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How youth address mental health issues: Groundbreaking study

Young people are both smart and thoughtful about using digital media and devices – for mental health and other purposes – a groundbreaking new study shows, and they are far from naïve about what doesn’t work for them in social media. The study, by researchers Victoria Rideout and Susannah Fox, had both quantitative and qualitative elements, including a remarkable 2,200 personal responses from its 1,300 respondents, a nationally representative sample of U.S. 14-22 year-olds.

Chart on youth and social media

Chart from the Hopelab/Well Being Trust study

“It is almost as if they were waiting for someone to ask; now it is our turn to listen,” Rideout and Fox wrote in the report’s introduction.

In an unusual concluding statement, they wrote, “It is an emotional experience to be offered this glimpse into the lives of so many young people – to see how important health concerns are in so many of their lives. These youth should be proud of the many ways they are innovating solutions to their health challenges; we can all learn from their openness and use of digital tools to connect with resources and with each other.”

I agree with that last sentence, as well as with what Rideout later wrote me in an email that arrived in my in-box as their report was about to be released: “Most young people are exhibiting a lot more agency in their use of social media than we typically give them credit for.” It’s gratifying to see this takeaway from a prominent researcher, not to mention the empirical evidence behind it, making research a tool for learning about, supporting and enhancing young people’s own strategies for self-care and self-actualization.

“Digital Health Practices, Social Media Use, and Mental Well-Being Among Teens and Young Adults in the U.S.” is just the first report coming out of their research, according to Hopelab and Well Being Trust, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organizations that commissioned it.

The report covers “two main topics,” Rideout and Fox wrote: “first, young people’s self-described use of online health information and digital health tools, including those used for peer-to-peer health exchanges; and second, the associations between self-reported social media use and mental well-being among teens and young adults.”

Here’s just a sampler of what the research turned up (I hope you’ll click to it to see their respondents’ own words on the apps, devices and strategies they use): Read more

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Signs of serious progress for digital citizenship

THIS JUST IN: In a historic development for the Internet and its users under 18, the Council of Europe today adopted a Recommendation – a comprehensive set of guidelines to European Union member states – for upholding children’s rights in digital environments, their rights as digital citizens. “How to better protect and empower children as rights-holders… is at the core of  the new Recommendation,” the COE announced after I posted the following…

It has been a big year for digital citizenship, and what better time – at least here in the United States – to check in on its practice this July 4th week, one year since the Obama Foundation issued a call to look more deeply into its meaning (here‘s what they heard from us)? I was interested to see that not only did digital citizenship get even more play at this year’s ISTE, the gathering of more than 24,000 ed tech educators and exhibitors from 87 countries in Chicago last week, than it did at last year’s in San Antonio. It was also the singular focus of ISTE CEO Richard Culatta’s opening remarks.

Audience at ISTE 2018We are progressing. I was delighted to hear Mr. Culatta say that posting appropriately online is not digital citizenship. “It’s online safety,” he said. Exactly. Telling our children and students to post respectfully and be good online is certainly better than telling them nothing, but notice that it’s telling citizens what to do. It’s top-down, hierarchical – digital dictatorship, not digital citizenship, I’d add. Digital citizenship – any kind of citizenship – is citizen-sourced. So it’s meaningful to the citizens, informed by their practice of it as their literacy grows. And (digital) citizenship’s literacy is trifold: it’s enabled by media literacy, digital literacy and social literacy, which develop with practice. So – for that practice – it must be about the agency, not the control, of the citizens (one form of control being “classroom management,” right?). And supporting that agency are the citizens’ rights – of expression, participation and association, as well as protection and provision, or education.

Student voice & participation

So by the very nature of citizenship, including the digital kind, those who set policy for the citizenry – whether in families, classrooms, schools or governments – need the citizens’ participation, or at least voice, in the policymaking. [Seemingly in illustration of that, almost a third of ISTE’s speakers were students: 876 of them, ISTE reports.] It was a privilege to attend the Global Student Voice Film Festival at the conference, where we got to watch the winners (2-min. student-produced videos on empathy) of its 2017-’18 competition. The festival is the brainchild of the very new Student Voice Foundation, which aims to “help every student and educator believe in the power of his or her own voice to effect positive change.” Read more

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Media literacy may take a village now

Last week’s post featured a U.S. celebrity’s very personal media literacy learning and teaching. This week a program successfully tested in the Ukraine that represents an equally informal much more collaborative approach to growing media literacy in our very social media environment….

IREX logoMaybe it’s just a theory or it could be I’m stating the obvious, but media literacy education needs to be as social (or collaborative) as media is now. A fascinating recent media literacy education project in Ukraine certainly seemed to demonstrate that; in a way, it was crowd-sourced. And it may just come to a public library near you.

Collaborative learning

The project – called Learn to Discern and created by IREX, a US-based international nonprofit education organization – gathered 15,000 Ukrainians aged 18-70+ into small groups “in libraries, offices, and recreation centers” throughout the country “to talk about something that many of them had never really pondered before: their media consumption,” reports Lisa Guernsey in Slate.com. “They sat down at tables, introduced themselves, and spent a few hours mulling over what they watched on TV, what they viewed on the Internet, what they read in the newspaper.” In addition to t-shirts, tea and cookies, participants received handouts they filled out which would help them reflect on and then discuss their media use and experiences.

The discussion leaders were people in their own communities – 450 librarians, teachers, police officers and other community leaders trained by IREX to spread the word through their social networks, recruit their trainees and facilitate discussion.

