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More clarity on teens’ ‘Am I pretty?’ videos

The thoughtful New York Times story begins with a 13-year-old New Jersey girl posting her “Am I pretty?” video on YouTube. I won’t steal its thunder, so I hope you’ll read it. But I do want to highlight the points most helpful to parents of young teen girls:

Stick figure in mirror

By Tsahi Levent-Levi (CC licensed)

  • Ages 13-15: “Nearly all the people in these videos” are in that age range.
  • Developmentally normal: The videos’ sources are in that age range because that’s “when children struggle to understand how their emerging selves might fit into the larger picture.” They’re exploring and developing against that backdrop instead of the family one.
  • “Objectivity” via YouTube. To them it represents the general anonymous, unbiased global population (they’re right about general and anonymous, not so much about the unbiased part, as we know).
  • See it in context. The question is not just a gender thing. It’s not runaway narcissism or superficiality. It’s about what their society and media culture say about the importance of appearance.
  • Education needed! They may’ve been born with the Internet in their houses but they were not born understanding the consequences of using it in various ways.
  • It could become self-harm. Some young people are self-destructive and need extra vigilance and care where digital media is concerned. An “Am I pretty?” video can start as the posting of an honest question and then lead to self-destructive encouragement of the kind of social cruelty that typically turns up in comments.
  • Getting in front of the bullies? The Times suggests that some of these videos are “a pre-emptive strike against bullying, a way to say hurtful things about themselves before others can” or a show of bravado, a way to show that they can hack it.
  • It’s not all trolls. There are some helpers on YouTube too. The Times reports that, “like so many big sisters, a handful of video bloggers have responded with their own clips, explaining to girls why they should stop seeking validation from strangers – or shaming the commenters who insult them” (the Times links to examples, so check out the article).

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A bit of videogaming is good for kids: Study

What?! A little videogame play a day is actually good for children? That’s what an Oxford University researcher found in a study of 5,000 UK 10-to-15-year-olds that looked into both the positive and negative impacts of videogaming. “Young people who spent less than an hour a day engaged in video games were better adjusted than those who did not play at all,” the BBC reports, citing the study published in the medical journal Pediatrics.

Little gamers

Photo by Sean Dreilinger (cc licensed)

The study’s author, psychologist Andrew Przybylski, also looked at the effects of two other levels of videogame play. What he called “moderate play” (1-3 hours a day) turned up neither positive nor negative effects, and kids who played 3+ hours a day “reported lower satisfaction with their lives overall.” Overall, the Times of India adds in its coverage of the study, videogaming’s influence on children, positive or negative, “is very small when compared with more ‘enduring’ factors, such as whether the child is from a functioning family, their school relationships, and whether they are materially deprived.”

Play & social wellbeing

Those were the other factors Dr. Przybylski asked the respondents about to get at gaming’s influence, the BBC reports: “satisfaction with their lives, how well they got on with their peers, how likely they were to help people in difficulty [and] levels of hyperactivity and inattention.” He looked at the children’s responses against their levels of gameplay to see how different levels affect psychological and social wellbeing. Read more


Virginia teen sexting case: (Somewhat) reduced injustice

It was a picture-perfect example of how a law intended to protect children can be used to victimize them. But the juvenile judge didn’t comment on the perversion of justice – or the prosecution’s victimization of a teenager by ordering police to photograph the boy’s genitals and threatening even more abusive treatment. He just eased the punishment meted out to the boy (his girlfriend was not charged) in this teen sexting case that was by all accounts consensual.

Although Judge George M. DePolo said he found “facts sufficient on both [felony child pornography] counts” to convict, the Washington Post reported, he “suspended imposition of any ruling for one year, placed the teen on probation, and ordered him to perform 100 hours of community service and have no access to text messaging or social media of any kind. Thankfully, he also said, “The defendant shall not be placed on the sex-offender registry or any similar lists.”

The boy’s attorney, Jessica Harbeson Foster, said, “This is a law to protect juveniles, not to prosecute them, not to create more harm,” according to the Post. But somehow Judge DePolo didn’t see it that way. He put nothing on record about the prosecution’s “outrageous abuse of power and … unfathomable violation of this kid’s privacy,” as Post blogger and author Radley Balko put it last month in a post entitled “We must destroy the children in order to save them” providing some case history on sexting by minors.

