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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 Bloomberg.com 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 nine 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 Medium.com: “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 there “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 condition: 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 NJ1015.com 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 both internally and externally in a particular moment in time within a particular set of environmental conditions. 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. We need to know what’s going on in the kids’ heads, day, life, social context, etc., before we take action.

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, just like us parents and educators, have no context for what shows up in their apps. They often need “trusted reporters” like Internet helplines and wise 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 – 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 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 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 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 it 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 – though online and offline are a complete mashup now.

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.

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. Yes, life in general is more of a Petrie dish, or fishbowl, 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 – their worrying all the time about our 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

This is Part 1 of my 2017 update on bullying and cyberbullying in the U.S. Part 2 will be insights from students themselves.

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 IFLA.org (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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Reasons why ’13 Reasons Why’ demands discussion

By now, if you live or work with young people, you’ve probably heard about “13 Reasons Why,” Netflix’s dramatic series about a teenager’s suicide. Based on a Young Adult book of the same title, the series – now a hot topic at schools in the U.S. and other countries – needs discussing.

Netflix logoOn one hand, it exposes issues today’s high school students often face (among them, depression, bullying, sexual assault and suicide); on the other – if viewed uncritically – it could expose vulnerable young people to way too much. It’s about what happens after a suicide and – as Headspace, Australia’s mental healthcare hotline, pointed out – it irresponsibly suggests that suicide can somehow right wrongs or cause resolution for the person who has died, and younger or more impressionable people may not fully comprehend the finality of death. However, some young people have said the story gives them a better understanding of how much suffering suicide can create for friends and relatives – something they hadn’t thought about.

Fortunately, suicide prevention experts have weighed into the discussion and are offering advice and talking points. Here are advice for young viewers and parents and talking points for educators and clinicians developed by the New York-based Jed Foundation and Suicide Awareness Voices of America (SAVE). As for Netflix, Jed – which is very critical of the series – reports that the entertainment company “was supportive of the distribution of the Talking Points and posted them along with crisis services and a link to additional information about young adult mental health on the official 13RY resource website. Netflix also filmed ‘Beyond the Reasons‘ as a tool to help parents and teens frame the conversation and encourage them to speak up and seek help. The show is rated TV MA and there are trigger warning cards prior to three of the episodes.”

It’s my hope that parents and caregivers will ask their kids if they’re watching the series and, if they are, they’re watching it with friends and, ideally, an adult – not alone. Then talk about an episode while it’s fresh in their minds. Perspective is good.

Related links

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Finally, kids can have their own Google accounts (with parents’ help)

Google made a bit of history today, opening up its universe of apps and services to users under 13 as their parents design it. Family Link, the name of the new parental control toolset, describes it well: Parents download the tools to their own and the kids’ devices, then link them up for a whole family’s real-time digital device management.

Google's Family Link on screen

Parents can see time spent on individual apps and set “bedtime”

Family Link “marks one of the first attempts by a major tech company to directly address the reality of kids using tech products,” Mashable.com reported.

A groundbreaking aspect of this is that these aren’t watered-down kid versions of Chrome, Maps, Search, etc., they’re the full-blown versions as controlled by their parents. So parents can make each app available (or not), and if, for example, Search is allowed on a kid’s phone, it can have filtered search turned on.

But there’s so much more going on, here: phone time/bed time, whether and how location is used, which apps (e.g., games, social media, messenger apps) can be downloaded from Google Play and when they’re used. Some apps just won’t be made available to Family Link users under 13 – e.g., YouTube (YouTube Kids is available), Google Pay (which is only for users 18+) and apps rated M and up, based on ESRB.org ratings. It works a little like the way mobile carriers allow us to create a family administrator for all family members’ mobile accounts – only much more granular and real-time.

Now, there is no such thing as total Internet safety, right? I hope we all know that. We don’t even want that (see why here). Even this very comprehensive toolset doesn’t promise that. For example, if you allow your kids to download Firefox, they’ll be able to go to YouTube via that browser.

Which takes us to my favorite parts of this parental control tool: the inside-out part and the family communication part. Let me explain:

1. The inside-out part. Safety isn’t one-size-fits all, right? Because everybody’s use of digital media is very individual, including every kid’s use, safety works best from the inside out – the kid out. So the best products are those that can be calibrated to each child and their developmental style and pace by the people who understand them best: their parents. The parent can calibrate, tweak, change his/her mind and age up what’s on each child’s phone as the child matures. Read more

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‘Blue Whale’ game: ‘Fake news’ about teens spread internationally

[Thank you to all commenters on this post! I’ve just posted an update (5/17/17) that I hope you’ll read before commenting further here.]

