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‘State of the Union’ & the student part of student privacy protection

There’s a lot of confusion in the air about student data privacy, and some widely quoted words about it from President Obama in his address Tuesday night didn’t help (but I suspect his speechwriters were just looking for a spot to put a high-priority topic into “a simple, dramatic message about economic fairness,” as the New York Times put it:

(Creative Commons licensed)

(Creative Commons licensed)

“No foreign nation, no hacker should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.”

Today’s privacy protection mashup

Where kids’ data is concerned, the problem is not foreign nations or hackers, it’s a blend of elements much closer to the kids and their devices, as close as the kids themselves, their peers, their devices, the providers of the devices and the software on them and the authorities in their lives (at home and school). So the solution is a mashup too. Not even “only” a mashup of laws and privacy settings (on devices, from social media companies, in operating systems or in the apps that run on them). It’s not just distributed across those non-human parts of the privacy equation; it’s distributed among the people who are party to a social experience in a digital space.

Because of the social nature of media, privacy is personal and social and fluid. It’s shared by all parties to that social situation. It needs to be optimized not just protected – by all the moving parts – especially by the user at the center of those concentric circles of privacy protection: in this case, your kid.

Protection from the inside out

How can we help our kids do their part, consciously and skillfully, in the optimization of their own privacy? First of all, we can’t continue to see or represent them as passive beneficiaries of others’ actions to protect their privacy. Part of protecting them is respectful treatment of youth as active participants in today’s participatory privacy equation – as is developmentally appropriate, of course.

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Millennials’ startup: Social change in a social-networking skin

How fitting for a social network service for social good to launch on Martin Luther King Day. Created by millennials to have “a positive ripple effect,” its name,, comes from the Spanish verb “rizar,” which means “to ripple or ruffle the surface.”

rizzarr“Our goal is to provide a positive, globally connected platform where both inspirational news and content from Millennials are shared” by both staff and users, says its founder, Ashley Williams. “My team and I want young people to use RIZZARR to uplift, encourage, and empower each other.” So instead of fighting negativity in social media, these young adults have decided to demonstrate the opposite, in keeping with what the research has been saying about millennials and with what aims to be a movement in a social networking skin.

It’s at the commercial end of what increasingly looks like a commercial-nonprofit spectrum of socially minded enterprise (as opposed to the old either-or construct), part of the “sharing economy” that author and economist Jeremy Rifkin says will be in full partnership with capitalism by mid-century. Read more

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Social media literacy in an app

Brilliant concept. A source of quick, digestible social media literacy delivered by an app, not parents (one reason why it’s so digestible). I’m talking about the ThinkUp app. It’s definitely not just for teens, but what a great application for a reputation-curation and media-mindfulness tool. It’s so much more powerful than just googling oneself or getting a service like to help clean up your social media act post-facto (and cheaper than the latter). Mindfulness in social media is something every user needs, but nowhere does it pay more to start young!

thinkup“ThinkUp, a year-old subscription service that analyzes how people comport themselves on Twitter and Facebook [something that teens are unlikely to want their parents to analyze, right?] with the goal of helping them become more thoughtful, less reflexive, more empathetic and more professional — over all, better behaved,” reports the New York Times, referring to the benefits to a user of any age. Read more

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Kids’ top social media picks: New resource for parents

Here’s a super starting point for a conversation with your children about social media: NetAware, a brand-new set of reviews of kids’ top social media services. It’s not the first such resource for parents, but two things set it apart:

UK kids' Top 5, according to NSPCC

UK kids’ Top 5, according to NSPCC

  1. These are kids’ own top social media picks. This isn’t adult guesswork. Because part of its mission is to “ensure the voices of children are heard in everything we do,” NSPCC consulted with 1,854 11-to-18-year-olds to find out the most popular social media services among their peers – social network sites, apps and games. NSPCC made sure the services were among the 100 most downloaded apps in iTunes and Google Play last October and comScore’s Top 50 services accessed by kids 6-14.
  2. The reviews are by parents, for parents. Britain’s NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) developed it with Mumsnet, one of the country’s largest parenting sites. Each of the 511 parents of 8-to-14-year-olds recruited for the project was asked to review 1-3 social media services by filling out a questionnaire NSPCC developed. They served as volunteers but were entered into a contest giving them a chance to win one of four donated prizes.