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Media literacy lessons from comedian ChescaLeigh

Franchesca Ramsey, or @chescaleigh – the comedy writer, YouTube star with 247,000+ subscribers, host of MTV Decoded, and author of the just-released Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist – could also easily be considered a media literacy educator now. For one thing, she has a lot of credibility with fellow avid users and creators of social media. For another, she has experienced the worst of it and – through her book and interviews about it (like this one with Marie Forleo) – is sharing what she learned in a funny, accessible way. And of course “social” is so part of media literacy now, right? I even checked with my friends at NAMLE and the Center for Media Literacy, and they agree.

Cover of Ramsey bookRamsey is the first to say she has made plenty of mistakes in media, including calling out racism online and having that go viral and blow up in her face (“I was being ripped to shreds because I didn’t know how to respond to being ripped to shreds,” she told Forleo). So where does media literacy stop and social literacy (that safeguard against trolling, harassment and cyberbullying) start? How can we separate these two power tools for life and media navigation, or for that matter the third one: digital literacy? And how better to teach our children how to use those safety and social-good power tools (besides active listening and modeling respectful behavior) than to expose our kids to other power users’ stories and lessons learned, especially when the motive is to spare pain and spread wisdom?

“I have been called everything except ‘the child of God’ on the Internet,” Ramsey told Forleo, adding that she also loves the Internet (we can tell). To her credit and for her fans’ benefit, Ramsey shares what she learned about navigating that love-hate spectrum. Here are just two things I particularly appreciated (for more, do watch the 50 min. interview or read her book):

Call-outs & call-ins

Ramsey describes the difference between calling someone out publicly, as people do in social media (for good or ill), and calling them in. With the latter, she explains, you have a personal relationship with the person and feel a private conversation about that thing you’d otherwise call them out for would be more helpful to them.

“The person may have genuinely screwed up or just become confused,” so “you take them aside [DM, text them, take them out for coffee] and say, ‘Look, here’s why what you said was really not ok.'”

In fact, this is one way social media sometimes works better than in-person interaction. You have time to decide how best to respond. Ramsey offers “6 call-out rules” or questions that, to me, represent both media literacy and social literacy (as in where the social emotional learning experts at Yale University teach students to take a “meta-moment” before reacting, posting, tweeting with a call-out): Read more

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How teens’ social media use changing: New Pew study

Parents of teens probably knew this already, but the Pew Research Center just confirmed it for everybody: YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are US 13-17 year-olds’ top social media picks now – at 85%, 72% and 69%, respectively. That’s according to Pew’s just-released “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018.” [The percentages add up to more than 100% because, as is well known, teens use multiple social media apps and services, often simultaneously.] Filling out the top 7 were Facebook in the 4th position (at 51%), followed by Twitter (32%), Tumblr (9%) and Reddit (7%).

Pew chartSnapchat is No. 1, though, for frequency of use. When Pew asked its respondents what social media they use most often, 35% said Snapchat, as opposed to 32% YouTube and 15% Instagram. That might have something to do with the fact that teens use Snapchat as much for chatting (which is very much like texting, obviously a high-frequency tech activity) as anything else.

Snapchat streaks could be a bit of a factor too. They’re a kind of game that’s unique to Snapchat whereby friends will send each other a snap every day and see how long they can keep it going (streaks can be entertaining, transactional or stressful, depending on the people involved and how they’re feeling that day; for more, see BusinessInsider.com). Those two factors are just speculation on my part; the important takeaway is that – because each social media service has unique features and each user has their own uses and intentions (which can vary by time of day, even!), it’s hard to generalize about its use, and solid research like this is the best possible way to get the big picture.

Incidentally, a Snap spokesperson just told me that 13-17 year-olds aren’t Snapchat’s largest age group. They actually come in at third place in the app at 20% of its users, after 18-24 year-olds (37%) and 25-34 year-olds (27%). People 35+ are the app’s smallest cohort at 16%.

Some more interesting highlights from this report: Read more

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What does GDPR mean for our kids?

You may be wondering what, if any, impact Europe’s sweeping new data law, GDPR (for General Data Privacy Regulation), has on parenting tech users in your life. After all, it went into effect today, and you may’ve seen headlines like the New York Times’s about how it makes Europe the “world’s leading tech watchdog” or the piece in Ad Age pointing out the irony that a data privacy law triggered a tsunami of spam in our email in-boxes (Quartz actually sent an email with the subject: “This is not that kind of email”).

Digital consent ages chart

Digital ages of consent, courtesy of Ghent University (full-size version and update here)

Probably the biggest adjustment where kids are concerned is that 13 is no longer the worldwide default “minimum age” for kids in social media; just everywhere but Europe. And there, it’s all over the map. The GDPR raised the default minimum age to 16 for EU member nations, giving individual countries the option to lower it. The age level refers to when apps and services no longer need to obtain parental consent in order to allow a young person to use their service; which amazingly means, for example, that in some countries, such as France, “the age of consent to sex is the same as or lower than the age of consent for data purposes,” as UK online child protection expert John Carr put it in his blog a couple of months ago. [I’d welcome your thoughts, in Comments below, on whether a 15-year-old should have their parent’s consent for social media use (researchers, unlike the GDPR drafters, did survey parents – find out what they heard here).]

