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Google’s new learning tool that learns

This may be the next step beyond tutorials on YouTube, MOOCs (massively open online courses), Google Play for Education and YouTube EDU. It may even be signaling the next step for education. It’s called “Oppia,” and it’s a learning teaching tool. It helps teachers customize what they’re teaching, student by student – by asking the individual learner questions and, “based on how the learner responds to those questions, the teacher decides how to proceed, which questions to ask, how to give feedback and so on,” TechCrunch reports.

It’s part of the shift (I hope) we’re seeing away from mass-production education, as it helps tailor the subject to the learner rather than the other way around. “You can think of this as a smart feedback system that tries to ‘teach a person to fish,’ instead of simply revealing the correct answer or marking the submitted answer as wrong,” Google says. Read more


The flap over Talking Angela the chatbot app

Talking Angela appIf you’re a parent, you know how little kids often want to be like their older sibs and other “big kids” they look up to. And that goes for technology too, of course. Enter Talking Angela, an iPhone and Android app designed for teens (and the teenager in all of us) but not for little kids. Though I can see why little ones would find Angela the talking cat fascinating.

Yesterday morning I found myself having two conversations about “Angela,” one with a Net safety expert in the UK via Skype and the other with one in Mexico via email. They had both gotten calls from parents about a hoax about Talking Angela that had been circulating on Facebook and in the news media in their respective countries – a hoax that associated the app with a “pedophile ring” but that has also been “fully repudiated,” CNET reports. Yet another reminder of the ever-increasing importance of media literacy.

57 million+ downloads so far

Angela is an “artificial intelligence chatbot” app that has been downloaded 57 million times since its release a little over a year ago, according to CNET. It was created by award-winning programmers Bruce and Sue Wilcox, whose bots “are the only ones to have qualified for the [World Turing Test] competition’s finals each of the last four years,” CNET adds. According to The Guardian, the Angela app “is part of a wider series of apps called Talking Tom and Friends [a talking dog, parrot and giraffe as well as cats], which have been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times since 2010, and are currently being used by 230m people every month – lots of children, but also lots of adults. They’ve spawned a series of popular YouTube videos in partnership with Disney, as well as a range of physical toys. Outfit7 is a well-known apps company, not a shadowy network of child-catchers….” Read more


About the worldwide ‘selfie’ phenomenon

A nice switch from that other Guardian piece I blogged about was one about the Selfiecity Project. Have you heard of it? It was a project about a global phenomenon reinforced by Oxford Dictionaries declaring “selfie” the Word of the Year late last year (not to mention President Obama’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service).

Selfie takers in Malaysia

A selfie in Malaysia (photo: Garry Knight)

Selfiecity was a project at City University of New York that used human judgment and Gnip, a photo analysis tool, to study what more than 600,000 selfies (you probably know they’re digital self-portraits taken with phones) from central New York City, Bangkok, Moscow, Sao Paolo and Berlin tell us about ourselves. One of the researchers’ most interesting discoveries ran exactly counter to all the hype – that “only 3-5% of all photos the team analyzed could be categorized as a selfie,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

But back to The Guardian for some other really interesting findings about all of us (if five global cities represent us): “The results show that selfie aficionados in Bangkok skew younger than those in, say, Berlin. People in Moscow smile far less than their happier, more expressive counterparts in Sao Paulo. And, in all cities analyzed, selfie-takers are overwhelmingly female, though [lead researcher Lev] Manovich notes the balance is more equal in the US in general. Read more


How technology will improve the well-being of young adults

Today a guest post about last week’s Connect 2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia, by American researcher and sexual health educator Kris Gowen. The 2-day conference hosted by the Young & Well Cooperative Research Center brought together young people, researchers, practitioners and policymakers representing the YAWCRC’s 75+ partners in the academic, commercial, nonprofit and government sectors of Australian society.

Guest post by Kris Gowen

I was one of two Americans fortunate enough to attend Connect 2014 in Melbourne, February 20-21. The goal of the conference was to share the latest research on how technology can be used to improve the mental health of young people, often referred to at the conference as “eMental Health.” The positive framing of the intersection of youth and technology was at the forefront and drove the agenda. The fact that, out of the some 400 participants, 130 were youth strengthened the overall belief of participants that there are many ways that technology can improve – not threaten – youth well-being. Here are some key takeaways from the amazing two days: Read more


Calling our children narcissists on ‘a sociopathic scale’: Really!?