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Two 2014 anniversaries that say reams about our kids’ futures

We don’t want to let 2014 slip away without marking two anniversaries that are very important to our children: those of an invention and a convention. This year was the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s release of his computer code creating the World Wide Web, now with some 3 billion users worldwide, and the 25th anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

GasserUNICEFreport“Both the Convention as a social innovation and the Web as a technical innovation have had transformative impacts and made the world a better place,” wrote Urs Gasser, executive director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society in a UNICEF publication, “Taking Children Seriously” this fall – though, he adds, there is certainly a lot of work to do to close digital access and literacy gaps and ensure that children’s digital rights are upheld planet-wide.

A global consciousness + efficacy

The invention and the convention are inextricably connected, especially for our children, the people who are inheriting and preparing to run this shrinking networked world. Growing up with the global consciousness that a global network affords is now a given, but it won’t ensure safe, ethical, effective citizenship or stewardship of this planet without the rights enshrined in the convention. Our children’s digital rights are where the 25-year-old invention and convention intersect, and they must be informed of, not just afforded, their digital rights of… Read more

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An app for teens that promotes (& gets) positivity

letlogoLast spring I asked, “Will safety ever be baked in to social apps?” Well, it’s actually starting to be. Let is a perfect example. A social app (mostly on Apple’s iOS phones) with an overwhelmingly teen-aged user base that launched last March, its L.A.- and Marseilles-based creators seem to have grown a digital community in which teens and young adults, mostly girls, feel safe and help each other thrive.

For example…Let_1000_stars

  • Let users don’t just “like” each other’s photos, videos and comments (or in Let’s case, “star” them), they help each other grow their collections of stars – this app’s version of social media social capital. Not everybody, of course, but Let’s creators say this is one of the most common practices on the service, and I’ve experienced it in the app myself.
  • Let prompts them to thank each other when they do that, showing them over and over how courtesy strengthens community and so promoting positive social norms.
  • Let has “angels.” “One day [CEO] Pascal Lorne gathered in one chat room all the users who asked, ‘How can I help?'” writes my co-director Larry Magid at Lorne “spent a lot of time with them teaching them nonviolent communication methods” and how to support fellow users and bring attention to interesting posts and kind actions. He told us he spends 2-3 hours a day in the community interacting with users and learning how they use the app.

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Sydney: A hashtag for a city (and world) in need of healing

“The city is now in mourning,” wrote author, researcher and Sydney resident Nina Funnell to a group of colleagues in the wake of the horrific siege in a financial district chocolate shop. Australians (all of us, really) are trying to make sense of the attack, The Australian reported, invoking 9/11 and attacks since then in Madrid, London and Boston.

“But out of all this horror, there have been some truly beautiful moments of humanity,” Nina wrote us. #Sydneysiege wasn’t the only hashtag about the attack that went viral this week.

sydney“While a small minority of members of the public began talking about reprisals against the Muslim community, a much larger group of people have banded together on Twitter to express solidarity with the Australian Muslim community.

“On seeing that Muslim women were taking off their hijabs on public transport to avoid harassment and abuse, one young woman began a hashtag on Twitter, offering to ride to work the next day with any Muslim people who felt afraid or who wanted support.

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Doxxing: Key Internet safety risk & what to do about it

You may’ve heard the term “doxxing.” It’s where online harassment can spill over into the offline kind, increasing risk of harm to whoever’s being targeted, regardless of age, race, gender, etc. The form it usually takes is public exposure of the target’s personal information – street address, phone number and other records – and, as we’ve seen in the news lately, it’s “often accompanied by threats of violence, sexual assault or murder,” reports Ken Gagne in

“Many women gamers and developers, as well as those who support them, have lately come under attack from online trolls,” Gagne adds, referring to another term you may’ve heard of late (especially if there are gamers at your house): “#gamergate.” Harassment associated with doxxing can be unnerving, often traumatizing, because harassers know where the target lives or how to reach him or her offline. Some targets have moved house or left jobs because of it. Gagne does a great job not only of linking to background info on all this but also of showing you how to make your personal information a whole lot less public. It’s a hassle, but he writes that, in “an hour or two,” you can get your personal info deleted from the 11 most commonly used databases of that info (like those old white pages, except with worldwide information available worldwide – there’s even one called “White Pages”). Read more

