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Friday, January 23, 2009

Youth perspective essential

I've been reading social media scholar danah boyd's PhD dissertation, "Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics," the result of her 2.5-year enthnograpic study of how teens use social-network sites. The study is unique in a couple of ways: she was like an embedded reporter, not a data cruncher, and she approached her fieldwork very differently than most adults - "with the belief that the practices of teenagers must be understood on their own terms."

I think the perspective this approach brings is essential to understanding teen use of social networking, a medium so youth-driven - not the only perspective, just one very important one. Sure, the data crunchers of quantitative research ask young people questions, but those questions are generally formulated by adults. We can't sufficiently understand teen social networking when we view it through an adult lens. Just as always in parenting, but even more so now with our digital natives, we need multiple inputs - our own children's, that of current teen practices and behaviors in general, that of research where available, and that of the contexts (school, community, society) in which young people are growing up.

So the other day, when boyd was blogging about the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report released last week (she led its research team) and wrote, "I strongly believe that we need to stop talking about the Internet as the cause and start talking about it as the megaphone," she was referring to two perspectives. The adult view is that the Internet (or Net-based technologies such as social networking) is the cause, while the youth (and researchers') view is that it's more the amplifier of the problem. [Other distinguishing and destabilizing factors the Net brings to the mix, boyd says, are persistence and searchability (Net as permanent searchable archive), replicability (the ability to copy 'n' paste from one site or phone to another), scalability (that anything posted has high-visibility potential), invisible audiences (not always thought of before posting), collapsed contexts (lack of spatial and social boundaries), and the blurring of public and private (the one probably best-known to parents).]

The rest of boyd's post about the Task Force is really worth considering too: "The Internet makes visible how many kids are not ok. We desperately need an integrated set of compassionate solutions. Digital social workers are needed to reach out to troubled kids and guide them through the rough spots. Law enforcement is vital for tracking down dangerous individuals, but we need to fund them to investigate and prosecute. Parents and educators are desperately needed to be engaged and informed. Technical solutions are needed to support these different actors. But there is no magic silver bullet. The problems that exist cannot be solved by preventing adults from communicating with minors (and there are huge unintended consequences to that, including limiting social workers from helping kids), and they cannot be solved by filtering the content. It's also critical that we engage youth in the process because many of them are engaging in risky behaviors that put them in the line of danger because of external factors that desperately need to be addressed."

In that point, boyd's echoing the Task Force report's finding that children's psychosocial makeup and the conditions around them are better predictors of online risk face than what technology they use. [For more on the Task Force report, see "Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released."]

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Restricting teen access: Unintended consequences

Age verification has been the potential online-safety solution of choice for state attorneys general. I know I've written about this plenty, but I have to add something that really struck me in reading all the technology submissions to the Internet Safety Technical Task Force: that the only way any of these technologies would really work for children is if their parents chose to use them. Only bottom-up, not top-down, adoption can really work. In other words, no government can effectively mandate their use because no government can control the global Internet or its global population of users. For example, if a government were somehow to restrict social networking only to adults, its restrictions could only affect social sites based in its country; its teens could simply go to social sites based in another country (there are so many English-language ones outside the US). This was a key factor cited in a recent European Commission report. But back to opt-in parental controls. There are many kinds - from filtering to monitoring to site moderation to ID-verification in specific sites for which parents sign up their kids. All of these can work for children with engaged, informed parents who know what's age-appropriate for each of their kids. They don't work very well for kids who aren't fortunate enough to have that kind of attentive parental support, kids who - for good or bad - find more support online than at home, if they even call it "home." Those are the youth recognized in the research summarized in the Task Force report as most at risk online as well as offline. Those are also the young people for whom age verification could have very negative unintended consequences. It's those possible consequences which have barely begun to be considered and about which my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid and I are concerned. We sent a memo about them to our fellow Task Force members (summarized on p. 262 of the full report, which can be downloaded at the site of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society) and which Larry delineated in his CNET blog.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bad pirates to good pirates

