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Friday, May 09, 2008

Digital media's impact on youth: Fresh research

"America's young people spend more time using media than they do on any single activity other than sleeping," according to The Future of Children, a joint project of Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. So we all need to know how our children and students use media - the Web, phones, videogames, instant messaging, music, video, TV, etc. - and how they affect their users. The just-released new issue of the project's journal Children and Electronic Media, published semi-annually, "looks at the best available evidence on whether and how exposure to different media forms is linked to child well-being."

Among the key findings in the Executive Summary are....

  • "Content matters" to young people much more than delivery devices or platforms (I was glad to see this because my own observation has long been that "the message is [increasingly] the medium" where youth is concerned, seeing how fluidly they move from uploading to downloading, online to offline, and device to device when socializing and using media).
  • They use media to communicate better with their friends not strangers.
  • Their exposure to media "can enhance healthful behaviors—such as preventing smoking and alcohol and drug use, and promoting physical activity and safe sex—through social marketing campaigns."
  • "Some risky behaviors such as aggressive behavior and cigarette and alcohol consumption are strongly linked to media consumption," but others such as obesity and sexual activity "are only tangentially linked" or need more research.
  • Advertising is an "integral and influential" part of children's daily lives - just another message being communicated (they don't understand it's about getting them to buy stuff and not just information) - "and many of the products marketed to children are unhealthful."
  • Government regulation of media content either won't work or won't happen.

    What should be done, then? Rather than regulate, the project says, government should help parents and educators do the regulating in homes and schools. It should also help the development of positive content that educates and counteracts negative or non-constructive messaging in electronic media - it should "fund the creation and evaluation of positive media initiatives such as public service campaigns to reduce risky behaviors."

    Chapters of particular interest to anyone involved with children's online safety: "Media and Children's Aggression, Fear, and Altruism," "Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships," and "Media and Risky Behaviors."

    Related links

  • A nationwide survey released today (5/9) by Common Sense Media and Joan Ganz Cooney Center (of Sesame Workshop) found that 83% of parents believe "digital media give their children the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century," yet 67% of parents "do not think the Web helped teach their kids how to communicate," 87% "do not believe the Web helped their kids learn how to work with others," and 75% "do not believe the Web can teach kids to be responsible in their communities."

  • "Internet porn ‘encourages teenagers to have sex early': Experts warn of increase in STDs among young" in Scotland's Sunday Herald about a study in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior.

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  • More safety features at Facebook

    As part of its agreement with 49 state attorneys general in the US, 70 million-member Facebook is implementing "40 safeguards to protect young people from sexual predators and cyberbullies," the San Jose Mercury News reports. Facebook's agreement follows that of MySpace with the attorneys general, announced in January, and many of the new features are similar, for example, restricting users' ability to change the age they signed up with; faster removal of adult content from the site; "safety and privacy guidelines that third-party vendors and developers [such as widget makers] have to follow on Facebook; deleting links out to porn sites; investigating and deleting users who break Facebook's terms of use; and prominent display of privacy and safety info. MySpace says that, among many such implementations, it has "designed functionality to meet the 72-hour requirement," indicating one of the AGs' requirements that needs to be part of the industry best practices toward which their Internet Safety Task Force discussions just may, by default, be moving (I hope). [The UK's Home Office has developed some best-practice guidelines but without a lot of focus on the "back office" operations of social sites - see this). The New York Times has more on the new Facebook safety measures.

    Toward solving 'cyberbullying': Editorial

    Is the following what your teenager would think of as "cyberbullying"?: "Caustic comments, once passed around class as folded notes, are now immortalized on semi-public Web pages, where they can be viewed by thousands. Students are called fat, their sexuality is questioned and their fashion choices critiqued, often in language not fit to print in a family newspaper," the Washington Post reports, citing a number of specific such incidents in Washington-area schools. Educators, online-safety advocates, and many other adults often use "cyberbullying" as a blanket term for all that and more, basically any sort of harassment online. When some friends recently used the term in a conversation with their teenager, the basic response went something like: "Huh? What does this have to do with me? There's no lack of civility at our school." And yet just this year a teacher at that school was "trashed" by students in a social site. It just could be that "cyberbullying" is pretty meaningless to teens. They're familiar with the full range of behaviors but not this new blanket word whose use may actually undermine parents' and other adults' efforts to engage them in conversations aimed at helping kids think about these behaviors.

    One Post source suggested that parents occasionally ask their kids if there was "any bullying on Facebook today?" Maybe it'd be better either to read up on some of the specific online behaviors and incidents in the news and talk about those, using them as "teachable moments" they can relate to. Or just ask questions about their school day - the kinds of questions our parents asked us. Then we can ask if they've noticed those things going on with their friends (or them) on MySpace or Facebook and how they'd handle it.

    The Post reports that one principal "identified MySpace as the possible source of a conflict" that got physical at school and in a local mall. MySpace wasn't the source; its role was more like that of the school or the mall, the place where the behavior occurs. When we're talking with our children, it'd be helpful to understand this, too. Yes, their MySpace use can help expose their attitudes and behaviors to a lot more peers simultaneously and that certainly is a problem, but MySpace, Facebook, etc. are not the source of their behavior. Social sites are no more responsible for mean gossip or bullying than a locker room is.