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Digital & social: A teen’s perspective on parenting

Guest post by Jason Brand

As a therapist who specializes in helping families navigate an increasingly digital culture, Jason Brand, LCSW, hears a lot from teens about what they find helpful and not helpful when it comes to their social lives, digital devices and advice from their parents.

jasonI first met Jason when we were interviewed on a radio show together a few years ago and have been a fan of his ever since. I asked him why he wrote this post, and you’ll find his answers to that and a few other questions in a sidebar below.

This post is a composite of many teens’ views and experiences, those expressed in family and individual therapy sessions. “It’s some of the words behind the anger, avoidance or even just frustrated eye-rolling that teens can use in response to parental questions or concerns,” Jason told me. “It’s what teens are able to say in therapy, when they are feeling less defensive.”

This is what I want you to stop doing:

Stop taking my phone and the Internet away as a punishment. When I was younger and all I used the computer for was playing games and watching shows it made more sense. Now it’s confusing, because you take it away as punishment but then have to give it back to me because I actually need it for something you approve of. I need to do research for school or you need to be able to get in touch with me, or I need to text a friend to find out an assignment, or I need to use Facebook to work on a group project. Taking it away doesn’t make sense when it’s such a big part of my social and school life. Completely cutting me off from school and friends by keeping me from the Internet is impossible. Read more

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Social problem data & youth: Cause for celebration

“We should be celebrating young people’s good judgment and self-control — and extolling their parents and teachers,” writes David Finkelhor, director of University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, in a Washington Post article just before Thanksgiving. “They have brought delinquency, truancy, promiscuity, alcohol abuse and suicide down to levels unseen in many cases since the 1950s.”

Here’s evidence. The numbers across a broad range of social problem indicators in state and federal data are down, Dr. Finkelhor shows:

  • Violent crime: “Serious violent offenses by juveniles have dropped about 60% from 1994 to 2011. Juvenile arrests have receded faster in the past 10 years than adult arrests. Property crime by youth also has sunk to its lowest point in 30 years.”
  • Sex crimes: Three state and federal surveys show that the number of youth arrests for sex offenses is down (and sex crimes against teens are down by “more than half since the mid-1990s”).
  • School safety: “Violent victimization of teenagers at school … dropped 60% from 1992 to 2012,” the latest data available from the US Justice Department, and “school homicides, which rarely number more than a couple of dozen per year,” were lower in the last decade than in the ’90s.

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Of parenting & a class called ‘Wasting Time on the Internet’

One of the central stereotypes of (or maybe urban legends about) us, our tech and our time is people filling every free or empty moment doing something on a screen – texting, playing a game, posting a photo, listening to a tune, checking email, reading a book, etc., etc. It makes us feel guilty or critical because it’s typically associated with lack of self-discipline or situational awareness. Remember the phrase “continuous partial attention” and how much, when first used in the last decade, it worried us? We certainly worry about “too much screen time” on our children’s part, because everybody from pundits to pediatricians almost always refers to it negatively. We sometimes characterize this monolithic thing called screen time as an “addiction,” or at least a waste of time.

PennSo consider this: a University of Pennsylvania creative writing class entitled “Wasting Time on the Internet.” “Although we’ll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media,” writes its professor, Kenneth Goldsmith in The New Yorker. “Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing. The students will be encouraged to get lost on the Web, disappearing for three hours in a Situationist-inspired dérive, drowsily emerging from the digital haze only when class is over. We will enter a collective dreamspace [the Surrealists’ ideal state for making art, he writes earlier in the essay] an experience out of which the students will be expected to render works of literature. To bolster their practice, they’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting, through critical texts by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and John Cage.” Read more

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Takeaways from premier US anti-bullying conference

This Thanksgiving week in the US, I’m thankful to have heard the following from two outstanding researchers and a well-known author in the bullying prevention field speaking at the just-ended International Bullying Prevention Association’s (IBPA’s) annual conference in San Diego:

IBPA“We don’t talk enough about the ecosystem around kids,” said educational psychology professor Dorothy Espelage at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a leading US scholar on bullying. “Everybody’s coming to the table – schools, parents, pastors, coaches. That’s great. We have to take a socio-ecological approach.” That’s the climate of a whole-school “ecosystem” referred to in the title of this year’s IBPA, “Building Supportive Relationships to Create a Positive School Climate.”