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‘Revenge porn': Exposing cruel disclosure

This is a sidebar to my earlier post about social norms as one of the solutions to social cruelty online, zooming in on one form of it.

camera“Revenge porn” needs to be understood and exposed for what it is so it can be neutralized. Its power to harm will lessen as we stigmatize the shaming rather than its victims.

So let’s be completely clear about what revenge porn is: malicious distribution of someone’s nude or sexually explicit photos without his or her consent.

Focus on distribution, not creation

According to University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks, the more accurate term is “nonconsensual pornography” – because it’s “disclosure of private, sexually explicit photos or videos” without the consent of the person whose images are being disclosed, she said in a talk at the National Network to End Domestic Violence‘s (NNEDV’s) Tech Summit last week. “Legally and ethically, the focus should be on the disclosure, not the creation, of the images.” Why? Because it’s the disclosure that harms. In many cases the images were created consensually by both partners or by the person who is later victimized by his or her partner (with “selfies,” the distribution of which California’s “revenge porn law” absurdly doesn’t address).

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Zooming in on social norms

This is a sidebar to my earlier post about social norms as one of the solutions to social cruelty online – in case readers would like a little more definition.

Social norms are practically super powers. As I mentioned in my main post, this doesn’t occur to us much because, well, these are norms, after all – part of the wallpaper, socially speaking. They’re everyday behavior based on intangibles like a family’s, peer group’s or community’s values, habits of thought and living. They can be good or bad, of course, depending on the particular group, but the bigger the group the better the norms are, typically, because pro-social works better for more people than anti-social behavioral norms do.

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Beginning of the end of #purge, revenge porn or social cruelty?

We so want to believe it: that the fact that Twitter and Instagram are actively taking down #purge-related accounts signals “the tipping point of this particular phenomenon – and its end has begun,” as professor, author and cyberbullying expert Sameer Hinduja writes in an informative blog post.

purgeIt’s very possible we’re seeing the tipping point of this week’s hot Hollywood premiere-inspired digital-social-cruelty phenomenon. The number of posts and tweets with hashtags containing the word “purge” – associated with the just-released sequel of last year’s “gimmicky … violently satirical chiller” about one state-sanctioned day to “release the beast” within, according to Hollywood Reporter’s review of the 2013 original Purge film – just may be going down.

Let’s hope. We want that tipping point not only because of the cruel thinking and behavior on display in those tweets and posts but also because of the impact we know they can have on some of the people targeted by them. As Dr. Hinduja describes the #purge phenomenon, some users are “mouthing off in malicious, cruel, and offensive ways (typically against others),” and “the most troubling subset of participants are posting nude pictures of ex-girlfriends and others they wish to humiliate and demean (including those who are underage).”

The real problem

But let’s be clear on what we want stopped and how that can be done. What we’re seeing, here, is only the latest sick manifestation (#purge) of the problem: “malicious mouthing off,” revenge seeking, misogyny, abuse, public humiliation, etc. acted out in a user-driven, global medium – the digital versions of attitudes and behaviors that have been acted out in all kinds of places for a very long time, maybe in cave drawings (their increased exposure may even now be increasing and accelerating their marginalization).

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For our kids & ourselves: Presence in a digital age

Presence has never been harder or more needed – in this age of hyper transparency, connection, opinion and information, all in a media environment that’s networked, so that “speed of delivery” is a calculation of the past (it’s all just here already). Presence is needed by adults as much as children. It means different things to different people, including “attentiveness,” “focus,” and “mindfulness.”

Photo of teacher and child

Photo by bandita (CC licensed). This is one present teacher – see her description of this photo.

I think of it as being consciously present – fully here – in this moment and with the person(s) and action in and of this moment. That can be at a kitchen table, in a videogame, a phone conversation, a board game, a lecture, an exchange of text messages or a deep philosophical debate. There is a certain peace or comfort in this conscious focus, a bit of distance from the drama and fire hose of incoming information and plain old noise.

