’s the only way we can understand how any particular child is using it, why and how to respond (or not) appropriately. Because that use is so individual, situational and social, parents and educators need context for what they see in media to support a child, make policy, determine discipline, etc. One of the findings of the first national task force I served on was that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments were better predictors of the child’s online risk or safety than any technology (or media) a child uses. That’s why we can’t black box the media – by blocking, out-sourcing surveillance based on generalized key words and making decisions without knowing what’s in the “box.” Kids’ use of media is a reflection of what’s in their heads and their home and school lives and is embedded in those everyday lives as they flow along, in real time. That’s why the second task force I served on called our report to Congress “Youth Safety on a Living Internet.” Whether or not anyone actually read its 150 pages, we wanted to make it clear, at a glance, that this medium is no black box.

University of Southern California media professor Henry Jenkins told our task force why we need to unbox social media:

“Most young people are trying to make the right choices in a world that most of us don’t fully understand yet, a world where they can’t get good advice from the adults around them, where they are moving into new activities that were not part of the life of their parents growing up…. They are looking for guidance often [in social media] but don’t know where to turn” [p. 2 of the report].

What’s really in ‘the box’

We can’t give children guidance without knowing where they’re coming from – without context. Livingstone’s talking about research when she writes, “We must not presume (or judge) how people interpret, appropriate, or resist textual contents or technological affordances without the socio-culturally grounded study of people’s activities in context.” But this goes for parenting and educating too. About the only generalization that works for me after 18 years of following developments in youth and tech is how individual and contextual children’s media use is, in space and time, whether consumed (downloaded), shared or produced. Which suggests another fair generalization from inside “the box”: that somehow we have to get better at working from the inside (the kid) out, not the outside (headlines, etc.) in. Because what’s really inside that box? The child, not the media or the technology.

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