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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

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 its 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.”

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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 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 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,, #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’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. 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’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, 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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2 kinds of bullying, 2 kinds of empathy: Research

Digital mindfulness poster

A digital mindfulness poster (photo, by Thomas Galvez, CC licensed)

It’s an age-old social problem, but we have gotten so much smarter about bullying – both the problem and solutions – since media became so very social. Not only do we now know that the age-old “schoolyard bully” is a stereotype, we know it’s not the only one people all over the world entertain. But there’s something else we now know that muddies the solution side a bit and calls for alertness and thoughtful responses: There are two kinds of empathy. One can significantly support bullying alleviation; the other is actually used in bullying. Here’s what I mean:

The stereotypes

When we hear the word “bully,” two stereotypes actually come to people’s minds now:

  • The age-old one of the tough kid who takes pleasure, seeks attention, feels powerful or all the above in roughing (or beating) up another kid
  • The more recent stereotype made famous by the film Mean Girls, which is much more about psychological and social power – the kind of anti-social behavior expressed online as well as at school (but by no means just by girls – see “Cyberbullying by Gender” here).

The latter are often seen as the “popular kids” – not necessarily well-liked or trusted, but other kids often look up to them (because of the power, attention or admiration they attain). These kids have skills that help them maintain their social status, so their behavior is very different from that of the “classic bully,” according to last year’s milestone multidisciplinary study from the U.S.’s National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. So let’s zoom in on “high-status” and “low-status” bullying….

‘Low-status bullying’

The “classic bullying” stereotype “casts children and youth who bully others” as being “high on psychopathology, low on social skills, and possessing few assets and competencies that the peer group values,” according to the National Academies report. Obviously these are not “the popular kids”; they even annoy or provoke adults when seen in action. The consensus definition of bullying includes a “power differential” and, since classic “bullies” show their power by hurting peers physically, this kind of bullying happens in person, in physical spaces like school, not always out in the open but usually with witnesses. And it’s usually pretty obvious who the bully is.

‘High-status bullying’

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‘Blue Whale’: Clickbait or a new form of online grooming?

A reader in India, where a “Blue Whale” scare has now taken off, asked it’s a genuine threat, so I’m reposting here the following response I posted in Comments to give you an update (see also a sidebar below about the all-important Russian context):

In answer to the question in the headline up there, maybe both. It is also now quite likely a cybersecurity risk to people’s devices and data (see the bottom of this post).

Blue whale photo

The name “Blue Whale” is reported by to come from song lyrics by Russian rock band Lumen by (Source of blue whale photo taken off the Azores: Wikimedia Commons)

As I wrote in my first post on “Blue Whale” last March, it has been called “clickbait” or “a wave of clickbait” and “fake news” by Internet safety and media literacy professionals in eastern Europe close to its origins in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. So I’ve relied heavily on their expertise – and the early investigative work of RFE/RL – to share how this much-hyped misinformation has spread. It’s hard for people in India, the US or any other country to tell fact from fiction in information that comes from other countries, when we don’t fully understand the cultures, laws, media and government-press relations in those other countries.

In my second post on the subject, I pointed to a core concern of information gone viral. The more “fake news” or even partially true stories spread, the more their credence and – when they’re about self-harm, the potential for suicide contagion – seem to grow. Also, in terms of sheer numbers, the more viral the scary falsity is, the more people – from vulnerable people to those who exploit vulnerability – are exposed to it, which grows the chance of it becoming a real threat, right? So we don’t want to see people believing and spreading it, and media literacy is now a protection.

A self-harm kind of grooming?

However, we know from the research that suicide very, very rarely has a single cause, and even more rarely stems from an event or information beyond the direct experience of the individual. We need to be just as alert to signs of depression, extreme anxiety and bullying (social cruelty) in the life of a child as to any story about what might be happening online.

So regarding the “Blue Whale” phenomenon, the core question is – if a child is particularly vulnerable – whether there’s manipulation going on in that child’s online experience. It’s not a “game” or a story about a game itself that’s the issue; online manipulation, and vulnerability to it, are the issue. We need to know if police investigations into children’s deaths have actually turned up evidence of contact with an actual person who’d been manipulating them in what may be a new form of online grooming, which used to be associated with sexual exploitation. If that is what has been happening – and it’s nearly impossible to tell without thorough investigation – we need to focus attention less on a “game” as the “cause” and more on what might attract and compel a child to engage in self-harm facilitated by someone far away whome they don’t know in offline life.