More protection, more confusion

The problem is, no one – from researchers to companies – is completely sure how the companies will obtain and verify a parent’s consent. And, practically speaking, how much time will parents really have to go through whatever hoops will be part of providing their consent to multiple companies? GDPR is adding fresh fuel to digital-age parent shaming. Read more

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A book for wise (digital) parenting

The Art of Screen Time, by NPR’s Anya Kamenetz, could not be more timely. What with hearings and headlines about digital privacy, so much talk about “tech addiction,” and bad advice about “screen time,” parents deserve this haven from the storm. And it’s a haven not just because Kamenetz is a great reporter with sources representing multiple perspectives and disciplines. Also because she knows first-hand what parents are hungry for.

book cover“I’m not presenting myself to you as an unassailable expert,” she writes. “I’m just a parent, one with a solid research toolbox, trying to work this stuff out as best I can. I’ve been writing about education and technology for over a decade. I became a parent in 2011,” she adds, and what she found, as so many of us have found for a good 20 years, is – where the digital parts of parenting are concerned – a lot of clickbait-style “information,” no digital Dr. Spock, no advice even our own parents could pass down, a whole lot of parent bloggers representing a confusing spectrum of expertise, and a baby research field that (sometimes admittedly) based studies on adults’ concerns not children’s actual experiences.

So whatever helps you most as a parent – the latest research, parenting tips, other parents’ stories or the author’s own – it’s here for you, all of it grounded in the ancient wisdom I subscribe to too, that perfection is the enemy of the good where parenting’s concerned. Kamenetz isn’t the first author or researcher to suggest that parents cut themselves a little slack; she’s part of a growing school of thought. Authors Devorah Heitner (Screenwise), Gallit Breen (Kindness Wins) and Shefali Tsabari (The Conscious Parent) come to mind, as does the research of Alicia Blum-Ross, Sonia Livingstone and danah boyd.

Probably a dandelion

Even if you’d just as soon move quickly past the research, there’s a metaphor on p. 31 that you might find helpful: “dandelions vs. orchids.” Patti Valkenburg, a researcher at University of Amsterdam Kamenetz cites, applies that metaphor from developmental psychology to media effects as well. “The idea is that most children are dandelions,” Kamenetz writes. “They are hardy, resilient. They can thrive in a wide range of settings. A few children, however, are orchids. They’re highly sensitive to severe consequences if their environment is less than optimal. They also have greater-than-normal sensitivity to excellent nurturing.” Read more

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What just happened: ‘Big data’ got personal

What the Cambridge Analytica story and last week’s congressional hearings with Facebook’s CEO are really all about is that people – not even “just” social media users, voters and policymakers – are waking up to the meaning of “big data.”

"Big data" Scrabble tiles

(CC licensed)

It’s a big story not only because Facebook has more than 2.2 billion users or because Cambridge Analytica may have helped Donald Trump become president, as mind-bending as both the data point and the possibility are. It’s big because it’s personal. People weren’t going to understand the implications of big data until Facebook was in the story. Although there are uncountable retailers, banks, publishers, campaigns, governments and bad actors benefiting from big data, Facebook brought it home to us because the data there is so visibly us – our own and significant others’ everyday likes and lives, in all our own words, photos and videos, posted by us.

Not that “big data” hasn’t been a lot more than all that for a long time. But with the personal part added to the results of two game-changing votes in the UK and US and the confusing mix of political news, information, misinformation, disinformation and advertising on Facebook that appeared to affect those votes, you get what may well turn out to be a story we’ll tell our grandchildren as well as children.

So here are some talking points for family and classroom conversations about this pivotal moment:

First, what is “big data”? Well, the dictionary definition is: “extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally [like with machine learning] to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.” Data is just information that comes in all kinds of forms: text, numbers, photos, videos, etc. Even though not all of it needs to stay private, what we’re finding out is, it’s hard to tell how much people and companies can tell about us when the kind of data that’s fine to make public gets blended with other data that’s stored or private. That unknown concerns us, which is why we’re hearing more and more calls for “transparency.” So you can tell from the definition that “big data” is about a whole lot more than lots of information; it’s more about what can be discovered from the data than the data itself. That can be all kinds of things, good and bad, from banks being able to find patterns of fraud to governments stopping infectious diseases from spreading to companies like Cambridge Analytica using people’s information to create and place ads aimed at getting people to vote a certain way.

So is social media big data? It’s only part of it. It’s just the very visible part that regular people like us contribute to. When we post comments, photos and videos, “like” others’ content, click on ads, buy things online, visit other sites, etc. we’re adding all kinds of information (called “psychographic data,” which I’ll explain in a minute) to the databases at social media companies and sometimes elsewhere, whether unethically, criminally or just mistakenly, as happened with Cambridge Analytica, which bought some 87 million people’s data from someone who Facebook says violated its policy. Facebook doesn’t sell data to other companies, it says; the way it makes money is from advertisers who, based on our detailed data in its ad placement system, place their ads on the pages of users who will really like the ads (and maybe buy the thing being advertised). Does that make sense? All that detailed information we share – and the technology I’ll tell you about in a minute – makes it possible for advertising to be more relevant, or more “highly targeted,” than ever before in the history of advertising, which makes it more valuable than ever to advertisers (because more likely to lead to a purchase). Some companies, called data brokers, do sell your data so that the buyers will have even more data on us to help them get even better at placing ads that will make us want to buy stuff.

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Social media’s next phase: A new social contract?