A column in The Guardian’s Web site called “Comment Is Free” (I guess you get what you pay for) starts off with an anecdote that reads like the heart-stopping opening scene of a new Netflix crime drama. Nothing wrong with that; grab a few more readers, sell a few more newspapers. What’s fatiguing is the writer using a tragic public murder to begin yet another commentary about today’s narcissistic young social media users (I’ll say “click to it,” but only to use reverse psychology). Read more


Nothing complicated about this: Read ‘It’s Complicated’!

danah boyd's bookWhy is the title of social media researcher danah boyd’s new book “It’s Complicated“? Not just because “the social lives of networked teens” are complicated (the book’s subtitle), but growing up in a networked world is too. And I’d add that it’s further complicated when the adults in a teen’s life don’t have any idea how complicated it is – when they reduce it to “too much screen time.” What’s not complicated is the need for teens’ input in the public discussion about teens’ experiences in social media.

So I wish every parent, educator and anyone with even one young person in his or her life would read this book. It’s a rare window on young people’s perspectives coming from a geeky (tech-savvy) researcher with a fascination for how both youth culture and networked culture are changing society and each other.

As boyd studied those emerging phenomena (from 2005-’12), she kept bumping into two others: all the fears in society about youth and social networks and a real lack of input from young people themselves. Mike, a 15-year-old interviewee she mentions in her preface, pretty much says it all:

“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?’ I smiled and promised him that I would.”

A window on growing up

But she did more than that – about six years more of observation and formal and informal interviews, online and in person, with teens from “a wide array of socioeconomic and ethnic communities” in 18 states. And she talked with a lot more parents than Mike’s mom, as well as teachers, librarians, youth ministers and others who worked with youth. This book is riddled with stories of teens’ experiences in social media, based on conversations and observations. [I suspect her geekiness and genuine, respectful curiosity made talking with her fun and sometimes really helpful to her teen interviewees (this is the part that's not complicated!).]

It’s hard to exaggerate the value those perspectives have to our society – not just to people working with youth but to the Read more


SID 2014: Teens’ own (wise) perspectives on life with social media

Youth panel

Panelists (from left) Arielle, Will, Zoe, David, Hannah and Dursey with their moderator Dan Tynan behind them (photo by Evy Mages)

As panelists at Safer Internet Day US 2014 in Washington, D.C., high school students Arielle Ampeh (from Va.), Will Ashe (Va.), Zoe Parks (Ill.), David Rojas Rosario (D.C.), Hannah Thompson (D.C.), and Dursey Wade (Mich.) had a broad-ranging conversation about their experiences in all kinds of social media. But if you watch the video or keep reading, you’ll probably notice, as I did sitting in the audience, that technology, to them, was just blended in to a conversation that was really about life, relationships and growing up – but they were happy to zoom in on it because we asked them to. Meanwhile, they work, play, mentor their peers, seek support, help their siblings, respect themselves and their parents (but are candid about the limitations of adults’ help) and generally lead very busy lives. It’s a privilege to be exposed to their candor and wisdom as they think through some challenging questions out loud together.

The conversation – with moderator Dan Tynan of Yahoo Tech and peers and adults in the audience – lasted for well over an hour, so I’m really just scratching the surface with the following highlights. You’ll see that there’s a lot about cyberbullying here. That’s because, when Dan asked about it, the discussion really began to flow – though it was about all Read more


From stupidity to kindness: ‘Neknomination’ and ‘RAKnomination’

Just as about every other human (and other animal) behavior has turned up in social media, so has “neknomination” (or “neck nomination,” “neck and nominate,” etc.). It keeps evolving, but it’s now a blend of onatare game (e.g., “Truth or Dare” or “Top This”) and drinking game that’s thought to have started in Australia (UK reporters say). It began getting mainstream media coverage across the Atlantic this month after neknomination was connected to some deaths of young adults – including one in Northern Ireland, the BBC reported.

What always had a certain pre-adolescent risk-taking appeal, never felt like a good idea and usually was private but always had the potential for serious public humiliation seems to have an added layer of physical danger with a toxic mix of bigger audiences, drinking (alcohol as well as other substances) and physical stunts. Jonny Byrne, the 19-year-old who died in Northern Ireland, jumped off a bridge after “necking” (speed-drinking). Gawker has other examples of how bad the “game” has gotten – to the point where a self-destructive need for “fame” seems to be an element.