What parents might consider

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The generation-destroying smartphone: Researchers push back

Two years ago, the headline in the Washington Post about researcher Jean Twenge’s work was, “Happiness levels are rising for teens, but not for people older than 30,” and she was quoted as saying, “our current culture is giving teens what they need, but not mature adults what they need.”

Teen crowd shot

A whole generation? Really?! (cc licensed)

I’m confused – because the headline in the latest Atlantic Monthly about Dr. Twenge’s work suggests the opposite. It reads, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and she writes in the article that the devices are “making them seriously unhappy…. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” So her thinking about today’s teens has done a complete 180 in two years. [The latter article is actually an excerpt from her new book about teens, iGen, which has a very long subtitle (28 words), and I guess updates us on what she wrote about the teens of the last decade, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic.]

So because Twenge’s sweeping, negative statements about an entire generation (“iGen,” or kids born between 1995 and 2012) have gotten a lot of pickup in the news media this week, I thought a little balance might be good. Here, all in one blog post, are responses from seven other researchers – well-known scholars in the youth and digital media space – this past week:

  • Christopher Ferguson, PhD, psychology professor and researcher, Stetson University, in an email (published here with his permission): “It’s clickbait, pure and simple, with all the value clickbait usually has. Jean Twenge has made a career out of generational alarmism. Her comments about time spent online are incorrect. Time spent online is a poor predictor of mental health functioning. Problems come when some individuals use social media to negatively compare themselves to others. For people who engage in authentic self-presentation, time spent online is associated with improved mental health. It’s interesting how poor people are at avoiding patterns of media alarmism. The unfortunate thing is, this will slow real careful examination of causes of increasing suicide rates.”
  • Sonia Livingstone, PhD, psychology professor, the London School of Economics, on Twitter: “Lots of interesting data here but too little analysis of multiple factors underlying social change.”
  • Amanda Lenhart, PhD, Senior Research Scientist, The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, in response to Livingstone on Twitter: “I’d go further & suggest that the author is cherry picking findings to support a career focused on a generally negative view of youth.”
  • Vicky Rideout, researcher and principal at VJR Consulting, in the Parenting for a Digital Future research blog: “The [Atlantic Monthly] piece has already generated a lot of dialogue…. It’s easy to pick on an article with an alarmist headline like that; but it’s not just the title at issue in this case…. Twenge writes that surveys have shown correlations between high smartphone and social media use and increased likelihood of suicide or depression. But correlations like that – while intriguing, important and worthy of further study – are certainly far from indicating a causal link, or which direction causality might flow…. It is in fact entirely possible that unhappy teens choose to spend more time with screen media than their peers do, rather than that heavy screen media use is causing unhappiness. Indeed, it is possible that some forms of screen media use help teens who suffer from depression, connecting them to family, friends, and resources.”
  • Sarah Rose Cavanagh, PhD, writer, researcher and professor at Assumption College, in “No, Smartphones Are Not Destroying a Generation” reads her headline, and she writes that “the problem with both [Twenge’s] article and the resulting attention is three-fold: 1) the data the author chooses to present are cherry-picked…. 2) the studies she reviews are all correlational…. 3) the studies she reviews largely ignore social contexts and how people differ.”
  • Katie Davis, PhD, at University of Washington and Emily Weinstein, EdD, and Howard Gardner, PhD, at Harvard University “take issue with Twenge’s narrative” in Medium, offering their “three main problems with it”: 1) “Twenge uses correlational data to make causal claims…. 2) Despite saying ‘no single factor ever defines a generation,’ Twenge spends all but a couple of throwaway sentences using a single factor to define iGen…. 3) Just as digital media is unlikely to be the sole cause of teens’ attitudes and behaviors, it’s also unlikely to have a singular, uniform impact on all teens.”

Giving parents something to work with

And my favorite counter-commentary (because it packs into one article another interpretation of the actual data Twenge interpreted, a unique view of what the real problem is and the best digital parenting advice I’ve seen yet:

JSTOR logo

Alexandra Samuel, PhD, writer, researcher and speaker, in JSTOR Daily. That alternative interpretation of Twenge’s data set is summed up right in Samuel’s headline too, which rings much truer to this follower of 15 years’ research: “Yes, Smartphones Are Destroying a Generation, But Not of Kids.” It’s the impact they had on parents, she proposes….