SEL will ‘move the needle’

“Bullying is extremely intergenerational. It’s very complex,” Dr. Espelage said. “We’re still struggling to move this needle, and social-emotional learning is one way to move it. The programs that promote social competence and acceptance of others are the ones that work.”

As for that acceptance, in another session, Stan Davis, co-creator of the Youth Voice Project (which surveyed more than 13,000 students in 31 schools nationwide), spoke of lower rates of suicidal ideation among gay as well as straight students in schools where people feel they can be themselves – another outcome of positive school climates and SEL. Read more

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Do surveys about parents’ concerns increase digital-parenting confidence?

FOSIPredictably, the media coverage of a new survey of parents on digital-age parenting focused mainly on their concerns about tech and the Net. We need to question that – question the value of repeatedly reporting about concerns if, as a society, we want parents to feel confident in helping their children navigate today’s media. Here are some questions we might ask, for example:

1. UK psychologist Simon Moore raised one very good one on a panel following the unveiling of the study at last week’s annual FOSI Conference: “We spend half our time in the real world and half in the digital world, sometimes more. Are we more at risk in one than the other? Are parents concerned about their children’s behavior in the real world? That needs to be looked at.” But surveys about digital parenting not only don’t “look at that,” they don’t reflect that blended digital/physical reality or help parents understand the importance of working with the whole child and his/her experience as a whole, because they’re living their lives in both spaces. Asking people about their concerns about something pulls it out of context and reinforces the belief that it’s the thing in an of itself to be concerned about. Read more

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The next version of ‘Internet safety': A look under the hood

“Under the bonnet,” colleagues across the Atlantic and Down Under would probably say. I put it that way because this post is a bit more e-safety geeky than usual. Parents and caregivers who don’t geek out on this topic might find this mildly interesting, though, because we’re talking about kids’ wellbeing in media and so much more. Going forward, the value of “Internet safety” – if the concept doesn’t eventually just melt into online/offline risk prevention and instruction in media, digital and social literacy, as I suggested last year – will be measured by how much it increases children’s literacy, competency and success, as well as safety, in this networked world.

It has been just over five years since we ConnectSafely folk published “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth,” but clearly we’re not the only ones who feel it’s time for Internet safety to get an “upgrade” now. The Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference is this week and has the title “Redefining Online Safety.” How do we do that while “the Internet” keeps changing, with mobile’s predominance even in the US, making media ever more personal, customizable, accessible 24/7 and – in some cases – ephemeral? [Internet safety messaging used to include cautions against the “permanent searchable archive” that the Internet had become; well, disappearing media solves that and other problems we’ve noted but now raises new concerns.]

So what does “Internet safety” look like going forward? Here are what I see to be the key elements under the hood of this “concept car” we might call Online Safety 4.0:

  • Youth participation: In a user-driven media environment, safety doesn’t happen without the full participation of whoever we want to keep safe. Does that not seem intuitive? And yet this condition has been conspicuously absent from Internet safety discussion all over the world. What we’re slowly moving away from is the opposite insidious premise that youth are only potential victims, perpetrators (in the case of cyberbullying) or at best passive beneficiaries of adults’ campaigns, policies, protections, etc. Participation is as much a right as protection is. Youth participation goes beyond youth having a voice in the matter.