It has been reported as real news here in the U.S. in recent weeks, just as it was earlier in eastern Europe, and what a dark, disrespectful message it sends about young people in any country. I’m talking about coverage of the so-called “Blue Whale suicide game” that started in Russia. And while even the term “fake news” seems to be morphing into something else now, this is the real, original version that’s misleading and scaring parents.

Fake news countered by Safenet.bg

safenet.bg, Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre, works to counter fake news harmful to youth

It’s truly fake – a textbook example of how misinformation about online harm can itself be harmful. Georgi Apostolov of Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre told me this was a “manipulation” that “can really affect parents and vulnerable children.” He wrote me that his organization is very thankful they succeeded in countering the “wave of clickbaits” in Facebook, the most widely used social media service in Bulgaria, “but it cost us a week of countering their posts…. If you are curious you can check by FB search #синкит, #синийкит – to see how we were able to stop the copycat attempts in our country. It has much to do with digital media literacy, which is now our main focus of work,” Apostolov wrote. “What I was afraid of, and we had several cases reported to our [Internet] helpline, was that self-harming or suicidal teens would use the manipulation as an excuse to not speak about their real problems.”

The Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre, which is funded by a research institute in that country as well as the European Commission, runs one of Europe’s many Internet helplines for youth. Here’s the background on the Blue Whale story that Apostolov earlier provided a U.S. group of Internet risk prevention practitioners and researchers (which I’m sharing with his permission):

So-called ‘investigative journalism’

“It is a sensationalist fake started by Russian media back in May 2016 and [which] has been recently resuscitated not without some political aims. Based on ‘investigative journalistic stories,’ a special working group under Putin elaborated a plan to be implemented by the Russian government for ‘prevention of teen suicides incitement.’ Doesn’t that sound familiar – e.g., Turkey cutting off social networks to fight child pornography? And several Russian politicians already mentioned ‘Western intelligence services’ and ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ as creators of the ‘horrible game’ with the aim to exterminate young Russian generation!

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The resilience part of digital parenting (& kids’ safety)

Parents concerned about the digital part of parenting deserve to know that they are not starting from scratch when their kids start using phones, tablets and other connected devices – even if they haven’t had conversations about digital safety yet. Far from it. Besides a loving family member or 2, 3 or 30 and the safeguarding norms, identity and values that most kids develop at home, kids also come with resilience, one of life’s key safeguards, online and offline. It’s that ability to bounce back from challenges, hardship, suffering, etc.

Shadow of a strong, confident girl

Photo by Scott Swigart (CC licensed)

“All individuals have it – it is an innate characteristic that can be bolstered by environmental factors (you! me! a healthy home! a wonderful school! positive leaders in the community! and others!),” writes cyberbullying prevention scholar Sameer Hinduja in a blog post about a remarkable, very international gathering we both attended last month, Facebook’s Global Safety Network Summit (where it was inspiring to hear youth advocates, activists, parents and risk-prevention practitioners from 4 continents talk about their work and research).

Kids’ resilience levels

Resilience is part of our online well-being, Dr. Hinduja continues, “an umbrella concept that refers to a state of psychological, emotional, and mental health where individuals can use, embrace, exploit, and enjoy online communications for all they are worth.”

He and his Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Justin Patchin, recently measured resilience in U.S. 12-17 year-olds. Interestingly, they found that, “though some adults believe that youth are lacking resilience across the board, the average kid ranked above the midpoint, which points out that those seeking to help build out that competency are not starting from scratch” (see this for more of their research).

What hinders & what helps

Interestingly, in response to a question about what keeps that number from going up, Hinduja points to a kind of learned helplessness (the opposite of resilience) that comes from over-focusing on online dangers, representing kids as potential victims (rather than potential helpers and upstanders) and advising them to “tell an adult” when victimization does happen. [We do want them to get help from the best source possible when they need it, and sometimes that is an adult, but we also want to encourage them to cultivate their individual and collective powers to help and solve problems.]