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" is reportedly the music industry's new modus operandi, and it's music pirates it was never quite able to beat. Though it certainly tried, with thousands of lawsuits and settlements out of court with file-sharers. "After years of futile efforts to stop digital pirates from copying its music, the music business has started to copy the pirates," the New York Times reports. "Free" music services offering millions of songs online and on phones are "set to proliferate" this year, it adds, bringing stiff competition to iTunes, whose music-sales growth ended last year. Customers' costs will be buried in mobile or Internet-service contracts. These music services are also different from file-sharing services like Limewire or eDonkey in that they're legal and provide revenue to the music companies. Two examples of the "free services": 1) Nokia's Comes With Music, which "lets users download as many songs as they want, from a catalog of more than five million tracks, when they buy certain Nokia phones" and 2) and the Isle of Man government's plan to require broadband Internet users to "pay a nominal monthly license fee" and thereby "legally download music from any source, even peer-to-peer services that are outlawed currently." At a music industry conference in Cannes, a Research in Motion executive predicted that "the music industry will be unrecognizable in a couple of years time," Reuters reports. Here's some background on the music industry in the Financial Times. Meanwhile, LimeWire - which has 70 million unique users and gets more than 5 billion queries a month - just added social-networking features to its service, CNET reports.

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US 'reading on the rise'

The National Endowment for the Arts saw a significant upswing in adult reading in the research for its latest such study, "Reading on the Rise." This year's report, the NEA's fifth since 1982, "documents a definitive increase in rates and numbers of American adults who read literature, with the biggest increases among young adults, ages 18-24," the NEA's press release says. It adds that this growth "reverses two decades of downward trends cited previously in NEA reports." Good news "at a time of immense cultural pessimism," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia pointed out. As for young adults, "since 2002, 18-to-24-year-olds have seen the biggest increase (9%) in literary reading, and the most rapid rate of increase (21%). This jump reversed a 20% rate of decline in the 2002 survey, the steepest rate of decline since the NEA survey began," the NEA says. And about online vs. offline reading, the survey found that "84% of adults who read literature (fiction, poetry, or drama) on or downloaded from the Internet also read books, whether print or online."

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Tech parenting going forward

Just a heads-up on something that might be useful to parents: bNetS@vvy, a project of the National Educational Association Health Information Network, asked me to write "Net Savvy Parenting in the New Year: Five Things You Need to Know" for its Web site and newsletter. Here are two more things we can look forward to:

  • More and more virtual worlds. There are more than 150 kids' and teens' virtual worlds now or soon-to-be available, and all the videogame online services - Sony Home, Xbox Live, and Nintendo Wii's "Mii's" - have avatars moving around in some semblance of virtual worlds. This is a serious trend: fun, compelling, but - as with anything online - involving a certain degree of risk. Parents will want to look into what those avatars can look like and do (what state of dress or undress and what actions and communications they're allowed). See also "Top 8 work-arounds of kid virtual-world users."
  • More and more mobile. This can't be news to any parent with a kid hounding him or her for a cellphone. Unless the Web is blocked (as it can be by every major cellphone carrier), everything that's online is also on more and more phones - including social networking, blog posting, content uploading, media sharing, and video producing. But game consoles and media players are connected to the Net, too. So everything we online-safety advocates say about kids on the Web holds for kids on just about any other connected device too. Wherever they are, the Internet is - including friends' houses, where your rules don't apply.

    [Along these (parenting) lines, see also a Live Discussion my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid and I had with parents at the Washington Post last month.]

