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Friday, April 11, 2008

UK: 2 valuable views on Net safety, Part 1

Two milestone documents out of the UK - one a 200-page report requested by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and called "The Byron Review" after its lead author, clinical psychologist and TV personality, Dr. Tanya Brown, and the other a set of guidelines for social-networking-service best practices issued by the Home Office itself - have just been released. With the exception of references to British law and government, both are relevant wherever young people are online, including in the US, where we haven't yet been able to come up with a consensus on best practices (even though the world's most popular social sites are US-based) and haven't seen a comprehensive Net-safety report since Web 1.0 days (the COPA Commission in 2000 and the "Youth, Pornography, and the Internet" report of 2002). Maybe some contributions like these will emerge from the work of the Internet Safety Task Force that just got started at Harvard's Berkman Center.

This week a look at the Byron report - not a summary, just what I feel is universally relevant and merits highlighting. Next week: the Home Office's guidance.

The Byron Review

Right up front, in her introduction, Dr. Byron says something important about risk and child development: "My Review is about ... [young people's] right to take the risks that form an inherent part of their development by enabling them to play video games and surf the net in a safe and informed way." In focus groups, she listened to young people, thereby "putting them at the heart of this Review - and by replacing emotion with evidence - I hope I have provided some very necessary focus to what is a very necessary debate."

  • An individual thing. She advises her readers to factor in children's individuality, developmental stages, and what we know about teenage brain development in looking at both the risks and benefits of their Internet and videogame use. In talks, emails, and our forum, I've often suggested to parents that their own children, if communicative, are by far their best sources on what social networking is like, not the news media, because the way they socialize online and off is a reflection of who they are. Social networking is as individual as socializing, and generalizations aren't useful. So it's good to see a psychologist saying: "We need to take into account children’s individual strengths and vulnerabilities, because the factors that can discriminate a ‘beneficial’ from a ‘harmful’ experience online and in video games will often be individual factors in the child.... That means focusing on the child, what we know about how children’s brains develop, how they learn and how they change as they grow up. This is not straightforward" (for more on teenage brains, see point no. 2.29 on p. 35).

  • The report's balance: "Having considered the evidence, I believe we need to move from a discussion about the media ‘causing’ harm to one which focuses on children and young people, what they bring to technology and how we can use our understanding of how they develop to empower them to manage risks..." (p. 2). To "manage risks" I'd add "manage their own online behavior." In other words, by teaching our children respect, civility and citizenship online as well as off, we improve their chances for safe, constructive, and productive use of the Net and mobile phones.

  • Kids' risk management. Why "manage" and not remove risks? "Risk taking," Byron says (p. 20), "is part of child development - part of our drive to learn and to succeed. Particularly in adolescence, risk taking is not only a developmental imperative but also a lifestyle choice: it is driven by developments taking place in the brain and it is an important part of identity construction. Taking risks is something children need to do to reach self-actualisation (the process of fully developing ones personal potential...), and most children get pleasure from taking risks." This seems to reflect a growing recognition that the participatory Web + developing adolescent brains = a highly volatile formula (see "The 'Wild West' metaphor" below).

  • The other digital divide. Byron says the main driver of concerns about youth online risk is the "generational digital divide," the parental anxiety produced by 1) kids being more tech-literate than adults and 2) adults being stuck back in Web 1.0 ("many adults being of the Web 1.0 generation, using the internet to search for information or for shopping while our children are the Web 2.0 generation, using the technology in increasingly sophisticated ways to create and upload their own material" - p. 23). I agree, and it's one reason why we individually and collectively overreact, which can increase youth risk because it breaks down parent-child communication that can help mitigate risky teen behavior and tends to send teens "underground" (see also "Banning doesn't work" below).

  • Parenting in a risk-averse society. Apparently it's the case on both sides of the Atlantic and a challenge for parents trying not to overreact. Byron writes, "Most parents want to parent their children as well as they can and will take active steps to seek out approaches to enable them to do the best they can for their children. They want to give their children the best start in life by ensuring that they are healthy, happy, cared for and educated. For parents an area of great concern is around harm coming to their child. Indeed such parental anxieties can be fuelled by news stories that contain graphic details about children being abducted, harmed or killed. Some commentators have speculated that increasing parental anxieties are significant factors in the way restrictions are placed on children’s freedoms – for example, in the way children’s play has been significantly curtailed by parents who fear letting them outside. We are creating a parenting atmosphere where there is a 'zero risk' policy. The safety of children should be a central concern for parents and society as a whole. However, our concerns, and our response to those concerns, must be proportionate" (p. 206). Hear, hear! on all the above.

  • Where the risk actually is. Or rather where it originates: usually in "RL" (real life), not online. The online-safety field is still young, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that, from what I'm seeing in the research, the term "online safety" may already be obsolete - or necessarily heading toward obsolescence. Why? Because young people make little distinction between online and offline, and the Internet increasingly mirrors "real life" for them and humanity as a whole. Research is also increasingly indicating that the young people most at risk online are those most at risk offline, and we need to get a lot of expertise other than that of online-safety advocates like me into the discussion - for example, the expertise of child-development specialists, pediatricians, social workers, and psychologists. Though risky behaviors and activities are acted out and reinforced online, the Internet is not the problem itself so much as both aggravator (negative) and tool for understanding and helping vulnerable teens (positive).