Daring & shaming can be bullying

That’s where the latest version uses social media – taking video of oneself doing the drinking, then “nominating” three peers to top that by “tagging” or naming them on a neknomination page. But this is not new. Researchers showed the Berkman Center task force of 2008 how people of all ages (usually younger ones) would dare each other to view the most disgusting possible videos and do crazy stunts in video-sharing sites to grow their followings. Neknomination is another form of both daring and attention seeking, but the “top this” element has made it dangerous. [If you can stomach watching some of the "feats" – which can start with drinking shots of hard alcohol, urine and other substances – there are plenty of examples on YouTube and in news sites.] Read more


Heart to heart: How connection protects & grows resilience

Back in 2008, I wrote about evidence that social networks – our social circles, as experienced online or offline – are a source of health and safety. They’re also protective in the way that fellow family and community members have each other’s backs.

And the evidence is growing that meaningful social connections increase safety and well-being. Here’s more evidence of how connecting with others in a meaningful way can increase health and reduce any harm from stress: research presented in a TED Talk by Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. I’m sure that a big part of the explanation for the enormous response to her talk since it was posted last fall (4.3 million+ views so far) is how effectively she challenges long-held beliefs about the harmful effects of stress (and shows how removing fear of them zeroes out the harmful effects) and, moreover, shows how our bodies’ heart-pumping response to stress is actually their way of helping us rise to the challenge causing the stress (watch the talk for how that works).

How connection heals

But just as interesting is the social part of all this: “Your stress response,” McGonigal says, “has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.” Stress triggers the release in our brains of the “stress hormone,” oxytocin, she says. “Your pituitary gland pumps it out as part of your stress response. And when it’s released, it’s motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you. Read more


Safer Internet Day 2014: The global safety collaborative

What do a high school student who’s a bullying prevention activist, two criminology professors and Safer Internet Day (February 11) have in common? They’re all sending the same message that safety and wellbeing online takes all of us.

The student

Aidan McDaniel the student activist says school safety happens from the ground (the students) up. Social cruelty both online and offline isn’t a student problem that administrators and teachers can fix from the top down, he told Public News Service when he was 16, it’s “everybody’s problem” and the solution doesn’t happen “without working with each other.” In a presentation he gave last November at the International Bullying Prevention Association conference, Aidan spoke inspiringly about how he and other students train peers to mentor younger students in bullying prevention. His father, a social worker for the Morgan County School District, told PNS that it’s “the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of our students more than anything [that] create the climate and culture of any school.” [See also this four-year-old article in Slate: "Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village."]

The professors

Professors Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, who run the Cyberbullying Research Center, say that “everyone is looking for an answer to the bullying and cyberbullying problem. We know where it can be found: in teens themselves. We’ve met so many who are coming up with creative ideas, and running with them. They are spearheading movements and making a real, measurable difference.” Patchin and Hinduja’s latest book, Words Wound, has dozens of stories of students like Aidan who have worked in their schools to stop online and offline social cruelty in meaningful ways. Read more


Timely for Safer Internet Day: Game-changing insight into Internet risk

One of the milestones of Internet safety was the distinction between risk and harm made by the pan-European researchers of EU Kids Online back in 2011. “Risk must be distinguished from harm,” they wrote in a report based on surveys of more than 25,000 9-to-16-year-olds in 25 countries. “As with riding a bike or crossing the road, everyday activities online carry a risk of harm, but this harm is far from inevitable – indeed, it is fairly rare.”

‘Online risk’ a different calculation

Now psychologist and lead EU Kids Online researcher Sonia Livingstone takes us a step further, adding another important distinction – the one between the way we determine offline risk and the way we have come to calculate online risk. In a just-published essay about risk, harm and vulnerability online, she shows where the often-used crossing-the-street analogy breaks down. It fails to factor in this other distinction, which we all (from parents to policymakers) need to understand before reacting to scary headlines about cyberbullies or predators. Online risk, where experts calculate “the probability of an encounter that might (or might not) result in harm,” as Livingstone puts it, is different from “real world” risk like crossing a street, where experts can calculate the probability of actual harm (e.g., getting hit by a car). So what is reported about online or phone-based risk “is not the actual risk … but the risk of the risk” (emphasis hers).

“On the internet, we do not know how many children are hurt or how severe are the consequences; there are no accident figures,” Livingstone writes. So what should be in the back of our minds whenever we see reports about “online risk” is that, if data’s being presented, it’s showing “the probability of something [just something, not necessarily something harmful] happening, but whether it does [actually result in harm] and for how many it does, remains unknown.” Read more


10-year-old Facebook: Data

How could anybody so young have a following in every country on the planet? Facebook turns 10 today and – as of December 31 – has 1.23 billion active users, CNET reports. More than 750 million of them are active on the site daily.

