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
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