Loving attention

Psychologist Kellie Edwards uses the word “mindfulness” in an article in the Huffington Post, pointing to a 2010 study showing that “the most important thing we can do for children is express love and affection by supporting and accepting them, being physically affectionate and spending quality one-on-one time with them.” [See "The Parents' Ten" on p. 49 of this pdf of an article by the study's co-author Robert Epstein in Scientific American.]

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Manage Net risk but focus more on opportunities: Researchers

That’s what the authors of the latest “Net Children Go Mobile” report conclude: It’s great that the UK is “in many ways … leading in children’s Internet safety,” but “complacency would be ill-advised” and this success could be leading to a new kind of risk: reduced opportunity in and with connected media for British children.

“By comparison with some other European countries, the UK appears to prioritise minimising risk over maximising the opportunities of the internet,” the authors write, pointing to reduced opportunities for civic engagement and creative use of digital media, less “age-appropriate and stimulating content” for younger children, and more restrictions on digital media use in school. “Henceforth we suggest that managing risk should continue to be important, but that greater effort should now be devoted to optimising the benefits of the internet for ever more children.”

Here are some of their key findings: Read more


Proposed ‘rightful’ framework for Internet safety

Internet safety is a basic right of Internet users. But it’s not the only one. There are other fundamental rights that Net users of all ages have, and I propose that Internet safety will actually serve all Internet users better – and have much more relevance to the younger ones in our homes and schools – when we put it in context, in a framework of online rights.

UNICEF logoIt’s a framework for all users’ rights that was actually established in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and it leaped out at me while reading a paper by social psychology professor Sonia Livingstone in London and media professor Brian O’Neill in Dublin about how the Internet interfaces with the UNCRC: “Children’s rights online: challenges, dilemmas and emerging directions” (pdf).

Minding Minors book“The three Ps”

Safety is one of the UNCRC’s three core principles, or “three Ps”: “protection, provision and participation rights.” For the first 20-or-so years of the “Internet safety” discussion in most developed countries, the focus has largely been on the Protection rights. We parents and educators need to give equal weight to children’s Provision and Participation rights, and I believe that our efforts to teach children safe, effective use of connected media will have more authenticity for them when we do.

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Social media in Saudi schools … sort of

In the US, social media is banned in most schools but ubiquitous in the rest of students’ lives. In Saudi Arabia, social media is banned but will be taught in school. Maybe we could learn something from each other.

“The textbook for [Saudi Arabia's] first year secondary students, entitled Computers and Information Technology, would contain information on using, designing and managing websites and social networks,” Arab News reports, citing “local media” reports.

Today’s tech textbook, tomorrow’s history book

Books about technology quickly become history books, so it may be challenging to keep those textbooks current, unless they’re somehow updated and reissued about every other month!

But kudos to the Saudis for bringing social media lessons into school. We need to get digital media (not so much textbooks about it) into school, that important community of guided practice. But it can’t be done half way, as in all theory no practice, which is what’ happening in many US schools: teaching social media or digital citizenship in the abstract, with lesson plans rather than learning subjects together, with plenty of opportunities to practice citizenship in real time, in digital media environments. Read more


Textbook case of what NOT to do in teen sexting cases

The Washington Post has done some important reporting on a teen sexting case in Virginia, spotlighting what could (should) go down in history as a textbook example of how police can abuse rather than enforce child pornography law in the digital age. A 17-year-old boy “is facing felony counts of manufacturing and distributing child pornography,” the Post reported. I’ll let you read the Post coverage for details, but the short version is this:

Manassas City police car

Photo from Manassas City Police Dept.’s Facebook page

The boy’s 15-year-old girlfriend reportedly sent him sexting photos of herself. In response, he allegedly sent one or more sexting videos of himself. Perhaps justifiably, the girl’s mother filed a complaint against the boy, but – not as understandably – charges were brought against him only.

The case was dismissed last month on a technicality, but then prosecutors filed charges again and this time took nude photos of the boy against his will. His lawyer told the Post that the state’s attorney said that, if her client didn’t plead guilty, the police “would obtain another search warrant ‘for pictures of his erect penis,’ for comparison to the evidence from the teen’s cell phone.” The boy’s lawyer “asked how that would be accomplished and was reportedly told that ‘we just take him down to the hospital, give him a shot and then take the pictures that we need’.” As the Post reports, the charges against the boy “could lead not only to incarceration until he’s 21, but inclusion on the state sex offender data base for, possibly, the rest of his life.”