Looking at US Facebook use, the Pew Internet Project provides even more insight in a blog post timed to the site’s birthday. Pew reports that 57% of US adults use Facebook, while almost three-quarters (73%) of 12-to-17-year-olds do, “and – though teens aren’t abandoning the site (yet, anyway) – “focus group interviews suggest that teens’ relationship with Facebook is complicated and may be evolving.”

The top 4 things users like about Facebook “photos and videos from friends (47% say that’s a major reason they use the site), the ability to share with many people at once (46%)” and tied for No. 3 at 39% each: friends’ updates and “humorous content.” Read more


Kids’ tablets the new TV sets?

It looks like, for kids, tablets are the new TV – at least that’s the way media companies are viewing these handheld devices that kids are taking to bears to honey. When I started reading this New York Times piece about Dreamworks’s new “DreamTab,” I thought, “Shades of the days when cellphone makers made kids’ phones,” which never really took off for phone and toy makers. But this is different. It’s about content, not communications. As Dreamworks sees it, “the studio will be able to program much like a cable channel,” according to the Times. Read more


‘Internet addiction’: New ‘disorder’ about age-old needs?

Judging by the just-released documentary Web Junkie, about a Chinese “Internet addiction” treatment center, it’s loneliness that’s at the heart of what the Chinese officially call a clinical disorder (more often called “problematic Internet use” in the West).

Web Junkie film

(Photo from the film and Sundance Film Festival)

If you can get past the boot-camp-like conditions and young patients’ (inmates’?) tears, you’ll get to a scene – at 4:50 into the 7-min. trailer – that’s just as dramatic but in a different way. The psychiatrist who runs the treatment center, Prof. Tao Ran, who is also a military officer, is talking to patients’ parents, who are encouraged to stay at the center and participate in their children’s treatment.

“One of the biggest issues among these kids is loneliness,” he tells the parents. “Did you know they feel lonely? So where do they look for companions? The Internet. They know the Internet inside and out, but nothing about human beings.” I was struck by this statement. The treatment explicitly refers to “Internet addiction,” but what it appears to be addressing – based on the patients’ interviews, the footage from World of Warcraft and video of kids playing multiplayer online games in Chinese Internet cafes – is much more specific: so-called gaming addiction. So much of the experience of multiplayer games is interactive and collaborative. It could well be seen as an antidote for loneliness. In saying that these young gamers know “nothing about human beings,” perhaps the professor is saying they know “nothing about human beings” in offline life and relationships because there’s some sort of deficit there. Read more


Keek’s fast-growing ‘kred’ (with video-sharers)

You may not have heard of Keek the social app because Mashable says it has “maintained an under-the-radar presence” since it launched in 2011 but is “steadily gaining both users and notoriety in the shadow of networks such as Vine, Instagram and Snapchat.”

What’s most different about it is that videos can be as long as 36 sec. (up from Vine’s 6-sec. max and Instagram’s 15 sec.). Video or text replies are cutely called “keekbacks.” And there’s a “Likes”-like popularity piece, except Keek users can get more and more “kred.” Teens can find followers through their Twitter or Facebook accounts or among the Contacts on their smartphones. “Keek also helps you find users to follow by organizing uploads by Latest, Popular, Random and Featured, as well as maintaining a list of its top 100 users,” according to Mashable. Keek likes the number 36, because along with the 36-sec. max video length, 36 is the maximum number of users who can privately chat with the app (parents might want to ask Keek users if they use that feature and, if so, only with peers they know in offline life). The app works on iPhones and Android, BlackBerry and Windows phones, and – Keek says – its 60 million+ users are young (85% 13-25) and increasingly all over the world. Read more


Whisper’s popularity no longer a secret

It’s being said that the preference pendulum in social media culture is swinging back from transparency (as in Facebook) to anonymity (as in Whisper). And the growing popularity of the Whisper app – where users’ posts are Internet meme-style photos overlaid with text (the app makes posting easy by offering up photos it “thinks” match your text, and you get to pick one). People can respond by “heart-ing” (as with a “Like” on Facebook) or commenting on your secret.