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Yellow app: Signs of smarter digital safety

It isn’t often that a social media startup has the stated “ambition to become a major social platform and a leader in safety [emphasis mine].” But that’s what the team behind Yellow, a fast-growing, Paris-based videochat app that just launched in the U.S., says, and I believe them.

yellowDetails about safety measures in a minute, but first: Intention alone is huge in an industry where startups and safety seem to be on different planets, right? If nothing else, consider how crazy it would be for a social media company to state that aim publicly and in this climate (of heightened concerns about teens in digital media) if they weren’t serious. And what a great way to be noticed, too – can you see what I mean? I think we’re at the start of a new trend: safety, not orange, being “the new black” for social startups. If you doubt that, consider how short-lived the Color, Secret and Yik Yak apps were. We’re not there yet, but this is another sign.

What to look for in/behind a new app

Second, they engaged Annie Mullins, the former global head of youth safety policy for mobile carrier Vodafone who later, as an independent safety consultant, was key to the Latvia-based ASKfm social media app’s successful safety makeover (I can attest to that success as a member of that app’s Safety Advisory Board for nearly three years now). At a meeting with her and Yellow COO Marc-Antoine Durand in New York last week, I learned about the “engage and educate” approach Mullins is helping Yellow establish: communicating the community rules right at sign-up as well as when violations happen (like why someone gets a 24-hour time-out or why a profile photo, user name or the title of a chat has to be changed). This is educating users about safety as well as community rules as they go.

Third, the reality is, live-streamed videochat is here to stay, teens have shown they love it, there’s always some degree of risk (in social media as in life), and so teens need and deserve providers that aim to manage and teach them about risk. They deserve providers that require safe behavior, show users what that means, engage them in helping to keep their community safe and give them the tools to do so.

So at the meeting with Yellow last week, I heard about a lot more than intention. In fact, I will venture to say that, with the safety measures and features Yellow now has and is putting in place, this app is shaping up to be a leader in live-streamed video safety. Here’s why:

  • Real faces only. Authenticity is a safety factor: Profile photos have to be users’ own faces – not their puppies, a cartoon avatar, or any other body part. Yellow uses image detection technology to detect non-faces, other people’s faces and non-photos – in real time. And if a person is reported, human moderators can tell if a photo was taken by the person’s phone or downloaded from somewhere else. But the app doesn’t wait for users to report violations and seems to be quite responsive to reports. So “moderation” actually means always-on tech + user reports + human moderators.
  • The predation question: No one who signs up as 18+ can chat with users who sign up as 13-17. “It’s like minors and adults are using two different apps,” COO Durand told me. I checked. After I signed up with my actual age, the app’s “How old?” setting wouldn’t allow me to set the age range to under 18. People who sign up as under 18 can’t set their “How old?” setting to 18-99 (I guess 100-year-olds can lie about their age!). So when a blogger quoted a parental control company (now there’s a biased source) as saying “adult predators can … pretend to be minors,” that’s not true. Sure people lie about their age in social media, so a colleague of mine tested that. She was blocked immediately after she signed up as a teenager. [Certainly parents need to know that in social media as in offline life, kids can themselves seek out and communicate with creepy or criminal adults, but we do know from academic research that, in social media, the vast majority of teens just delete or block people they find creepy.]

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When ‘fake news’ becomes real: What next with ‘Blue Whale’?

The term “fake news” has largely (and rightfully) been discredited because, at best, it’s simplistic and, at worst, used to dismiss or discredit legitimate news providers. But there is such a thing as real fake news: misinformation and disinformation that goes viral in this digital age and then leads to real tragedy.

SAVE logoSo the “Blue Whale” story is no longer about “fake news.” To Dan Reidenberg, managing director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), it’s about what we do as a society next – how any society deals with alarming misinformation that started in another unknown culture and country and becomes a public health threat just because of its ability to attraction attention and exploit fears. Because two suicides in the U.S. have – as in New Jersey has responsibly reported – “suspected links” to “Blue Whale.” Even though we don’t know and may never know if they’re linked to involvement in a “game” or just news coverage of it.