Title page of Rousseau's "A Social Contract"

Is a new one called for? Interestingly, Rousseau’s in 1762 was addressing “people’s interactions [which] he saw at his time seemed to put them in a state far worse than the good one they were at in the state of nature,” according to Wikipedia.

The “Cambridge Analytica scandal,” as seen in so many headlines, is giving way to a more thoughtful – and crucial – international discussion about not only data privacy but an even bigger question: where our social development is at this point in the planet’s technological development, the part we call the Internet. Here are a few thoughts on that and, below them, links to coverage that I feel actually advances our understanding of the “scandal” and what it points to (links I’ll continue to update):

Where this moment in the Internet’s evolution is concerned, author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman writes that we’re moving into “the second inning.” The first inning, he says, was full of promise; the one we’re moving into not so much – maybe just about the opposite.

But to continue with the metaphor, baseball games do have nine innings, and – more importantly – tech worries have been with us probably since before Socrates, who I’m sure you’ve heard worried about what the technology of writing info down would do to our memories. Consider taking a longer view of what we’re seeing. In terms of history but also in terms of our time right now.

“We need to start by pausing to reflect on how our world, reshaped by these technologies, operates differently,” author and business ethicist Dov Seidman told Friedman.

Stop and think about what? Here are some ideas:

  • About how we’re not stuck here forever. All this is in process. The Internet companies are scrambling to retain our trust. I mean, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has even suggested his industry may need to be regulated in some way, he told CNN. Five years ago, 10 years ago, the focus was entirely on industry self-regulation. Now, I don’t know how, for example, electoral regulators in one country can help social media users voting in other countries (such as India, Facebook’s largest market), but this is at least a clear sign that social media companies and not just their users are thinking about the trouble they’re in right now – and what to do about it.

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5 young activists in 4 countries, Part 2: The social media crucible

The US students who walked out of schools nationwide in protest against gun violence yesterday have counterparts in many other countries. On March 24, young activists all over the world will be staging events in support of the March for Our Lives movement started in Parkland, Fla., and there are other causes and kinds of social change their peers have taken up, social media playing a prominent role in their work, worldwide. This is a two-part post that zooms in on five remarkable activists in four countries, ages 18-24 who spoke on a panel at Facebook’s Global Safety Summit in Washington earlier this month. Here, in Part 2, a look at some of the life-changing challenges their work in social media has brought them (read about them and their work in Part 1)….

A crucible is a “place” where severe struggle happens, but it leads “to the creation of something new.” Based on the accounts of Tábata Amaral de Pontes, Evelyn Atieno, Camryn Garett, Amika George and Harnidh Kauer – activists and leaders between the ages of 18 and 24 in Brazil, India, Britain and the US – social media has been that kind of place for them, as well as a platform and power tool. Though they’re all highly skilled media users, it has brought some tough experiences that grew their strength and confidence. Listening to them from the audience, it was almost as if they were processing those experiences out loud as they spoke on stage.

When Tábata said mobilizing was easier than organizing her movements (in Part 1), she clearly didn’t mean that using social media is easy. She and other panelists described searing experiences they had because of their very public projects – experiences that a lot of people may never have, much less people so young, and that clearly led to what sounded like new levels of strength and confidence.

Her pivotal experience was having a digital gossip magazine with “millions of followers that propagates a lot of fake news” (the Brazilian version of a “supermarket tabloid”) start to publish “fake news about me and my family every single day…. My family became very scared. I come from a very poor part of Brazil, and I couldn’t afford a lawyer, and my family said, ‘Maybe they’ll come after you. Maybe they’re going to harm us.’… That hurt me a lot. I cried for a lot of days. I thought about giving up on all my mission. Because there was no answer, and we don’t have laws for that in Brazil yet.” Read more

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5 young activists in 4 countries on life, work & social media: Part 1

The US students who walked out of schools nationwide in protest against gun violence today, March 14,  have counterparts in many other countries. On March 24, young activists all over the world will be staging events in support of the March for Our Lives movement started in Parkland, Fla., and there are other causes and kinds of social change their peers have taken up, social media playing a prominent role in that work, worldwide. This is a two-part post that zooms in on five remarkable activists in four countries, ages 18-24. They candidly, thoughtfully processed out loud, on stage, what they’ve learned in doing their work both online and offline. Part 1 looks at who they are, what they focus on and how their work is affected by the media of our times….

Youth activists panel

l. to r.: Amika, Camryn, Tábata, Harnidh, Evelyn and mod. Taylor

Social media is so many things for young activists – a platform, megaphone, lab, staging area and classroom for self-directed and crowd-sourced learning, as we’re seeing in the news about the movement started by student survivors of last month’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. It’s also a crucible, as described in-depth by five equally eloquent millennial activists from Brazil, India, the UK and elsewhere in the US at Facebook’s Global Safety Summit in Washington earlier this month (more on the crucible in Part 2).

“For both of my social movements, social media has been very, very important,” said 24-year-old Brazilian Tábata C. Amaral de Pontes, “but in the last years I have found that the real transformation only starts when you realize the difference between mobilizing and organizing.” Tábata – who grew up in “a very poor part of Brazil” near Sao Paulo and, after overcoming significant family challenges, graduated from Harvard University in 2016 – was speaking on a panel at the international gathering in Washington. Like her counterparts in the US, she seems to have been born to make change, even though “there aren’t many women in politics in Brazil,” she said. Her two movements are Mapa Educacao (“Map Education”), which trains youth to demand and struggle for “quality education” and Acredito (“I Believe”), which works to get youth involved in politics that are “less corrupt, more ethical, more just and more inclusive,” she said.