Prosecuting or committing child sex abuse?

How is such behavior on law enforcement’s part different from its charge against the boy of “manufacturing child pornography”? How is it also not a form of child sexual victimization?

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Breadth of videogames’ benefits to kids may surprise

Young gamers

Photo by Sean Dreilinger (Creative Commons licensed)

It being summertime here in the global North, there may be a little extra videogame play going on in households with kids. So it may be helpful for parents to know about a mother lode of the latest wisdom on videogames’ effects on kids’ learning, social development and futures. It’s MindShift’s “Guide to Games & Learning,” and here are a few nuggets:

Gaming fuels motivation

“We want our children to develop strong meta-cognitive skills [i.e., "the desire, the drive, and the skill, to look at themselves and evaluate the way they think about their place in the world"],” writes reporter Jordan Shapiro in “Social-Emotional Benefits of Video Games” – “motivated to make a difference in the world.” He points to Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, who studies motivation and social development. “She makes a distinction between an entity theory of intelligence and an incremental theory of intelligence. When kids develop an entity theory of intelligence, they believe they have innate, fixed traits. They’re praised for being smart, or being good at math,” which reduces motivation to work toward a goal because one either “has it” or not. An incremental theory of intelligence, on the other hand, is based on acquiring skills that are gained over time, incrementally. These kids are “praised for their effort,” which motivates them to keep going. “They have a growth mindset.”

Videogame play fosters that incremental sense of intelligence, Shapiro explains. “Because players are rewarded for one task at a time — for overcoming one obstacle after another — they learn to understand learning and accomplishment iteratively.” They keep at it till they get it – accomplish a task, complete a quest, go to the next level. Read more


The anti-EDIs social norm: A counterargument

Woman checking phone

REALLY?! (Photo by Ed Yourdon. Creative Commons licensed.)

They’re more like DEDIs (digitally enabled displays of insensitivity) than EDIs (electronic displays of insensitivity), because the behavior is human not electronic. But that’s beside the point. This NPR commentary suggests that EDIs are becoming a social norm. It cites an unscientific survey of 2,000 newsletter subscribers as finding that this insensitive behavior – people checking their phones in the middle of a meal or a conversation – is getting worse.

It just may be getting worse, but that doesn’t mean EDIs are a social norm. It’s every bit as possible that frowning on and even shunning DEDIs or EDIs – a backlash against them – is becoming a social norm (here‘s evidence). Growing incidences of behavior that people find rude and insensitive could just as easily spell growing indignation, anger or – better – anti-DEDI strategies, workarounds and games. When more and more people find something objectionable and more and more people are aware that they do, awareness of the problem grows and people feel social pressure not to be insensitive in that way. So presence – the opposite behavior – becomes the social norm, not the behavior people object to, right? Tell me if you disagree.

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From ‘Big Data’ to ‘Big Parent': Student privacy developments

Are you part of the Big Parent response to Big Data? Great lede from’s Stephanie Simon: “You’ve heard of Big Oil and Big Tobacco. Now get ready for Big Parent.” She’s talking about an unpredicted mobilization in recent months that has “catapulted student privacy … to prominence in statehouses from New York to Florida to Wyoming” and “attracted powerful allies” from left (ACLU) to right (ALEC). As of a month ago, “14 states have enacted stricter student privacy protections, often with overwhelming bipartisan support, and more are likely on the way” and “at least 105 student privacy bills were introduced this year in 35 states,” Simon reports, citing the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Window on school

Photo by Moyan Brenn (Creative Commons licensed)

You may’ve heard of the first accomplishment of this new movement: the folding last month of the $100 million InBloom database that was funded by the Gates Foundation “to make it easier for schools to share confidential student records with private companies.”

State databases are next

Next, children’s privacy advocates are tackling “huge state databases being built to track children … from as early as infancy through the start of their careers,” Simon reports. “They are intended to store intimate details on tens of millions of children and young adults — identified by name, birth date, address and even, in some cases, Social Security number — to help officials pinpoint the education system’s strengths and weaknesses and craft public policy accordingly.”