‘No need to panic’

Importantly, Newsweek and CNN both quote Dr. Reidenberg, a suicide prevention adviser to Facebook, as saying, “There is no need to panic, because this is not yet a crisis, rather a caution to alert people in advance.” What he called me about yesterday was the question no one has the answer to yet: how we get out in front of viral stories so cynically dark and focused on youth that they spread fear among adults and curiosity and/or rebellion among youth, particularly vulnerable youth. How can we grow understanding among adults that keeps them – from the news media to police to educators to parents – from contributing to what Dan and other suicide prevention experts call “the copycat effect,” or suicide contagion. That’s the real danger of this originally fake news. Read more

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6 takeaways from 20 years of Net safety: Part 2

Now that I’ve just passed the 20-year mark of writing about youth and digital media, I thought I’d share with you my top takeaways as a participant observer in the Internet safety space. Here‘s Part 1. Now the three chunks of Part 2:

Teens using tech4. It’s individual, situational and contextual. Internet safety works best from the inside out. I love the irony of generalizing the individuality of social media’s use. But I think it’s the most important generalization I’ve ever made (or not wanted to make): What we do and experience online is a reflection not only of us, our families and our social circles but also a snapshot or freeze frame of what’s going on in everyday life – both internally and externally in a moment in time and in a particular set of environmental conditions (home, work, public, private, etc.). Which is true of our children too. We can’t possibly know what we’re seeing about a child without getting a handle on those conditions, which includes understanding the child too (or trying our best to). Each harassment or cyberbullying incident is as unique as the individuals involved. That’s why it’s bad – potentially harmful to the kids – to take what we see out of context and summarily react, punish, call school officials, call the police, etc. We always need more information than what we see in a photo, comment thread or profile, and that’s more information from the young people involved. We need to know what’s going on in their heads, day, life, relationships, etc., before we take action. We need context.

That’s why social media companies have an almost impossible task in responding to abuse reports within their systems. It’s why the vast majority of the abuse reports they receive are not actionable. They’re highly contextual. The companies have even less context than us parents and educators for what shows up in their apps. They often need “trusted reporters” like Internet helplines and thoughtful law enforcement people to provide that context (I’ve been piloting one such helpline here in the U.S.). Like anyone on the outside, the companies can’t tell if some post was an inside joke with no hurt felt, a cruel, cutting comment, part of repeated aggression, something said once in a fit of anger, part of a trivial argument, etc., etc. It’s why communication is essential to keeping our kids safe online. We have to talk with our kids to find out what happened – what they were feeling at the time, what the social context was of something painful, whether online or offline. We have to keep communication lines open – and be genuinely curious and open-minded to keep them open always – so that they’ll come to us when they need help. This is simple logic. Because we’ve learned from the research (specifically, the pivotal lit review of the first task force I served on in 2008, the Harvard Internet Safety Technical Task Force), that a child’s psycho-social makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk or safety than any technology the child uses – which are also the predictors of a child’s physical, social and emotional safety or lack thereof in physical spaces, right?

5. Human beings not “human becomings.” That’s from Danish sociologist Jens Qvortrup, who is cited in two books by researchers who’ve had a lot of influence on my thinking about youth and digital media: Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press, 2009) and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age (NYU Press, 2016). [I mentioned the former here and reviewed the latter here.] The authors represent two of the most important research projects of the first quarter century of kids online: 1) the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project (kicked off by media professor Henry Jenkins with this 2006 paper and representing 3 years’ work by more than 2 dozen U.S. researchers) and 2) EU Kids Online, which encompassed research in more than 2 dozen countries and is now Global Kids Online. Read more

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6 takeaways from 20 years of Net safety: Part 1

I usually write about other people’s work – especially that of the researchers I’ve followed through the years. But now that I’ve just passed the 20-year mark in writing about youth and digital media (yikes!), I thought I’d share with you my own top takeaways as a participant observer of Internet safety’s early years (1997-now). Here’s Part 1 (Part 2 on this page):

1. A generalization about generalizations. First of all, I’ve come to believe generalizations serve us even less when they’re about social media, and how people of any age use it, than about nearly anything else. Except maybe about the way people live their lives. Because generalizations are so final. These are only observations – snapshots. This is one very fluid subject, right? But it can sometimes be useful to snap something in motion in order to zoom in and do a reality check. The following observations could seem like generalizations, but I can tell you there’s nothing final about any of them. We’re talking about social media’s earliest period.