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How to choose (or make!) an anti-bullying video that helps

Recently a graduate student was given the assignment to find videos on YouTube that are “helpful to kids in confronting bullying.” The criteria given the student were: Make sure the video…

Actor Jeremy Shada for CartoonNetwork's 2014 campaign (CC licensed)

Actor Jeremy Shada for CartoonNetwork’s 2014 campaign (CC licensed)

1. presents accurate information about both the problem and what bullying is (sometimes behavior’s just rude or mean, not bullying)
2. is made by kids for kids
3. shows kids standing up for each other
4. depicts step-by-step resolution, especially reporting to a caring adult
5. is realistic (not canned)
6. has some ethnic diversity

I’m adding these:

7. doesn’t depict suicide or attempted suicide (follows the suicide prevention field’s Media Guidelines)
8. is current (check the date the video was posted and think about whether its message, data, call to action, etc. are still relevant, because if it’s old, it can be inaccurate).
9. has no agenda – political, religious, etc. – other than preventing or reducing bullying and so doesn’t use political, religious, etc. language.
10. doesn’t label people as “bullies.”

I’ll explain in a second, but what do you think? Whether you’re looking for a video or looking to make one, what are your top criteria for a video that would guide and inspire people? Here’s what I think:

No. 1 is essential. Please make sure whatever video you pick or make doesn’t misinform your viewers. Do thorough fact-checking. If you’re looking at other people’s videos, make sure the filmmakers have done their homework – that any bullying statistics they present are accurate, based on responsible, agenda-free research. If you don’t do this, the video is not going to teach anyone anything; it’s going to misinform people. If you’re making a video, put your sources in the credits (see this for the latest U.S. federal data on bullying and cyberbullying). Read more

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Most kids under 3 use tablets daily: Study

Just under 100% of UK families own at least one touchscreen device, and 97.5% own multiple such devices – some of those families as many as 14 tablets or smartphones. So it’s not too surprising that the same study at the University of London found that more than half of the UK’s littlest citizens (6-11 month-olds) use a touchscreen device on a daily basis (for nearly 9 min./day), and 92% of its 1-3 year-olds do (for about 45 min./day).

Very young touchscreen users

Teeny tablet users (Creative Commons licensed)

Are you seeing what I’m seeing, fellow parents? “Touchscreen devices are a common part of a toddler’s media environment,” The TABLET Project‘s researchers write. Even babies using touchscreens is commonplace.

Question the advice for parents

Which says something about advice parents have been getting: “The current recommendations for zero screen time for children under 2 years is out of line with the reality of the current home media environment of most toddlers,” the authors write. They even add that any advice to keep toddlers and screens apart is “difficult to enforce by parents who themselves are conducting more of their lives through such devices.”

So parents feeling all the reported guilt and anxiety about this odd, ill-defined concept of (undifferentiated) “screentime” might consider giving themselves a little more slack. They’re in good company. Besides, “most children do plenty of activities every day that don’t involve screens,” a recent article published in MosaicScience.com and ScientificAmerican.com cited developmental psychologist Ed Tronick as saying. “He is concerned that the worries about kids’ use of screens is born out of an ‘oppressive ideology that demands that parents should always be interacting with their child’.”

But what about the impact this touchscreen time is having on our littlest kids, you might ask? “Our results did not show any evidence for negative associations between touchscreen use and developmental milestones,” the TABLET Project researchers report, and “empirical evidence relating early touchscreen use in toddlerhood to delays in cognitive development is currently lacking.”

Positive impact found Read more

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In 2017, chatbots & other imaginary friends

chatbotI am not kidding: The latest tech developments – and certainly not just those aimed at kids – remind me of the much-loved cartoon show of the last decade, “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.” There are all kinds of imaginary friends emerging, from the toy kind to the digital kind to the kind kids believe they are and have as fans of each other. That probably doesn’t make complete sense yet, so let me explain:

  • Toys as imaginary friends. There are actual toys with embedded bots kids can talk to, like this year’s My Friend Cayla and i-Que Intelligent Robot and last year’s Hello Barbie – physical, doll-like imaginary friends that have artificial intelligence software inside them that enables chat, “learns” about their kid owners through that chat and sends what it learns to servers at their toy companies (caveats abound, e.g., here and here about the safety of connected toys and one about smart toy hackers here). These are not to be confused with the very alive-seeming Hatchimals, which ABC News says were the hot toy this holiday season and which are not Net-connected.
  • Kids who have imaginary friends (fans) because they are imaginary friends (fans) of kid YouTube stars. That’s a lot to wrap our brains around, I know, so read this in the Washington Post:

    For the youngest members of the next generation, sometimes called Generation Z, the distinction between the online world and real life is fading [this was actually true a decade ago]. Parents are having to explain to their toddlers that the children whose whole lives they see on the screen aren’t actually their friends. They’re finding their kids methodically “unboxing” their toys, as if they’ve been paid to review them for an audience. “Who are you talking to?” a parent will ask. “The viewers,” their children reply.