The strength of parent activists’ reaction reportedly took by surprise people who want to improve public education in an evidence-based way, and they’re trying to turn an unhealthy blend of “legitimate questions about data security” and “alarmist rhetoric” into a productive discussion. Further complicating things (and adding heat to the controversy) is the way some states are handling the data. For example, in one state, data gathered on students is processed for analysis in aggregate so that individual students’ data can’t, at a reasonable cost, be produced for parents who request it (see the example on the report’s first page of a retired math teacher in Nevada making such a request for his four children’s data). Read more


The why of the Facebook research fracas & what it calls for

social media iconsWondering about the “Facebook Emotional Manipulation Study” so much in the news these past few days? If so, you’re not alone. What’s causing this firestorm? Consumer research is nothing new, and we all know academic research certainly isn’t. There are some aspects of this that are very different, however, and so cause a great deal of uneasiness if not outrage. What’s different here are…

  • The media involved. This has several implications: 1) Market research has always been about people as consumers – consuming products as well as media in a mass-media environment. This is about participatory media, where the data being gathered and analyzed is the content of our lives and relationships. The manipulation rightly feels very personal because it just is. 2) Which arguably makes research subjects more vulnerable when changes are made around what we post of our innermost thoughts, intimate relationships and everyday lives. 3) Also, people sign up to use social media services – they “buy in” – so without policy or social changes thereto, businesses have long been assuming that “by using this you consent” because users can always choose to leave – why some services have treated use as a kind of contract into which users enter.
  • The cross-sector nature of the project. This was a joint-academic/business research project – social media user data with academic analysis. So whose standards of practice apply? Public companies are governed by their shareholders; academic research is governed by universities’ IRBs (institutional review boards ensuring the safety of research subjects). Who governs cross-sector research?
  • Where we are in history. We’re in the middle of concentric circles of concern. The smaller circle is the privacy or “Big Data” panic we’re now experiencing. The bigger, more general one is our media shift on the scale of the one that involved the printing press that led to the social changes called the Renaissance and the Reformation in the West. Only accelerated and global this time. That’s because a huge proportion of the planet’s population is now networked. Social change makes people uneasy. New media that cause social change represent a lot of unknowns, and people fear both change and unknown quantities.

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Social media major factor in teens’ social & sex lives: Australia study

With its 5th national study of Australian teens’ sexual attitudes, behaviors and health since 1992, La Trobe University for the first time took a careful look at social media’s role in their social and sexual lives, finding that it plays a significant one.

La Trobe University logo“Our survey clearly shows the major role social media has in the negotiation and development of sexual relationships,” said the study’s lead author, emeritus Prof. Anne Mitchell in the press release. As for the survey’s findings overall, she said “we can take heart from these results as they suggest that young people on the whole are feeling good about their decisions to have or not to have sex and most are acting responsibly.”

About sexting

Although the survey covered a full spectrum of experience – feelings, attraction, pressures, practices, drug use, fertility factors, relationships, etc. – as for social media use (one of nine chapters in the study), it found that 42% of Australian 10th, 11th and 12th grade students had received a “sexually explicit, nude or nearly nude photo or video” of themselves and 26% had sent one of themselves. Among sexually active youth, 70% had received and 50% had sent such photos (the authors defined “sexually active” as having ever had sexual intercourse, finding that 23% of 10th graders, 34% of 11th graders and 50% of 12th graders had). Read more


Youth sexuality, romance & digital media in Canada: Study

When MediaSmarts conducted its focus groups with young Canadians, it heard quite a bit about the important role the Internet plays in their “exploring and learning about sexuality and relationships,” the Canadian digital literacy organization says. But the authors write that the survey itself – of 5,000+ students in grades 4-11 – suggests that that role may be smaller than you’d think, with only 8% of students saying that they go online to learn about sexuality. That goes up as they age up, though, so the figure is 1% for 6th graders and 20% for 11th graders. Still, they use the Net more for information on physical health (18%) and mental health (11%), compared to that 8% for info on sexuality. [Not all questions about sexuality were asked of kids in younger grades, the authors write. Some, "including questions about pornography and sexting, were asked only of students in grades 7-11.]