Many members of the generation that grew up with social media will be parents in a decade (or less). Even the phrase “Internet safety education” is a placeholder. I wrote about that in 2013, then asked the lead author of that milestone research, Lisa Jones, PhD, what she thought of the placeholder characterization. She said she wished she’d thought of that word. She and I were part of a working group that, in late 2011, developed the conceptual underpinnings of the Born This Way Foundation’s work, work that confirmed for me how central and critical social emotional learning (SEL) is to safety and efficacy online and offline – for individuals and communities. [I do want to note that online and offline are a complete mashup for many of us now, not just youth.]

2. Fundamentally, what we’re seeing in our children’s social media use is the exposure of their deepest needs: deep connection and to be heard and accepted by people they love or care about. It’s just that only some of the connecting that happens day-to-day in social media satisfies those needs. I think it’s quite possible that the less the real need is met, the more sharing and connecting of the shallow sort tends to happen. In other words, excessive exposure should give us pause; it could well be an indicator of great need (or unmet needs). For example, excessive sharing probably represents a cry for attention or social anxiety in some kids. I’m skeptical that social media is addictive – it’s more like kids are “addicted” to their friends and social circles and keeping up with what’s happening in them – but I do think the level of use can be symptomatic.

safety pins for Net safety

(CC licensed)

Quite naturally we parents want to control the sharing because we see the vulnerability involved, but that’s not likely to be effective. The question we need to consider with our children is what kind of sharing, posting and communicating is going on – is it really serving you and your friends? So far we have focused much more on how young people are exposing their needs and less on how to meet them. The more they’re acknowledged and met, the less vulnerability would be on display, probably. But we don’t know that yet. Most research so far has focused on how media harms them (per our fearful policy and research agendas) and not on how to meet the needs being exposed in media. [Certainly there’s research on the needs part, just not much, if any, yet on the relationship between needs and how they show up in media.]

3. What kind of privacy? While we’re on the subject of exposure, let’s look at privacy. There are clearly developmental reasons why connecting is just as, if not more, important to young people than privacy – except privacy from us. Privacy from us (their parents and other adults who care deeply about them) is a developmental imperative because kids can’t truly develop in a Petrie dish where we’re the lab technicians looking into it all the time. Yes, life in general is more of a Petrie dish, or fishbowl than ever, for everybody, but our watching their every move and innermost thoughts (as expressed, e.g., in a Snapchat Story) can 1) make it so that growing up is as much about us as about them – Read more

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Student voice for meaning, self-actualization, safety (ISTE 2017)

“Our kids can be experts in the world,” said visionary educator Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann), meaning right now, as students, in school, in digital spaces, in life. Then he asked, “How can we help them be that?” He was speaking last week at ISTE, the world’s largest ed tech conference.

ISTE 2017 logoI went to ISTE to see what educators were saying about student voice, and what I found was a trend: growing collaboration between students and educators not just to amplify student voice but to utilize it – in ways that are meaningful to both. Together, they’re using student voice to solve problems at school, use technology effectively, improve school governance, increase safety and design meaningful learning. Here are just a few inspiring examples:

Diana Bidulescu, Manager of Online Assessment in the Houston Independent School District (@HISD), said that when her district of 215,000 students speaking 100 languages in 283 schools had to cut the budget, she wasn’t sure how her office would manage. “I asked myself, ‘Throughout my career, who have been my best friends? My students’ was the answer,” she said. So she asked them for help, creating a very active, 60-member Student Advisory Team that represented that very diverse student body. She said, they shape the program, train their peers, motivate and help their teachers (as they transition to digital learning), “give us suggestions for innovation…. A fantastic idea came from a 2nd grader this year,” she added. The student team even presents to the school board every year. All the training they do is in 1-min. videos in multiple languages, produced by them. They also create memes and posters.