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Perfect digital parenting doesn’t exist

I’m stating the obvious – that perfect digital-age parenting doesn’t exist – but let me explain why it doesn’t. Writer Heather Havrilesky got me thinking about this with her commentary “The ‘Mommy’ Problem” in the New York Times this weekend. She focuses on mothers (since our culture does so much) and on offline parenting. I’ll add the digital part. She writes that “the current culture demands that every mother be all in, all the time…. We are outclassed at every turn. We are outspent and out-helicoptered and outnumbered.”

momAnd we see that too much where digital parenting’s concerned too. For as long as I can remember in my 15+ years of following tech parenting, the online wellbeing/risk/safety/whatever discourse has been suggesting that if we only just filter, monitor more, have our kids sign mobile contracts, pass laws and generally exert “parental control,” tech or otherwise, our kids will be safe online. But that messaging is entirely aimed at engaged parents, and…

“There’s too much pressure, on parents in general and mothers in particular, to keep our kids away from corn syrup and bullies and industrially farmed beef while introducing them to chapter books and charcoal drawings and parasailing,” as Havrilesky writes. “I am not interested in hearing theories on what gave your 5-year-old such a premature grasp of quadratic equations, or about the countless benefits of living in Berlin for your now-German-speaking, bicycle-riding, train-hopping spawn.” Read more

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Less parental control, more support of kids’ self-regulation: Study

It isn’t the first time research has found that “parental control” is not the best way to keep children safe online and on phones. “Rather than restricting or monitoring internet use, parents should let their children discover the net, both good and bad, themselves,” the BBC cites a new survey as saying.

oxfordinstituteIt’s encouraging to see news stories like this; they’ve been rare over the past decade+, so it feels like we may be reaching a tipping point where the public discourse about youth online safety is becoming balanced and research–based.

This survey, of more than 2,000 14-to-17-year-olds in the UK and published by the Oxford Internet Institute and The Parent Zone, reminds me of several earlier ones, especially…

  • A 2010 report by Britain’s education watchdog Ofsted that looked at 37 schools, finding that highly controlled school environments did less to keep students safe in the long run than giving them opportunities to take responsibility for their own online safety
  • EU Kids Online’s finding that risk-taking and resilience development go hand-in-hand (as do risk and opportunity) online – see this on the latter in their 2011 report and this on their groundbreaking January 2013 report on resilience.
  • The US’s 2008 national task force at Harvard’s Berkman Center finding that a child’s psychosocial makeup and (home and school) environments are better predictors of online risk or safety than any technology the child uses.

Survey’s conclusions Read more

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Online harassment, bullying far from ‘kid stuff': Fresh data


Age categories for this Pew study: 18-29, 30-49 and 50+

Age categories for this Pew study: 18-29, 30-49 and 50+

A new study from the Pew Internet Project confirms yet again that no particular demographic has a monopoly on online harassment and bullying, certainly not kids and teens. “Fully 73% of adult Internet users have seen someone being harassed in some way online and 40% have personally experienced it,” Pew reports – and, astoundingly, 70% of the youngest adults (18-24-year-olds)!

Compare just that 40% of all adults who’d experienced digital harassment to the percentage of youth who have. “On average, about 25% of the students who have been a part of our last 8 studies have said they have been the victim of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime,” reports the Cyberbullying Research Center.

According to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Controls, 14.8% of teens surveyed said they’d been cyberbullied in the past 12 months.

Where does anti-social behavior come from?

Not children. Few are born with antisocial tendencies, according to behavioral geneticist David Lykken. Environmental conditions and trauma in early childhood have a lot to do with developing bullying behaviors. In other words, “those who hurt are hurting,” and that hurt comes first from witnessing or being hurt by the adults around a child. The 2005 book The Sociopath Next Door by Harvard Medical School psychologist Martha Stout shows that 4% of people inherit sociopathy, but few in that cohort come to exhibit violent behavior.

Child Development journal coverIn fact, young people may be more capable of changing their behavior than adults are, because they’re works in progress – learning on all cylinders. A 2013 study in the journal Child Development found that “an intervention designed to teach adolescents that people have the potential for change could take the edge off these experiences and lead to less aggressive retaliation and more prosocial behavior. Moreover, this occurred in an age group and in a context believed by some to be relatively impervious to reform—an urban, diverse public high school with substantial levels of conflict.” Read more

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Of young people’s (not just digital) citizenship

This being Digital Citizenship Week in the US, here’s a view of it that isn’t typically heard by parents and K-12 educators here. It’s the view from youth themselves, as captured by scholars in the new book Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East, edited by Linda Herrera at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Routledge 2014). I hope that – even though entire curricula have been written for digital citizenship instruction in K-12 schools – perspectives like this will help everyone exposed to them see that we are far from ready to define digital age citizenship, much less dictate to young citizens what it is.