Her equally impressive fellow panelists were:

Evelyn Atieno, 20, from Baltimore, who started Affinity at age 16. It’s a social justice magazine “by teens, for teens,” in both print and digital formats which now has more than 400 contributors in multiple countries, Evelyn said, adding that the digital edition received 9 million views last year. She created it to give teens a space to voice how they feel about things going on in the world. She told us that, when she was getting ready to go to college, she “heard about all the rapes on college campuses” (according to the RAINN hotline 23.1% of female undergraduates in the US experience rape or sexual assault), submitted an article about it for her high school newspaper and had the article rejected because “too controversial.” So she successfully circulated a petition and received permission to teach an after school seminar for peers on the subject “so they could prepare for college”; she also started Affinity as a community as well as platform for teens discuss “controversial” topics.

Harnidh Kauer, 23, from Mumbai, is a poet, feminist and activist (as well as policy analyst in her “day job”) who “uses her writing for community building on social media. I try to foster safe spaces so people can have conversations about ‘the tough stuff’ – mental health, body image, sexual abuse and trauma, PTSD” and the 1984 massacre of thousands of Sikhs in northern India, an event that famously has not been covered in that country’s national media. The young social commentator is currently gathering stories for an oral history that has “Project 84” as a working title and will soon be a book that already has a publisher. “Fellow Sikhs come to me and tell me, ‘I haven’t been able to speak of this in so long because the memories are so heavy to carry, and suddenly I have a voice for them’,” she said. On the subject of youth activism, she pointed out that “people try to talk at young people instead of talking to and with them. That’s essentially what I want to change,” Harnidh said.

Camryn Garett, 18, from Long Island, already has a literary agent. A lot of her activism happens on Twitter, she said. “Writing is a way for me to respond to issues happening in real life but also on the Internet…. In [high] school, we don’t really talk about institutional racism or racism at all. It’s sort of boxed into Black History Month or Martin Luther King [Day]…. I take AP classes, so we don’t have a lot of time to dig into history in a way I’d like to see, especially when [shootings like those of] Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice started happening. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, but on Twitter there were a lot of reading resources and people organizing marches and saying ‘we don’t have to just sit and watch this happen.’ That community being made available to me was very important.” Her writing focuses on structural racism and representation of people of color “in film and the media, especially books,” and she writes for the Huffington Post and her own blog, “For all the girls who are half monster.”

Amika George, 18, from London, started the movement #FreePeriods to “break the taboo around menstruation and get rid of period poverty” after she discovered that there are “girls living in the UK [who] don’t go to school because they can’t afford pads and tampons.” She started a petition on Change.org calling on her government to provide free feminine hygiene products to girls already receiving free school lunches. The petition has more than 150,000 signatures on it so far, and she said the peak of media attention came last December, when she led a public protest that was “a testament to the power of social media for good. Even though it does have its negatives, you really can build community,” she said. She told us she recently got a call from people in the Netherlands who want to establish #FreePeriods in their country.

‘Who is your online self?’

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Real news: UK lawmakers’ formal ‘fake news’ hearing in the US

They were historic conversations on many levels, and not just because 11 British Members of Parliament flew across the Atlantic to hold hearings with Google, Twitter and Facebook executives (as well as scholars, journalists and news publishers) at George Washington University last week. It was “the first ever live broadcast and public hearing of a House of Commons select committee outside the UK,” The Guardian reported, and there were some five hours of recorded formal testimony (it can be watched here and here).

The hearing of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

The hearing of the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee at George Washington University, Feb. 8, 2018

The fairly limited news coverage of the hearing focused on the Internet companies sessions, but the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee heard a full afternoon’s testimony from two other sets of views too: a group of scholars and researchers and one of journalists and news publishing executives. The subject was “fake news,” but I got the impression the MPs weren’t always sure just exactly what that is and involves (not unlike the rest of us).

That the hearing encompassed so much – everything from the past and present of the news business to electoral law to the future of democracy, in addition to algorithms, content moderation, and news’s place in social media’s vast spectrum of content – was both good news and bad news. It was bad news because the problem of fake news didn’t get full, in-depth treatment. For example, at one point the conversation pivoted rapidly from how U.S. voter data was processed in the U.K. (by London-based data mining and analysis firm Cambridge Analytica – see this by testifier David Carroll of The New School) to comparing social media platforms to traditional publishing companies (more on this in a moment). It was good news because this cross-disciplinary conversation needed to start and it shed a bright spotlight on how much would-be regulators and Internet companies have to learn about each other and how much they and all of us have to learn about the societal impacts of big data.

The definitions problem

At one point in the first afternoon session, MP Simon Hart asked Claire Wardle, a research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, whether – since there are already “established norms for people who have the power to affect the outcome of elections by what they choose to print and what they choose to withhold – is there a sustainable argument out there which explains why people who run an online platform consider themselves to be in a very different place legally from those who run an offline platform, i.e. a newspaper?”

Dr. Wardle responded, “My frustration is, we get into these battles of definitions, with us saying ‘you’re a publisher,’ and their saying ‘no, we’re a platform.’ The truth is, they’re somewhere in the middle. They’re a hybrid form of communication. What I’d like to see, and to be honest I did hear some of that this morning [in the testimony of the platforms], ‘We would like to be part of the conversation around what new forms of regulation might look like.’ Because I don’t think we can take the broadcast model. We can’t regulate speech on Twitter in the same way we regulate the BBC. That’s not workable.”