Jancey Clark (@jancey5), K-5 learning coach at the American International School in Riyadh (AIS-R), Saudi Arabia (to see what the school’s like, watch this video), talked about what a panel of students said when asked how school could be improved for students. “The 1st thing they asked for was time” – time to do work that was meaningful to them, Jancey said. The 2nd thing was to be allowed to “make a difference in the world, even in small ways” (for which they needed the first thing, time!). Jancey said one panel member said she was too overwhelmed by academic requirements to practice a musical instrument she’d played for years. No. 3 was to “let us pursue our passion” (are you starting to see a theme here too?). The 4th was, “everything is a remix” (I suspect the students were reacting to strict rules about copyright hampering their desire to remix media for school projects). For No. 5 the students simply said, “We are all unique,” probably with hopes for more personalized learning. Jancey summed by quoting a 5th grader saying, “If you [a student] have an idea, you should do it – just give us time and tools.” Some early changes: students presenting to parents on Parent-Teacher night and projects produced by students on “What It’s Like to Be a Kid” and “What It’s Like to Be a Kids in Saudi Arabia.” For more, check out TEDxYouth AIS-R on YouTube. Read more

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Game-changing insights on bullying from a top US researcher

If we want schools to be safe for all kids, we cannot ignore the direct connections between bullying, sexual harassment and homophobic name-calling in middle school. That’s according to groundbreaking research presented by University of Florida psychology professor Dorothy Espelage in her latest talk. One of the U.S.’s leading bullying researchers, she was speaking in Washington at the American Psychological Association, which just honored her with a lifetime achievement award.

Chart on % of Youth Who Engage in Homophobic Name-Calling

Chart from Dr. Dorothy Espelage

“Bullying leads to homophobic name-calling,” which is prevalent in middle school, Dr. Espelage said, “and it also predicts sexual harassment perpetration in middle school” and high school, as well as dating violence in high school and then colleges and universities.

A major new study by Harris Poll for GLSEN found that 55% of students aged 13-18 hear peers saying “that’s so gay” often or very often, 43% other homophobic terms often or very often, and a quarter (25.5%) hear school staff “make negative remarks related to students’ gender expression.”

Factor gender into bullying prevention

Espelage and her colleagues have found that students as young as 5th and 6th graders commonly use that terminology, as many parents know – “especially when boys do not act masculine and girls do not act feminine,” as kids collectively define those terms in their own peer groups and schools. “We found that such homophobic language is used to assert power over other students…. [They] start to sexually harass members of the opposite sex to demonstrate that they are not gay,” she wrote.

% of youth who bully

Chart from Dr. Dorothy Espelage

For that reason, even though most bullying prevention programs don’t factor in gender, they need to, she said in her talk. “We have to recognize that this socialization process, this homophobia and sexual harassment that happens to both boys and girls happens way before we send them to college.

“If we continue to do this [bullying prevention] work in schools with no gender lens, we’re going to continue to fall short,” she said. On the other hand, “if we address homophobic name-calling … we’ll have much improved lives for middle school students, and [this prevention work] will be relevant to them [emphasis mine].” She mentioned one brave 7th grader who told her that he was just so done with the name-calling and didn’t understand why the questions the researchers were asking them didn’t look at the kind of aggressive behavior that irritated and disturbed students like him the most.

Other key highlights from a very comprehensive talk:

  • Social emotional learning is powerful: “Out of the gate, after just 15 lessons” (out of 41 SEL lessons that 3,600 6th-8th-graders received over a three-year study), her research turned up a “major reduction in physical fighting”: 42%, “where most programs predict a 3% reduction,” she said. “By Year 3, Second Step [the SEL program they used in the study] had reduced all forms of victimization – including for kids with a disability.” The findings reinforced what many of us have come to see, including me: that SEL instruction would benefit every student and every school, especially now that social media is part of the school climate mix. Social literacy training for social media (and life!). In her talk, Espelage also pointed to studies showing SEL’s positive impact on students’ academic performance as well as school climate, “and it works at multiple levels of society.” [Here‘s what SEL teaches.]

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Core concern: ‘Blue Whale’ & the social norms research

June 11, 2017, adding an update in the form of author, journalist and game designer Andrea Angiolino’s response to sensationalist tabloid “coverage” in Italy of a new arrest in Russia – see the first sidebar below. My first post on the “Blue Whale challenge” was published March 13 here. Much has happened since then in a number of countries, so an update is in order, but I hope you agree that the most important part of this story is how and to what degree fake news becomes a real problem as it’s spread around the world…. 