  • Chatbot imaginary friends. Chatbots, explained by The Guardian here, are the next digital wave our children (and we) will be catching. “Chatbots have suddenly become the biggest thing in tech,” reported TechCrunch earlier this year. So, in essence, they’re everybody’s imaginary “friends” and helpers and concierges and whatever the businesses that deploy them – from airlines to your friendly corner convenience store – want them to be for us. People, such as many of the WeChat app’s more than 800 million active users in China, are already using them for calling a cab, ordering takeout, buying a t-shirt, finding a date and plain-old venting to a faux confidant. Examples abound, but some of the more teen-friendly ones are in Kik messenger app’s Bot Shop – definitely worth parents taking a look.

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The new non-fake news & Snapchat

Last week I wrote about fake news, this week about its opposite. This is very real news, as captured by bystanders on the spot – curated and given app-wide exposure by Snapchat. This is quite likely to be how our children will get a lot of their news going forward, so I want to be sure you don’t miss what was at the bottom of New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo’s important article about Snapchat.

Snapchat screenshotThis isn’t people making stuff up to make money by gaming the system (search and social media’s algorithms), like what bowled us over this election season. This is reporters hired by Snapchat to assemble into “in-depth pieces” bits of video shot by users who are in the middle of unfolding news, Manjoo reports.

“The company calls these Live Stories, and they have been transformative, unlike any other news presentation you can find online. Every day, Snapchat offers one or several stories about big and small events happening in the world, including football games, awards shows and serious news,” he writes.

“For instance, this summer, while the rest of the media were engulfed by Hurricane Trump, Snapchat’s news team spent days following the devastating floods in Louisiana. That in itself was unusual, but Snap’s presentation was also groundbreaking: Rather than showing the overhead shots or anchor stand-ups that are conventional on TV news, Snapchat offered video from inside people’s houses, from shelters, from schools. It mixed the macrostory of an impending natural disaster and the government’s response to it with the microtragedies of personal loss, and even the lighter moments of humor and boredom in between.”

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Fake news & how media literacy is protective

When young people in the Balkan country of Macedonia create fake news sites like WorldPoliticus.com and make good money off of all the American voter traffic their uber-grabby headlines generate (true story, from BuzzFeed), this is not the new Nigerian Internet scam. I think we’re seeing that this is a history-changing problem that affects everybody, not just the people who were duped.

"truth" amid all the fake newsFake news is big news right now, and I’ll get to where it comes from and what’s being done about it in a minute. First, what struck me about reading the BuzzFeed story was the opportunity it represented – for students and educators. In addition to being a cultural, economic and geopolitical problem, fake news is a media literacy challenge.

More than ever before in history, this is a call for media literacy education. And what better way to develop that literacy than by giving students a news story about fake news and asking them to solve this problem?

Four university students did, the Washington Post reported – at a hackathon at Princeton University sponsored by Facebook and other Internet-related companies. They came up with a mostly tech solution – a browser plug-in that could verify whether a Facebook post was factual or fake. Tech is only part of the solution, though. What if students read the very human BuzzFeed story and were charged with coming up with at least three non-tech solutions to the very human problem it depicts?

So about fake news: It’s a serious ongoing social problem created by a perfect storm of media conditions plus human conditions. The key media ones are:

  • A media “pipeline” that outputs into devices that go with us everywhere and has everything running through it – entertainment, news, opinion, fiction, research, advertising – in an undifferentiated way from every direction (up and laterally from the grassroots, in from and out to other countries, down from podiums, etc.).
  • New media companies that have only just begun figuring out what news is, from a journalist’s perspective, and are only just thinking together with journalists about how to deploy algorithms that distinguish it from fiction, as well as human fact-checkers
  • The filter bubbles Eli Pariser warned of in his 2011 TED Talk, where social media algorithms feed people what fits them or what they like to see and hear, making it harder to be exposed to other perspectives than not to be.
  • A 24-hour news cycle that fills its vast “news hole” with tiny stories, non-stories and stories about news stories that, in the mass-media era of 25-min. news shows, would never make it to the level of “news” – as well as vast amounts of commentary from talking heads. And that’s from mainstream news.
  • People “publishing” stuff shaped by a whole spectrum of intentions: everything from purely and honestly financial (e.g., the Macedonian teens) to drama and fear-mongering to power- and attention-seeking to an honest interest in contributing to the public discussion.

The human conditions: Read more

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