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We need to manage the social media backlash too

It’s like a moral panic on steroids. Adding to the “reckoning” already under way since the 2016 election (see Related links below) is the news yesterday of a new, high-profile coalition of some of social media’s creators and backers and Common Sense Media. The steroids part is the funding ($7 million from individuals, the Omidyar Network and Common Sense Media), the PR ($50 million in donated media from non-social media giants Comcast and DirecTV), lobbying at state and federal levels, and the coming ad campaign in 55,000 U.S. public schools.

The concerns aren’t new. Scholars have been documenting the moral panic for more than a decade. To name just a few examples, David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, even coined the term “juvenoia” in 2011 and wrote a paper about online safety’s “three alarmist assumptions” in 2014 (see this); another, Justine Cassell, focused in 2008 on the gender aspect of the panic; and more recently, many scholars pushed back against a colleague fueling fears of the smartphone’s impacts (in an Atlantic Monthly cover story headlined “Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation?”) by confusing causation and correlation and ignoring “multiple factors underlying social change,” as one internationally known researcher, Sonia Livingstone, put it.

In her new book citing dozens of researchers’ work on media and tech effects, The Art of Screen Time, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz points to a number of concerns parents have about technology’s effects: ADHD, lower test scores, aggression and depression and asks, “Does screen time cause these or make them worse?” Her answer: “Study after study says maybe – but, if so, only a very little, barely detectable, bit.”

What to do about the genie

Child's drawing

A child’s genie, as drawn in 1 min. 41 sec. in the game Drawception.com

Reality checks are fine. It’s good to stop and reflect. But this is not that. This is a new very sophisticated, well-funded appeal to our worst fears, focused on only one among many factors underlying the social change we’re now experiencing, the one in the palm of our hands. Of course it’s understandable that the new campaign’s creators are so focused on technology because that has been the focus of their careers. But this is our media now – we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. So what should we do?

First: I’m not going to deconstruct the messaging of this campaign here. I’ll say two things about it, then suggest one possible response that I feel would be helpful to our children. The two things are: it’s good to be aware of what the early social media founders say about behavioral engineering because that awareness will help us avoid being “engineered.” On the other hand, also be aware of lobbying efforts based on fear and aimed at laws restricting our children’s media use. Knowledge empowers; generalized restrictions disempower both us and our children.

Second: Stop and zoom into your own experience with young media users, then zoom way out with me. If you’re a parent or work with kids, engage with them. Focus on their own media interests, not headlines about them, with honest curiosity and a light touch. Two media professors have informed my thinking on that: USC’s Henry Jenkins advising parents to have their kids’ backs rather than look over their shoulders and University of Bournemouth’s Stephen Heppell illustrating the best way to mentor our young videogamers: turning videogaming into experiential learning. Read more

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Clearer picture of what hurts kids online, globally: Research

Even people under 18 would probably say we adults are getting smarter in the way we’re viewing cyberbullying (we could ask them [#stuvoice @stu_voice]!). That is, if they knew there’s growing consensus among researchers in many countries that “cyberbullying” isn’t the most useful term for online hurtful behavior and may be inhibiting what we can learn from young people about what’s harmful to them – that we need to find out from youth themselves what hurts them and to what degree it happens online.

The latest example of that, by Global Kids Online, spanned multiple countries – Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Montenegro, the Philippines, Serbia and South Africa – with surveys of 9-17 year-olds in those countries.

What actually upsets them?

The researchers first asked them if they’d experienced “something upsetting” online in the past year before asking anything more specific, like “hurtful peer behavior” (“so as not to put ideas in their heads,” they write). Across all the countries, 14-36% had seen something upsetting, which could be anything from violence in news reports to harassment to sexually explicit content, depending on how each child’s defined “upsetting.” The number was much higher in Argentina (78%), but so were the respondents’ ages (13-17 only, not 9-17), suggesting a correlation between age and exposure to negativity. Read more

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Turning now to 2018: Parenting & social media’s ‘breakup’

Think about this in terms of parenting and policymaking: “social” and “media are splitting up. 2018 will be the beginning of the end of “first-generation social media,” as tech reporter Taylor Lorenz put it. So when we’re parenting and setting policy about young people’s use of social media (at household, school and national levels), it’d be helpful to understand what’s happening with “social media.”

"Loading 2018"

(Graphic CC licensed)

To those of us who’ve been following media & kids a couple of decades, media’s taking a step backward to take who-knows-how-many steps forward: the social part’s becoming more private again and the media part more about public and broadcasting. Weird. But our kids’ use of Snapchat predicted it: “More and more, social media use in the traditional sense (individuals posting to public spheres) is done by an older demographic, whereas Generations Y and Z have moved their conversations to closed communication platforms such as Snapchat, WhatsApp and SMS,” reports WGBH Boston’s Tory Starr in the smartest look-back on 2017 media and tech I’ve seen this year.

The split

“By 2019 or even 2020, the wide-ranging, free-wheeling, oftentimes unmannerly dialogue that is the hallmark of social media today will have moved to closed networks,” e.g., our kids’ peer groups. Are you with me in seeing an upside to this? Harassment, trolling and hate speech feed on visibility. They won’t go away, of course, but the fuel, the public and social part, takes a back seat to the media part.