It’s time for an update. Since I wrote about the “Blue Whale” story two months ago, the fake news has spread further (e.g., comments from multiple countries under my last post and these commentaries in Indonesia and Bosnia Herzegovina); the number of suicides linked to it has gone down drastically in that “coverage” (from 130 to “at least 16”) and we still don’t know if that number’s accurate; Philipp Budeikin, a Russian man alleged variously to have created it or organized groups of “players,” is reported to have pleaded guilty in St. Petersburg, Russia, to “charges of inciting at least 16 teenage girls to kill themselves by taking part in his ‘game'”; and now schools from Alabama, U.S., to Essex, U.K., are warning parents to be on the alert for signs that their kids are playing this so-called game.

How to spot fake news chart

Chart by (CC licensed)

There is no question that, if even one suicide is related to whatever is real in this story, it’s one too many. These developments add no clarity on that, though. “The arrest is real but it is absolutely unclear when it happened,” wrote Georgi Apostolov of Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre, which has thoroughly investigated this “story” with the aim of spreading digital media literacy – and thus the safety – of young Internet users in that country (he was responding to my request for his perspective on these latest developments). More on the safety part in a moment; first an update on what is known….

A media literate perspective

“Some sources claim that the arrest happened in November 2016, others in March 2017. There’s no official information about that. As Russian journalists say, it came after a series of sensational stories about Blue Whale by Galina Mursalieva [herself nicknamed “Klikuchka,” a play on “clickbait,” by other journalists, Apostolov wrote elsewhere] which put pressure on the authorities to take some action. Budeikin was investigated for months before the arrest, and he insisted he was not guilty. The investigation too could not find any evidence that he was guilty of inciting/pressing teens to suicide besides [finding only] that he was a member of Blue Whale groups in Russian social network site Vkontakte.” But he was found to be “psychologically disturbed,” Apostolov added. “When the story was picked up by many other Russian websites, he suddenly started to claim (according to not very reliable sources) that he was the ‘master’…. The first coverage in Russia was in the beginning of 2016, so for a long time the authorities did not arrest him or anybody else. In those publications different accounts of victims were mentioned – 150, 130, etc. Now they are 17. As you can see,” Apostolov wrote me, “the whole picture is quite chaotic but raises many serious doubts because of a number of inconsistencies.”

Impacts on youth

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VR as empathy teaching tool: What to love, what to watch out for

Just from watching Engadget’s 6 min. video report about it I could tell “The Last Goodbye” – a 16 min. virtual reality experience that debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival that just wrapped in New York – will have a profound impact on anyone who experiences it. The reporter called it “emotionally harrowing.”

Watching the VR participant

Watching Engadget’s Hardawar experience “The Last Goodbye” at the Tribeca festival – the presenter demonstrating empathy for the participant (freeze frame of Engadget’s video report)

So there are really two central roles in this VR experience: that of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who was 11 years old when he was literally shipped to Majdanek, then an extermination camp in Germany-occupied Poland, and that of empathy. Because clearly – based on the thoughtful video report by Engadget reporter Devindra Hardawar – the project is truly all about both. The participant is walking into Gutter’s horrific experience as a child and spending that time with him now, which is beyond extraordinary. Part of it is virtually, immersively, being in – walking around in – the camp with Gutter as he points out what happened in specific locations. “We wanted to ease people into the walk-around,” one of the producers told Hardawar. You can tell that’s needed.

The experience itself is the first part of experiential learning. The other essential part is the reflecting, the thinking out loud, that the participant does about their experience of it. So there’s a third crucial role (if a production is to become a teaching tool) – that of the facilitator or teacher and others external to the experience who are bringing empathy to the overall experience (in and after the virtual part). [The empathic-looking person helping Hardawar (who’s wearing the headset), in the photo above is playing that role, as a teacher would during and after students are in the experience.]

Empathy around the VR experience too

So parents and teachers, let’s think about the role of empathy. Clearly, based on Engadget’s report, it was central to the project and the producers’ intent. They wanted to be sure the production, the art and the technology, was faithful to the story and the space, they said. In teaching with a tool like this, we’d want nothing less than the level of integrity they’re asserting, right? That’s baseline. Read more

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