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  • Wednesday, January 21, 2009

    App as parent-child talking point

    Here's a good talking point for the tech part of parenting: Facebook Grader. It's a mini application ("app") that tells users their "reach and authority" on Facebook, reports. "The tool works by analyzing the number of friends you have, how important those friends are (whatever that means [maybe based on how many "friends" on their lists?]), how complete your profile is, how many wall posts you have and how many groups you belong to." Billed as a profile grader, for some kids it may be more of an indicator of how cool, sought-after, or popular they are. So it could fuel a discussion about whether your child uses a grading or rating tool like this, what s/he likes about social-networking, what it's best for, whether something like Facebook Grader is really any indicator of what a good person s/he is, and what s/he feels (and you feel) the real indicators are or should be.

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    COPA laid to rest

    Remember COPA, the Child Online Protection Act that was passed in 1998, a year after the Supreme Court struck down similar legislation concerning objectionable online content (the Communications Decency Act, or CDA)? COPA was blocked almost immediately on constitutional grounds by a federal court in Philadelphia, then bounced back and forth a couple of times between that court and the Supreme Court. The latter today rejected the Bush administration's appeal of the latest ruling in 2004, Yahoo News reports. "Five justices who ruled against the Internet blocking law in 2004 remain on the court. The case is Mukasey v. ACLU. 08-565," according to Yahoo News. Here's my earlier coverage on COPA.

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    Tuesday, January 20, 2009

    Student free-speech decision

    It may not be the last decision in a federal court on this case (Avery Doninger's lawyer said it may need to go to the Supreme Court). It was a mixed decision, reflecting how complicated student free-speech cases in the digital age are. In Doninger's case against Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, Conn., the Student Press Law Center reports, "US District Court Judge Mark Kravitz decided [Mills High School principal] Niehoff and Superintendent Paula Schwartz were entitled to qualified immunity, which protects 'public officials from lawsuits for damages, unless their actions violate clearly established rights'," the judge said in the ruling. Doninger, he said, hadn't clearly established her First Amendment right "to criticize her principal in an off-campus blog that used coarse language," the report added. Judge Kravitz cited two somewhat conflicting cases in his opinion: "Bethel School District v. Fraser, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a student's lewd and vulgar speech was not protected on-campus, and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which recognizes First Amendment protection for student speech on-campus as long as it does not substantially disrupt school, demonstrating a confusion among courts about which standard to apply to Internet student-speech cases," according to the Student Press Law Center. According to the Associated Press, the judge did let stand Doninger's claim that her right to free speech was "chilled" when the school "prohibited students from wearing T-shirts that read 'Team Avery' to a student council election assembly. That matter can proceed to trial."

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    Inaugural links

    So many smiles, teary eyes, and teachable moments were captured in the music, poem, prayers, and remarks of our 44th President's inauguration, and now it's all on the Web for classrooms and family discussions. Within minutes of President Obama finishing his inaugural address, it was up on YouTube, with its full text printable at Here's video of poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander reading her inaugural poem "Praise Song for the Day," as well as the full text at and a Q&A with her at Time. Don't miss Aretha Franklin and John Williams's composition played by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero on YouTube with Chinese subtitles and on (looks like NBC footage). Because stories are powerful teachers, here's "One's family's long road [from Selma, Ala.] to the Obama inauguration" in the Christian Science Monitor, with its subhead: "Frankie Hutchins, whose grandmother was born into slavery, saw her mother fight for voting rights. She attended a white school" and today her children saw and heard the first black president. Finally, it seems fitting to include Rev. Joseph Lowery's inaugural benediction on video at YouTube.

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    Monday, January 19, 2009

    Inauguration through young eyes

    From a virtual inaugural ball in WeeWorld to young reporters' covering the real thing in Washington, there are lots of resources for young people themselves to observe or participate in this historic moment. YPulse provides a collection of links, listed by age group. For teens and 20-somethings, MTV and ServiceNation teamed up with the Presidential Inaugural Committee to produce and air the Youth Inaugural Ball starting at 10pm tomorrow (Tuesday) night, reports. And CNN and Facebook are presenting social/new-media-style coverage of the event, HollywoodReporter reports. As for social-Web users of any age, USATODAY reports that the Obama inauguration "will arguably be the biggest live social-networking event ever in one location."

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