“Platforms seem to be anticipating this shift,” writes Lorenz at NiemanLab. “Snapchat Read more

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The state of global youth, digitally speaking: Research

There could be no better year-end wrap-up or gift for stakeholders in youth online safety worldwide than UNICEF’s just-released “State of the World’s Children…in a Digital World.” In it are the latest research, stories and commentaries from multiple international perspectives, including, to its credit, those of young people in 26 countries.

In addition to their views and practices, the report looks at safety for all children, including the most vulnerable – those “on the move” from places of conflict, “girls, children from poor households, children in communities with a limited understanding of different forms of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, children who are out of school, children with disabilities, children who suffer…mental health problems and children from marginalized groups” – in the context of their lives, opportunities and rights.

As a 17-year-old participant in Peru told UNICEF, “It is good to know that there are people who wish to listen to what adolescents have to say.”

The authors don’t only “wish to listen” or see participation as one of children’s human rights, they see listening to children as necessary to making policy that’s relevant and useful to them. And there is a sense of urgency in this:

“We must act quickly, and in collaboration with children of all walks of life,” wrote the authors of “Young and Online: Children’s Perspectives on Life in a Digital Age,” the companion report also released this week. “We must abandon both technophobic and techno-utopian orientations and acknowledge that the digital world is here to stay [and youth constitute a third of the world’s Internet users, they note elsewhere]. We must centre, and seek to balance, children’s provision, protection and participation rights in a world that often elides the needs and aspirations of children.”

Here are just 12 takeaways from this planet-size report:

  • The global digital divide. “Nearly one third [29%] of all youth worldwide – around 346 million 15–24 year-olds – are not online,” and 60% of African youth are not (compared to 4% in Europe). In developed countries, we often take for granted and even fear and vilify connected tech, so it provides healthy perspective to hear that, “to be unconnected in a digital world is to be deprived of new opportunities to learn, communicate and develop skills for the 21st century workplace.” And consider what connection means to them: “In stark contrast to claims that today’s adolescents are disengaged, participants in the study are concerned about issues in their communities ranging from the need to reduce violence to tackling climate change,” the “Young and Online” authors write. “Even in communities with limited access, adolescents believe digital technology has an important role to play in enabling them to seek and generate information, to contribute to awareness-raising, and to work with others to respond to real-world challenges.”
  • Risk in context: The report in no way minces words about “digital dangers,” the title of Chap. 3, but it doesn’t start with or over-focus on them. It urges us to consider the context. “All children who go online face some level of risk, but not all face the same level of risk…. For most children, underlying issues – such as depression or problems at home – have a greater impact on health and happiness than screen time…. Understanding why risk translates into actual harm for certain children, and not for others, is crucial. It opens our eyes to the underlying vulnerabilities in the child’s life that can place him or her at greater risk in the digital age. By better understanding and addressing these vulnerabilities, we can better protect children both online and offline.” This reinforces our findings in the comprehensive lit review of a 2008 national task force that not all youth are equally at risk online, those most vulnerable online are those most so offline, and a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk than any technology they use. It also reminds me of a 2013 essay by Prof. Sonia Livingstone about the difference between online risk and offline risk – and how “online risk” actually means “the risk of the risk that might result in harm.”
  • Believing is seeing: Online risks “are not always a function of the behaviour itself but are in some cases a reflection of how society perceives that behaviour,” the report’s authors write. “Adult perceptions of excessive use tend to drive the debate.”

Read more

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Facebook’s Messenger Kids: Important new digital-parenting tool

Facebook’s launch of Messenger Kids is a game-changer – but not just in the way you might think. Sure it’s the world’s largest social media service’s first product for people under 13. That’s certainly big news, and what will capture most of the headlines this week. But it’s actually a combination of that and something less noticeable and more meaningful that’s really game-changing about Messenger Kids:

FB Messenger Kids screenshot

Videochat between generations AND species ;)

It’s not a social media parental control tool, it’s a social media learning tool – for parents as well as kids (probably kids at the younger end of the 6-12 age range of this first version of the product). So it’s for digital-age parenting training as well as social media training – especially as FB rolls it out internationally, in countries where kids aren’t already using Snapchat and Musical.ly. Even here in the U.S., though, it’s a great tool for families’ inter-generational communication (grandparents will be learning and enjoying the visual kind more and more from their grandchildren).

More on digital-age parenting in a minute. First, don’t get me wrong, Messenger Kids has plenty of parental controls (see the list below), and more will be added as the product evolves. But they’re all in service to a different goal than control: learning how to navigate social media together.

What parents want

That’s what parents, to their credit, want, according to the National PTA’s research for Facebook. They surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,200 U.S. parents of 6-12 year-olds and found that most (64%) see value in “online technologies as tools for learning,” and 63% feel social media provides kids with “digital skills that are mandatory in society today.” But most parents (75%) also want more control – to have more of a say in how their kids use social media and to help them use messaging and other apps responsibly.

That last part lines right up with academic research in multiple countries, which found that parental mediation, not restriction, will have the most positive impact on children’s online experiences, as well as their development in this digital age.

Here are other good things for parents to know about Messenger Kids: Read more

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Post-FOSI: Online safety now, predictions for 2020

“Trust and civility” were, so very appropriately, the focus of the Family Online Safety Institute‘s just-ended annual conference this challenging year.

“We have witnessed countless examples…of ways that trust in institutions, in organizations and even in each other has been eroded,” FOSI CEO Stephen Balkam noted in his opening remarks. “And we have watched how basic civility has been challenged by trolling, online harassment, bullying behavior and worse.”