Whisper app

What a “secret” looks like
(Apple App Store photo)

Though there may not be a lot of buzz about it among people over 25, it’s “already popular among high-school and college students across the country,” reports New York Magazine, and “is quickly becoming the most interesting social network around.” Its makers won’t publish its user numbers but did tell reporter Kevin Roose that Whisper’s users post secrets at the rate of 20 per second at peak times, and the app gets 3 billion+ pageviews a month – more “than LinkedIn, WordPress, and Upworthy combined.” The demographics are more interesting: 70% of users are female and 90% “between ages 18 and 24,” which Roose suggests is why there’s a lot of “adolescent angst” and a true-confessions element, the darkside of which is “confessions of cheating, cutting, and other subversive behaviors” (though sometimes, when confessions are  cries for help, this exposure can actually lead to help). But the reporter says he’s also found plenty of “happy Whispers, idealistic Whispers, angry political Whispers, and Whispers about sports.”

Anonymity’s downside

Another downside of anonymity, of course – as on Reddit, and other services built squarely on anonymity (but also with mainly positive or neutral content) – is the potential for anonymous bullying or trolling wherever vulnerability is on display. It’s always a good policy to ask your kids if they or kids at their school use a particular site and, if so, what their experience of it is. If people are using it to be mean, ask if they’ll think about either leaving or helping to make the experience better for themselves and their peers. If they look at you funny, you can state the fact that this is user-driven media, so users have as much of a role in how positive or negative the experience is as the companies that provide it. Read more


Teens on social media’s impact on relationships: Survey

Today a guest post that shows how much we need to understand the relationship between social media and social life – in other words, get more granular in our understanding of how social media affect the relationships in our lives (our lives as a whole, not just the online parts)….

Guest post by Kris Gowen

The Teen Advisory Board (TAB) for My Future-My Choice, a peer-led sexuality education curriculum developed in Oregon, conducts a survey every year to gain insight into the communities in which they live. This year, because Oregon just instituted a new law that requires sex education to cover healthy relationships, the TAB members asked fellow high school students for their insights on this topic.

The short survey (11 questions), which was conducted statewide by the 10 TAB members, included some questions about how social network sites impact romantic relationships. Two hundred 9th-to-12th-grades responded – a good mix of rural, urban, and suburban youth. Their answers provide great insight into how we should be talking about relationships in our media-heavy society.

Here are the findings from the three questions about social media: Read more


A student-guided social media guide for students

The New York City Department of Education has published a social media guide for students – one for which, very wisely, it got student input. And apparently students were asking for guidance like this. Jane Pook, DOE executive director for digital communication policy and strategy, told the Huffington Post that demand for the guide “came from students.” Across the river in New Jersey, teacher Kevin Jarrett told his professional network in Facebook that it’s “one of the best guides of its kind I’ve seen, and should be required reading at districts anywhere that truly embrace social media in the classroom.” [As for New Jersey itself, the state Senate just passed a bill that "would require middle school students to take a course on how to use social media responsibly," the Huff Post reported. Let's hope it will be taught well.]

Digital literacy and life literacy

So this bears out what we’ve been hearing from social media scholars for some years now (that “digital natives” aren’t just born digitally or socially literate). Even the digitally literate, like everybody else, are figuring out how to navigate life in the very social media of this networked world of ours. So it’s to their credit that young people themselves are seeking guidance. There’s digital literacy and there’s life literacy (blending social literacy and media literacy). Both are needed, and – when you really think about it, the latter is nothing new, has been taught to all of us from birth and is just given special names such as “media literacy,” “social-emotional learning,” and “critical thinking” once we’re in school.

What’s newer is digital literacy, but that’s changing too (changing all the time as well as getting less new). When our so-called digital natives are parents, they will probably need to consult with their children about digital media less than we need to, but the digital kind of literacy will probably always be more dynamic and different for each generation than the social and media literacies into which it’s getting folded.

New York schools’ good example

The one thing that’s clear right now is expressed by New York City teacher, Jennifer Gunn, in the Huffington Post article: digital media is here to stay, it’s “ridiculous” to act as if the media students are using all the time doesn’t have a place in the classroom, so let’s get on with both helping them navigate it and using it in everyday classroom instruction. We have an opportunity to honor both what they already know and what they’re seeking to learn, and we’ll be able to take advantage of that opportunity when we stop creating fear and fear-based policy about digital media and start working with our children in digital media. Go New York City schools!

Related links


The benefits of agency, choice, and student-centered learning

“More and more of society at large, and consequently many students, are demanding an educational system that works for and with them,” wrote high school math teacher Paul Bogdan in Edutopia (emphasis mine). “A student-centered learning environment encourages students to become independent learners and ultimately to be in charge of their own education.”