    Parenting young people who see little distinction between online and offline will get more effective when we stop blaming the places where antisocial behavior occurs (because we're better informed than that) and start asking relevant questions based on their own social experiences on the Net and everywhere else. When we can communicate in language they can relate to, sending the clear message that they are accountable for their social behavior online as much as offline, we'll move much more quickly toward solving the cyberbullying problem.

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    Thursday, May 08, 2008

    Benefits from having virtual selves

    According to findings at Stanford University, it may actually help people to have an avatar, which has implications for "residents" of Teen Second Life,, and of course grownup versions of virtual worlds. It has a lot to do with what having a virtual self can do for offline self-image, according to this NPR report. At Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, people visit for a new approach to losing weight, for example. They take photographs of the visitor's head, create an attractive avatar, or graphical image, of him and show this attractive self running - he actually sees himself losing weight, which seems to encourage him by showing him just how very possible it is to lose weight. So he proceeds to "try this at home" and virtual reality becomes reality. The lab also studies virtual identity. Lab researcher Jeremy Bailenson told NPR that as people with attractive avatars spend more and more time as their virtual selves, they tend to become more social - their confidence level goes up.

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    UK leads Europe in social networking

    This does not surprise, given Ofcom's recent finding that 49% of the UK's 8-to-17-year-olds have an online profile (see a related link with this feature). But it's further confirmation that, as The Guardian put it, Britons are "addicted to social networking." Social-networking sites "reached 9.6 million users in the UK in 2007, according to a new report from Datamonitor," according to this Guardian blog post. "This puts it ahead of bigger countries, including France with 8.9 million and Germany with 8.6 million. Spain is in fourth place with just 2.9 million." WebProNews led with the Datamonitor finding that "close to half of all people in the UK will be members of a social-networking site within four years."


    Tuesday, May 06, 2008

    Two new WB sites for kids & youth

    Warner Bros. has two new Web sites aimed at a generation increasingly more interested in the Web than in watching TV. features timeless favorites like Bugs, Scooby Doo, and DC Comics heroes (e.g., Batman), the Associated Press reports, and " - with full episodes of shows such as 'Friends,' 'Smallville' and made-for-online shows" - is targeting 20-somethings. "It also will be possible to view inside Facebook users' home pages and vice versa," the AP adds.

    Labels: , & other Russian sites

    Hannah Montana has arrived in Russia. Disney's getting very local around the world, as joins counterparts in the UK and Japan. The Russian-language site has similar features to other Disney Web properties, with sections featuring movies, TV, games, and marketing of Disney offline attractions, all of which can be navigated by individual Disney characters, the company's press release says. Gosh, maybe it's controlled by the FSB! Just kidding, but read in the International Herald Tribune about a parody site called that makes a joke out of Russian "fears about how personal information that is freely shared on social networks may be used by government agencies" like the former KGB. It does give new meaning to concerns about posting personal info in a social site!

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    Reality TV fans more at risk?

    People who watch reality TV shows are more likely than non-watchers to share share more photos of themselves and "to accept friends they don't know in order to build larger networks on social networking sites," WebProNews cites new research as finding. According to the study by University of Hawaii and the University of Buffalo, fans tend to mimic the behavior they see on television, and reality TV "actors" are "rewarded for behaviors such as being the center of attention." The shows send the message that behavior aimed at gaining celebrity is a good thing, the researchers said. They added that "age and gender are not factors when it comes to the likelihood of watching reality television, but women are more likely to share photographs."

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    Monday, May 05, 2008

    Grand Theft Auto IV's realism all bad?

    A lot of media reports about GTA IV's blockbuster release last week focus on the negative. Don't get me wrong, this violent game is appropriately rated "M" for ages 17+ only in the US, but listen to this in and see if it isn't somewhat encouraging: "Based on my play experience [with GTA IV] so far and in talking with reviewers who have finished the game," Chris Baker writes, "I get the sense that freewheeling killing sprees will no longer be the main draw. This is partly because the central missions and story are so well-conceived and well-written compared with previous iterations of the game and partly because the violence is far more disturbing." It's no longer cartoonish, he writes. "Shoot an innocent bystander, and you see his face contort in agony. He'll clutch at the wound and begin to stagger away, desperately seeking safety.... I felt unnerved. What makes Grand Theft Auto IV so compelling is that, unlike so many video games, it made me reflect on all of the disturbing things I had done." Maybe this disturbance is healthy? Could it be that GTA4 signals a future of more thought-provoking game play (at least for healthy players)? Baker's view was echoed in a thoughtful New Zealand Herald piece covering GTA4's release: Some GTA players "have referred to the 'uncanny valley' hypothesis - that when facsimiles of humans, such as game avatars, look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion" or "repulsion, eeriness or discomfort," CNET reports. Interestingly, this is in the context of New Zealand law, which says it's illegal for anyone to make a game rated R18 (this country's game rating for ages 18+ only) available to minors. Even parents who do so "could face three months in prison or a $10,000 fine" (the law, in effect since 1994, has never been enforced). [Here's Slate's Chris Baker in a discussion about GTA4 with readers of]

    This just in: In its first week of release, GTA4 made $500 million in sales, the Wall Street Journal reports. Its maker, Take Two Interactive, said retailers sold more than 6 million copies worldwide, claiming that a record for first-week sales of a videogame." Halo 3 sold $300 million its first week, the Journal added.

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