Wired Citizenship book coverWe – all of us, worldwide – can’t yet be sure what citizenship, digital or otherwise, is becoming in this rapidly shrinking, networked world. “Compared to previous generations, youth coming of age in the digital era are learning and exercising citizenship in fundamentally different ways,” writes Linda Herrera in Harvard Educational Review.

She cites more than a dozen scholars who see in this generation “patterns of sociability, cognition, and values distinct from generations who came of age in a pre-digital era. Members of this cohort, born between the late 1970s and the early years of the millennium, function in ways that are more horizontal, interactive, participatory, open, collaborative, and mutually influential. Their tendency to be more collectivist oriented has led some to call them the ‘we’ generation.”

It’s not that national citizenship is going away, of course. But the ways people of all ages think about and act on it are changing as we connect across borders, cultures, jurisdictions and other traditional lines of division. For one thing, it’s much easier to find examples of what’s possible – what has been achieved, how it has and who can help – in a constantly updated global database of humanity’s collective knowledge and social action.

If we want to support the members of this very connected generation that we love as they find their identities, roles and contributions in a networked world, certainly we have to understand their media tools and environments and help them use them to their advantage as well as for the social good.

Growing sense of participation

So consider how using connected media itself – not being taught about it – sensitized, informed and otherwise educated three young Egyptians, three of many young people across the Middle East mentioned in Herrera’s paper: Read more

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About our strange way of understanding teen sexting (guest post)

By Nina Funnell

Based on her many thoughtful conversations with youth and adults about sexting over several years, Australian researcher and author Nina Funnell – who I met and heard speak at an Internet safety conference in Sydney last year – offers adults the rare opportunity to step outside the box of conditioned, fearful and often legalistic thinking about technology and sexuality. Here is her take on an in-depth report on teen sexting just released by The Atlantic for its November issue.

Earlier this week The Atlantic published a lengthy essay on young people and sexting titled “Why Kids Sext.” The article begins with a parent’s fearful reaction on learning that her teen daughter’s nude image had been posted online. The views of many sources – both beyond and on the scene in that particular school sexting case – are then woven in, to diagnose the problem and suggest various strategies. The police, in particular, are quoted at length.

Like so many other articles on the subject of teen sexting, adult voices are foregrounded, while young people are either excluded from the conversation all together or else strategically undercut by the journalist (“Kids, however, are known to exaggerate”).

This trend is not new. Through an extensive analysis of more than 2,000 media items on the subject of sexting (produced between 2002- 2013), Australian researchers have found that young people themselves rarely feature in such discussions. They are, in effect, locked out of the public debate about their own bodies and choices, while parents, teachers, academics, police and government officials are given broad scope to judge the issues and offer reasons as to why teens behave the way they do.

This tallies with other research presented in 2010 by Randy Lynn at the 105th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, Georgia. Through an analysis of media reporting on the subject of teen sexting, Lynn found that 82% of articles cited adults rather than young people themselves.

Even more concerning is that, when journalists do attempt to include the voices of young people, they sometimes only do so in order to judge and mock those young people or to hold them up as objects of ridicule and derision for a cynical public.

For example, in a commentary published in Australia’s flagship newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald, in 2012, journalist Wendy Squires shares an anecdote about the daughter of a family friend who sent a nude image of herself as a 13-year-old and later tried to overdose when it was shared. When the daughter was 17, Squires caught up with her and wrote about the encounter:

I saw a happy, attractive and popular young woman. Asking her what she thinks about that sexted photo today, I expected her to be full of regret. And she was. Only it was for a whole different reason.

“Oh, I hate that photo,” the girl said, screwing her face into something resembling a cat’s bum. “I look so fat.”

After spitting my wine across the table and picking my jaw up off the floor, I managed to ask her if she was serious.

“Oh yeah,” she replied. “I mean, I hadn’t even waxed. Gross.”