Student-centered learning just makes sense as school walls “disappear” and as learning is globally sourced and happens 24/7. How could a teacher, school or curriculum possibly keep up with, much less decide what any single student needs to learn from a constantly changing, instantly accessible, global knowledge base that students can access anytime? A task force I have the privilege of serving on is all about promoting student-centered learning, which will not – as Joshua Davis put it in Wired last fall – only “unleash a generation of geniuses.” It will, by definition, grow learning’s relevance and student engagement and unleash their creativity, inspire young people’s own solutions to social problems and incite countless positive and probably planet-changing uses of connected media. In other words, it will help bring out the genius in each child.

Game designer Mark Healey in the UK told fellow game designer Katie Salen that, when you empower a player to do something, it’s “like a force flows through your veins like you can change the world around you.”

The beauty of it is, play is part of learning – especially in a time of rapid change (see this), and one of play’s properties is choice, or agency, that student-centered thing.

So to back that up, I’m going to go ahead and quote a big chunk of Davis’s outstanding article about how education is changing and should change:

“Theorists from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have argued that students should learn by playing and following their curiosity. Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.

“In a 2011 study, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Iowa scanned the brain activity of 16 people sitting in front of a computer screen. The screen was blurred out except for a small, movable square through which subjects could glimpse objects laid out on a grid. Half the time, the subjects controlled the square window, allowing them to determine the pace at which they examined the objects; the rest of the time, they watched a replay of someone else moving the window. The study found that when the subjects controlled their own observations, they exhibited more coordination between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in learning and posted a 23% improvement in their ability to remember objects.” Davis quoted a neuroscientist’s bottom line: that people just don’t learn as well if they don’t control their own learning.

So we need to think hard about frequently used terms such as “classroom management” and “parental controls.” What we need to control more is the urge to control! If we can discipline the desire to control our children (which science now shows is not actually “for their own good”), we will see a lot of desirable outcomes for our children individually and collectively.

Related links


UK children’s ChildLine: Read the coverage carefully

An interesting finding from the UK ChildLine’s just-released report: ”For the first time in the charity’s 28-year history, more counselling took place online (59%) than by telephone (41%),” the BBC reported about the free, 24-hour counseling service for Britons up to age 19. A disturbing finding: “a significant increase in racist bullying.… A common theme was children being called a ‘terrorist’ or a ‘bomber’ or being told to ‘go back to where they came from.’” That is as much of a red flag about young people’s media environment as about young people.

Another disturbing finding: that the ChildLine handled “4,507 cases of cyberbullying in 2012-13, up from 2,410 in 2011-12.” As much as anything else, this illustrates how much critical thinking we need to bring to news reports – not just because of the 24/7 news cycle and the fact that the news will always remain focused on the exception to the rule, not the rule.

We can’t know how much of the growth in children’s phone and online calls to the helpline are because of their awareness of it, its accessibility to them online or actual growth of problems, but it’s worth considering that these numbers aren’t only because things are much worse for children or children’s behavior is worse (as is often suggested in commentaries on such news).

“We see two elements of the alarmism narrative in this article,” wrote David Finkelhor, who tracks social problem data involving children as director of University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “First, we see an assumption that these statistics show a worsening of the problem. [For example,] more kids are calling the hotline about cyberbullying. But since all social interaction is moving into electronic mode, it does not mean that kids are experiencing more bullying or more nastiness, just that more of everything is happening online. In any case,” Dr. Finkelhor wrote, “hotline calls may not be a good indicator of underlying trends.

“Second,” he continued, “there is the assertion that the problems of today’s kids are worse. The issues facing children today are very different from those that faced us as children. The stranger danger of ‘olden days’ (which everybody [at least in the social science field] knows now was a low probability bogeyman) is contrasted with depression, self-harm, online bullying and suicide of the present era. Anybody remember [the fear of] nuclear annihilation? And the assertion that depression, suicide and bullying are new in the lives of children is absurd. We are talking about it more [emphasis mine, not his]. The data from the US actually show declines in suicide and bullying since the 1990s. The bullying declines have been replicated in international data.” The professor is referring to his 2013 paper “Trends in Bullying and Peer Victimization,” citing US Department of Justice data.

But, while the need for media literacy on the part of news consumers of all ages has never been greater, it’s important to add that no matter how the ChildLine’s report, “Can I Tell You Something?”, is represented, the helpline is doing British youth a tremendous service. Launched 28 years ago, the service “has counselled about 3.2 million children,” the BBC reports.

Related links