  • Banning doesn't work. Nor do other blanket "solutions." My comment just above is reflected in a way I haven't seen articulated before in Chapter 4 of Byron's study (p. 87): "Harmful behaviours are discussed online in a range of different ways, some of which may be more negative for young people to be involved in. However, they may provide an outlet for young people who feel they have no other way to express their feelings. Allowing these discussions to take place in mainstream areas of the internet, where there are responsible content hosts, means that steps can be taken to put them in context.... Banning such content risks driving vulnerable young people away to more obscure sites, where efforts to provide context might not be present."

  • A flipside to consider. "In fact," Byron continues, "it has been argued that banning such content from mainstream sites might draw attention to harmful behaviours in a way that makes them seem more attractive.... It is also important to remember that if troubled young people are able to discuss their feelings online, it allows us as a society to recognise these issues exist and, as best we can, inform our approach to dealing with them in the offline world."

  • More on phones, gaming community, etc. I was surprised by several things in the report: 1) that mobile phones didn't have their own chapter - they were mainly in a section about children accessing Web content away from home (for years I've been seeing British media reports about bullying on phones there); 2) that, though online gaming and virtual worlds are rapidly catching up with console gaming in popularity, the Conclusion on videogames risks (p. 154) focused on content and "addiction," not on contact, for example in the Xbox Live community and online worlds and games; and...

  • The "Wild West" metaphor. The third thing that surprised me was the strange take on this much-used metaphor in the report's Conclusion (p. 206): "The sphere of new media is sometimes described as being like the ‘Wild West’ – a landscape populated by cynical, selfish characters with no regard for the welfare of children." Byron kind of misses the flavor of that lawless, uncontrollable, scary, Darwinian time and place, and - though a virtual "place" - the social Web, with its real-world impact, isn't much different (see this week's awful story about teen bullying in Florida or last year's "extreme cyberbullying" cases in New Zealand or the current "Naked photo-sharing trend" in a number of US states). "Throughout the internet and video games industries, Government and regulators, the law enforcement community, the charitable and voluntary sector, and the world of education and children’s services there are countless individuals committed to supporting children and parents to deal with the risks that new technologies may present." No question about it, nevertheless these cases still come up.

  • What we can work toward. Helpfully, because the challenges are many, Byron organizes them into three "strategic objectives" for children's online safety on p. 62 of her report:

    1. "Reduce availability [of harmful contact and contact to online kids] ... and the conduciveness of platforms to harmful and inappropriate conduct"
    2. "Restrict access ... and reduce ... harmful and inappropriate conduct"
    3. "Increase resilience: Equip children to deal with exposure to harmful and inappropriate content and contact, and equip parents to help their children deal with these things and parent effectively around incidences of harmful and inappropriate conduct by their children."

    We all - parents, Internet companies, advocates, government, law enforcement, researchers - have been working on the first two since the early '90s, and the effort continues, with no end in sight. The third is, through education, the most immediately actionable. It reinforces what some of us have been saying on the US side of the pond for some time: that it's increasingly imperative to help children develop the filter between their ears - critical thinking and media literacy, so they can think not only about what they're reading, seeing, and hearing online and on phones, but also about what they're saying, doing, and uploading.

    Related links

  • The Byron Review (there are links on this page to the full report, the executive summary, and a summary for children and teens, all in pdf format)
  • "Byron urges social-networking safety code" at The Guardian.
  • "At a glance: The Byron Review" at the BBC
  • A commentary at The Independent
  • A commentary at The Guardian
  • Microsoft's response at The Telegraph.

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  • Thursday, April 10, 2008

    US hotline & other new Net-safety resources

    A significant development in the online-safety field: Parents in the US now have a toll-free number to call with questions about topics such as social networking, cellphone texting, and virtual worlds. The bilingual hotline (English and Spanish) is sponsored by the Qwest Foundation and operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and is available to "paren. The free service started in February 2007 as a Web site - - where "parents, guardians, children, teens, educators and law enforcement" could type questions into a form and hear back from NCMEC experts within one business day or search a database of online-safety info. The new toll-free hotline number is 1.888.NETS411 (1.888.638.7411). Here's the press release. Two other new resources are a video, with "common sense tips and rules for families" and companion print and Web materials, a joint project of and, and from, a San Francisco-based social-networking site that's particularly popular in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Here's Bebo on safety at social-networking sites in The Guardian .