“So,” I continued reluctantly, “would you send a nude photo of yourself again?”

“Sure,” she replied. “I do all the time. Everyone does. It’s fun. I just make sure I always look hot though now.”

Today, the word “cheap” is not just appropriate for how many young women like to dress. It also appears to reflect their sense of self-worth.

No matter where you stand on the issue of teen sexting, on the issue of respectful journalism we can hopefully all agree that the image of a powerful adult journalist spitting both wine and insults (like “cheap”) at a teen girl does exactly nothing to foster understanding, compassion or empathy between a reading public and an already disenfranchised and marginalized youth population.

As a journalist myself, I see so many missed opportunities in these sorts of reports. I wish more journalists and editors would at least attempt to approach young people with a level of honest curiosity and genuine interest, rather than with snark and a set of foregone conclusions about young people’s motivations, actions and attitudes.

There is so much we could have learned from that 17-year-old, after all – about both self-harm and resilience as well as evolving social norms connected with nudity, identity, performativity, gender and power.

And it is only once journalists and editors start listening to young people that we might actually gain useful insights into the incredibly complex social worlds they inhabit. And if we genuinely want to understand “why kids sext,” as The Atlantic headline promised, adults will need to suspend their judgment and stop assuming the right to speak on behalf of young people. To do this, we will also have to move beyond various limiting stereotypes and common myths about young people, and be willing to hear with an openness and compassion what young people themselves have to say.

Nina Funnell is an author, journalist and social commentator with a particular interest in youth, gender, social justice and technology. Nina sits on the board of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre board in Australia and is an advocate for the rights of young people. Nina is the co-author of Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships, which is available here.

Sidebar: Insights from The Atlantic piece

Here are some insights into adults’ perceptions and actions around teen sexting – and the consequences thereof – that leaped out at me from Hanna Rosin’s article in The Atlantic:

  • Laws: Some 20 states have passed laws decriminalizing or easing penalties for sexting by minors, which can keep teens with no criminal intentions from facing life-damaging criminal prosecution, but it also codifies into law what typically amounts to flirting or sexual interplay between consenting partners. “As it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police,” Rosin writes.
  • Sexting not causative. Possibly helpful for adults to consider: “Sexting is a form of sexual activity,” not a gateway to it, reports Rosin, citing the view of Amy Hasinoff, author of the forthcoming book Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent.
  • Adults, not just teens, need to consider consequences. To avoid re-victimization or victimization through the investigation process, adults need to know how traumatizing an investigation can be: “Whether a sext qualifies as relatively safe sexual experimentation or a disaster often depends on who finds out about it.” Rosin cites the experience of Marsha Levick of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center with “many cases where the police investigation does much more harm than the incident itself.” There is the humiliation for kids of having their photos seen by police officers, judges and probation officers.
  • For family conversations: “Sexts don’t create sexual dynamics; they reveal them. Parents should use the opportunity to find out what those dynamics are, lest they accidentally make things worse,” Rosin wrote.

Related links

  • Young people, sex and relationships: The new norms,” a paper by policy researcher Imogen Parker published in August at British think tank IPPR, looked at 18-year-olds’ own views on said. The study’s three main conclusions were that “sex and relationship education should be taught in every school by specialists, and must be broader in scope … more information and support in every area of sex and relationship education”; “parents, educators and young people need a single point to access advice and support … useful, contemporary resources and guidance”; and “local authorities’ public sexual health responsibility for young people should be broadened: for example, to extend beyond targets for teenage pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections to cover the wider wellbeing aspects of healthy, positive intimate and social relationships.”
  • A 2013 three-part series I posted about Nina’s research in Australia: “‘Noodz,’ ‘self lies’ & ‘sexts,’ etc.”: A spectrum of motivations, Part 1, For better youth education, Part 2 and Bias in the news coverage, Part 3
  • My post about Elizabeth Englander’s study, which was cited in Rosin’s article: “Don’t hype sexting risks to teens”
  • About a horrifyingly handled recent teen sexting case in Virginia this year, Part 1 and Part 2 (the verdict)
  • And many other posts I’ve written on the subject through the years
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