So back to trust and civility. “We need to protect this treasure,” said Robin Raskin, founder of Living in Digital Times, as she and Larry Magid, with whom I co-directed ConnectSafely.org for 10 years, were up on stage wrapping the day and summarizing their session that discussed what online safety will look like in 2020. “This is the maturation point, the testing point. The big players in this room need to play as one,” Robin continued. Larry added: “These companies need to keep Americans on their side…these institutions, because they are becoming institutions.”

The elephant in the room

They were referring to Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Snap, etc., all of whom were in the room. I completely agree this is a “maturation” and “testing point” for companies – and social media in general. But they’re not the only “big players.” The elephant in that room was the rarely discussed one in every gathering about social media and technologies: us, social media users.

We’re the real heavyweights, but we haven’t fully woken up to our powers in this new media environment and networked planet (have you heard young people use the term “woke”?), and users have reached a maturation point too. In order to protect that “treasure” Robin was referring to – connecting humanity for the good of people and societies worldwide – it would be good if we woke up and helped in two ways: Read more

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Counterspeech: A tool for students who want to counter online hate

Now, in time for National Bullying Prevention Month 2017, students have solid, research-based guidance for countering online hate, harassment and bullying – in the form of a cartoon!

Counterspeech tips thumbnail

Just a glimpse – click here for the full-size cartoon.

Counterspeech DOs & DON’Ts” is the result of a months-long collaboration of iCanHelpline.org, iHeartMob.org, #ICANHELP, Project HEAR, The Dangerous Speech Project and some outstanding student advisers in California and Connecticut (it was Chet Ellis, student and award-winning essay writer in Conn., who advised that a cartoon would be much more accessible to his high school peers).

The resource is based on “Considerations for Successful Counterspeech,” by Susan Benesch, Derek Ruths, Kelly P Dillon, Haji Mohammad Saleem and Lucas Wright – cutting edge research in an emerging field. Included are some points from Megan Phelps-Roper’s TED Talk, which tells the story of how counterspeech can change people and lives and, as of this writing, has been viewed more than 4.5 million times.

I first blogged about Dr. Benesch’s work here after hearing her speak at at both Facebook’s 2015 Compassion Research Day and in a smaller multi-cultural meeting at Twitter. Two things compelled me to ask her about collaborating on (then) a counterspeech curriculum for students: 1) seeing research out of the University of New Hampshire showing that most bystanders try to help peers who are being targeted but hearing from educators that they generally don’t know how and 2) knowing that the bullying prevention field had been focusing more and more on turning bystanders into upstanders (some examples in this Google search). I wanted students to have a really accessible “tool” they could use to be the change-makers they want to be. My partners at #ICANHELP had seen and demonstrated over and over again that students are part of the solution to more than the problem of social cruelty online. So I reached out to our collaborators –HeartMob and their very talented designer Kendall Simpson kindly donated their time for breathing life and color into bullet points – as well as friends at the Born This Way Foundation and Teaching Tolerance to get this tool into the hands of as many students as possible.

We hope you’ll join us in using and sharing this tool widely. Happy Bullying Prevention Month!

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About teens’ new top app ‘tbh’ & (real) safety in apps

“It’s trying to be the anti-Sarahah,” reports New York Magazine. But, like Sarahah, tbh (for “to be honest”), the newest hot app among teens in Apple’s App Store, is probably trying not to be a flash in the pan. [As of today, it’s No. 3, after Facebook Messenger and Gmail, on Apple’s “Top Charts” list for free apps, down 2 from No. 1 since NYMag.com’s report.]

tbh appBut before I tell you a bit more about tbh, remember Sarahah, which topped the teens’-newest-favorite chart last month? It too is used anonymously, but it wasn’t meant to be a social app (it was designed by a Saudi software engineer as a way for employees to provide candid feedback to their coworkers or employer), my friends at the Cyberbullying Research Center reported. Sarahah was hijacked by teens for their own purposes, as Formspring, now gone, was at the beginning of this decade (see this from 2010). Formspring too, like Sarahah, was designed for the workplace. But in terms of functionality, tbh is in the same category as Formspring, Sarahah and another anonymous app ASKfm – they’re all Q&A apps.

Keeping it positive

tbh stands out from similarly formatted apps in that it aims to be all positive – whereas, on Sarahah, users reportedly tend to be either really nice or really nasty. Logically, that means teens who want to know what peers think of them (remember “Am I pretty?” videos in 2012?) feel safer than in other anonymous apps. But, just as with virtually all social media, tbh relies on user complaints, or abuse reports, to keep things positive; so it’s not that insults can’t possibly happen. NYMag.com quotes a spokesperson as saying that, when the app gets a complaint, the content gets deleted “right away” – apparently, free speech doesn’t get a lot of behind-the-scenes debate (and that’s the spectrum we’re looking at in social media: “free speech” vs. civility). Check out NYMag.com’s piece to find out how the app took off, starting in the state of Georgia.

But there’s another way tbh stands out: content moderation, apparently. For now only available on iPhones, as of this writing, the app is also only available in 10 states. That’s probably for capacity reasons, and good on tbh’s creators if they’re ramping up slowly in order to be able to keep things kind (i.e., to moderate content). According to NYMag.com, they view all 10,000 submissions they get a day, and only 1% of those actually appear in the app. I can tell you that, after over a decade of covering social media developments, I have not seen this careful a roll-out. Read more

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