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    School's 'Facebook scandal'

    That's the shorthand, but in this New York magazine story about Horace Mann School suggests that students' dissing of teachers in social-networking sites are more about a changing balance of power in the "real world." "Should they be punished? There were, as yet, no rules or codes for how a school should address such issues.... But the questions provoked by the Web postings ran deeper than these. Who should make the rules? In the past, there had been at least a rough assumption that teachers were parental surrogates, authority figures who were charged with making decisions regarding education and discipline, and that the rules governing this kind of behavior were clearly the faculty’s to make." This is a fairly unique school in terms of the wealth of its community, but its "Facebook scandal" is more a symptom - of major social change - than the problem itself. "The students were more aware than ever of where the real power resided. So when the Facebook situation was brought into the open, the teachers found themselves powerless to act, and the students did not passively wait to be disciplined." If you can make it all the way through the politics related, it's an interesting, slightly scary story about how the participatory Web empowers for good or bad.

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    Wednesday, April 09, 2008

    Online video of teen's beating in FL

    A terrible video of six teenaged girls beating a peer has sparked nationwide discussion on where blame should be placed for the behavior and the video, which police said they put on the Web. According to a local paper, The Ledger, the beating was vicious and remorseless and the situation complicated, involving a group of cheerleaders, one of whom (the victim) - reportedly a troubled teen and honor student, who was not living at home and on probation at the time of the incident - allegedly had been trash-talking the other girls in phone text messages and on MySpace. The six other girls retaliated by setting up the 35-minute beating for videotaping with a couple of boys serving as lookouts outside the house where it occurred. They then reportedly either uploaded or linked to the video from profiles in MySpace and YouTube (MySpace and YouTube both told InformationWeek that the footage had not been uploaded to their sites, which could mean it was linked to from elsewhere on the Web). "The girls ... ranged in age from 14 to 17. All have been arrested and charged with felony battery and false imprisonment," according to The Ledger, and doctors are hoping the victim, who was still recovering from a concussion a week after the beating, would fully regain hearing and vision on her left side. MySpace and YouTube are reportedly working with law enforcement on investigations. The local sheriff told The Ledger that "investigators suspect there were as many five video clips of the incident taken by more than one camera," and they'd so far only been able to track down one of them. Here's a discussion NPR aired with bullying expert Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes.

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    Virginia's Net-safety first

    Virginia is the first US state to require online-safety instruction in its public schools, reports WDBJ 7 TV News in Richmond. The mandate "initially stemmed from concerns about sex offenders preying on children online and a general increase in Internet-based crime." Instruction has already begun. The Associated Press reports that, "nationally, Texas and Illinois are among states that have since passed their own Internet safety education laws, but unlike Virginia they don't make the courses mandatory. It took effect this school year.

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    Looking for 'great,' not just 'good'

    For parents of aspiring software engineers (or just about anyone job seeking in the tech industry, maybe any industry), a commentary in Business Week by serial tech entrepreneur Auren Hoffman spells out how important it's getting (for startups, anyway) to find and keep "great people," not just good ones, and what constitutes the former. Food for thought, anyway - and thinking and discussing is vital filter development for adolescents. Working on the filter in their heads is both protection and good for developing the impulse-control and risk-assessment part of the brain not complete till anybody's early 20s - not to mention good prep for job interviews with people like Hoffman.

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    Tuesday, April 08, 2008

    Live chat in social sites

    It sounds like a cross between Facebook, Second Life, and Habbo Hotel, and it's coming soon to a Facebook profile near you, the New York Times reports. It says there are several products in the works, but one such "turns a flat profile page into a three-dimensional live chat room. Users choose characters to represent themselves from a list of preternaturally handsome avatars ... and proceed to one of a dozen environments, like a gothic urban warehouse or seaside villa. With videogame-like precision, they can then navigate that virtual space, which may feature their Facebook photos hanging from the walls and a YouTube video playing on a widescreen TV. Up to 15 others can choose avatars and enter the same room at the same time for text-based live socializing." When I first read this, I thought, "oh no," because online chatrooms are notorious for virtual sexual encounters and starting points for potential teen victimization. "Characterized by names like 'Single and Looking,' they often devolved into noisy chaos," the Times reports, or worse. That darkside is possible here, too, if avatars can wear risqué clothing or be put into sexual poses, but teens looking for this can find it already on the Web. Here's the latest on Facebook's new instant-messaging feature from CNET.

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    Monday, April 07, 2008

    Netherlands' young phone coaches

    It's kind of empowering to know that a lot of adults around the world need help learning about how to operate their cellphones. In New Zealand there's Mobile Mentors, reports. But what makes even more sense is an initiative in the Netherlands that's "taking advantage of kids’ innate cell phone proficiency by training them as ‘phone coaches’ and getting them to transfer their skills to older users," springwise also reports. That's kids 12-16, and "the program’s goal is to improve their social skills and self-esteem, and give them access to corporate environments they might otherwise not be exposed to" (parents can do this at home by exchanging their street smarts (or life literacy) for their kids' tech literacy and have an ongoing mutually beneficial education program in place. Thanks to Susan in California for sending me a heads-up about this. About it she wrote: "My son, almost 11, thought this was a super idea. He thinks by the time he is 12 he can have a thriving business. I already use him to program my phone and everything else!"

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