Other interesting findings in three categories:

MediaSmartsRomantic partners vs. everybody else: Young Canadian interact more with friends and family in social media than with boyfriends and girlfriends. “Over 90% of students in grades 7-11 think their friends should be able to read their social media posts compared to 59% who think their boyfriend or girlfriend should be able to.” This too changes as they age up, but with 11th graders, 95% are open to friends reading their social media posts vs. 70% romantic partners doing so. They also feel friends should be able to track their whereabouts using geolocation tech) more than romantic partners (and almost as much as their parents), for 11th graders, the percentages were 49% for parents, 45% friends and 30% romantic partners. Canadian teens “more actively engage in deleting posts … to avoid misunderstandings on the part of their family and friends than they are in keeping something from a romantic partner.” Read more


Zooming in on social norms: Youth sexting study

The research on teen and young adult sexting is getting more granular. One of the more interesting findings in a new study at Drexel University indicated that social norms are clearly developing around the practice. Looking at frequency of youth sexting, the study – published in the academic journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy – found that, “though many respondents [undergraduates at "a large Northeastern (US) university"] acknowledged participating in sexting as minors, the frequency with which they engaged in this behavior and the number of partners with whom they exchanged sexts were fairly small,” the authors wrote.

Drexel sexting chart

If you can’t see the text, 8% had experienced humiliation or reputation issues; 5% trouble from parents; 1% trouble at school; 0.6% bullying. Source: Washington Post via Drexel data

Sexting happens in “the context of exclusive intimate relationships,” the Washington Post reports in its coverage of the research. It’s no surprise that sexting is rarely a casual behavior, and this finding “explains why the number of recipients of sexts averaged around 1.8 people,” the Post adds. A 2012 study of US college students had a similar finding: that 86% of respondents who had voluntarily sent a sext of themselves (hadn’t been pressured to) said the photo wasn’t seen by anyone but the intended recipient. Read more


Facebook’s new Slingshot aimed at Snapchat

There are no lurkers in the Slingshot app. It’s Facebook’s latest answer to users’ interest in disappearing (often called “ephemeral”) media and messages. What I mean by “no lurkers” is, as my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid explains, unlike Snapchat and Facebook’s now defunct Poke, “in order to view someone’s photo or video, you have to send one back [in Slingshot] Facebook bills the app as ‘a space where everybody is a creator and nobody is just a spectator,’ so if you don’t send an image, you can’t view one.” Like Snapchat, Slingshot can’t keep users from taking screenshots of photos meant to be ephemeral, and Facebook is good to warn users about that.

The safety aspect is solid: Although “anyone who adds you on Slingslot will show up on the list of people who can sling you,” Larry writes, “if you’d rather not see their images, you can hide them by swiping left on the person’s name and tapping hide. If anyone you’ve hidden is harassing you, you can tap the Hidden people section and report the person to Facebook.” [Disclosure:, which I co-direct, is supported by Facebook, Google, TrendMicro and other Internet companies.]

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Amazon’s Fire Phone could be a hot holiday item

Now there’s a phone that puts the Amazon store and all that accompanying “retail therapy” right in people’s pockets. It’s a pretty slick looking little device, so here’s fair warning to parents worried about kids getting caught up in consumer culture that you may see this on some wish lists. [Of course, this is not to say that with all its convenience isn't already in our pockets (and wallets); as much as I love hanging out and shopping in independent bookshops, I've been known to buy and read a book or two on my iPhone, using Amazon and its Kindle app.]

Called the Fire Phone (to go with Amazon’s Kindle Fire), this device sort of runs on Google’s Android operating system, but modified, so that not all Android apps will run on it – which is only really a problem if the 240,000 some odd apps available in Amazon’s Appstore aren’t enough (Apple’s App Store and Google Play “each have about five times as many offerings,” Wired reports). HOWEVER, I don’t know whether parents will see this as good or bad: Kids and other media-sharers will probably be dismayed to find that Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube won’t work on this phone. Amazon may have to fix that! What the phone will be great for, Wired says, is 3D effects and hands-free navigation. Its 3D technology makes the phone “a little diorama box, with stunning effects for 3-D maps, games, and homescreen wallpaper,” according to Wired.

“Pricing for the Fire Phone will be $200 for the 32GB version and $300 for the 64GB one. Both of those are with two-year contracts. It will only be available on AT&T for the time being, and will go on sale July 25th,” Wired reports.