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Friday, March 27, 2009

Self-injurers on the social Web

Here's one example of the opportunities for social-Web safety as our field emerges from predator panic to focus on research-based strategies: how to help self-injuring teens. I was prompted to write about this by an article headlined "Self-injury on the rise among young people" in the Los Angeles Times. Cutting and embedding (embedding objects like paper clips or staples for recurring self-harm) is usually secretive behavior by someone seeking relief from more extreme emotional pain, experts say. It's less secret now, however, thanks to the social Web. Teens sometimes post images of scarred arms and other forms of self-harm in their profiles, which can be a step toward getting help.

Because the social or participatory Web is by definition user-driven, helping self-injuring teens isn't a top-down control proposition for social-networking sites any more than it is for self-injurers' friends and relatives (kids sensing efforts to control or stop them can just go to other, lesser-known sites, where help may be less available). There's no question public awareness of self-harm needs to be raised using all media available, and this is one thing the social-Web industry's marketing resources can help with. But this issue also cries out for the kind of help social-Web users can offer best: social-norming. Peers have a great deal of influence, for good and bad, and the social-networking industry (as well as parents and educators) can promote positive peer influencing or social norming. Through education, we can all enlist the help of our young people's peers as part of the healing process, knowing that, generally, they're the only ones who know what's happening where individual cases are concerned.

It's a "remarkably prevalent," underreported behavior, the L.A. Times cites researchers in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (especially the 2/08 issue) as saying, "15-22% of all adolescents and young adults [having] intentionally injured themselves at least once in their lifetimes. One study of 94 girls, ages 10 to 14, found that 56% had hurt themselves at least once." It's important to know that there's a broad range of severity in self-harm. "Most self-injuries are not serious, and some people try it once and never again.... A small group self-injures to seek attention or as a cry for help. Another group self-injures excessively and is at high risk for suicide," the Times reports.

Both the Times and Canada's CBC tell of a Columbus, Ohio, radiologist, William Shiels, who uses ultra sound to find embedded objects and developed "a minimally invasive surgical technique to remove them," the CBC reported. Dr. Shiels recently reported at a medical conference that 9 of the 10 girls aged 15-18 in the study he presented "said they'd had thoughts of suicide or had attempted suicide previously"; 40% were victims of sexual abuse. "The high rates found among young people [as opposed to adults] seem to go hand in hand with other studies suggesting today's youth may suffer from more mental health problems than previous generations," the Times adds.

So back to where the social Web comes in. Beyond awareness-raising, how can the social-Web industry help this group - actually all groups - of at-risk teens? It can help bring psychological and risk-prevention expertise into the public discussions and conferences about online safety as well as into business practices, for example, in having such expertise available on-call to customer-support departments. To summarize, I suggest social Web sites consider...

  • Raising awareness with apps and widgets, house ads, and any other advertising tools available, sending the message to users that everyone deserves help, and helping those in trouble - not standing by passively or, much worse, gossiping - is what friends do!
  • Monitoring site activity for self-destructive behavior to whatever extent possible and at the very least...
  • Providing a number to call. Have the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and psychiatric health-care advice at the fingertips of customer-service staff 24/7 to share with any user who points out a need.
  • Prominently displaying the number and Web address of the Lifeline on at least the safety pages if not every page of their Web sites. [The Lifeline coordinates the work of more than 100 hotlines nationwide that deal with everything from suicidal thoughts to domestic violence to depression 24 hours a day for free (for more on this, see "The social Web's lifeline," 3/07).]

    Related links

  • "Self-injury 'support' online"
  • "1 in 6 self-injure"
  • Even as early as 2006, when social networking was a new concept to most adults, MySpace was one of the biggest sources of referrals to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; that's when I first blogged about the Lifeline. I'll be getting a thorough update on their work at a SAMHSA conference in DC in May.

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  • Thursday, March 26, 2009

    ACLU sues prosecutor in sexting case

    In a federal lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Pennsylvania district attorney who has "threatened to charge [three] girls with felony child porn violations over digital photos they took of themselves," Wired reports. "The lawsuit says the threat to prosecute the minors 'is unprecedented and stands anti-child-pornography laws on their head'." Wired adds that District Attorney George Skumanick is running for re-election in May. This is the worst-case scenario that parents and teens need to be aware of: a zealous prosecutor and minors with no criminal intent (or even awareness that their behavior was illegal). A New York Times blogger painted the legal picture pretty graphically today, showing how laws written to protect children have not caught up with "the dicey mix of teenagers’ age-old sexual curiosity, notoriously bad judgment and modern love of electronic sharing." I do believe, though, that merely sharing this story with young people at your house or school is all the education most of them need to avoid sexting. A few more details on Skumanick's approach: Wired blogger Kim Zetter reports that "in a meeting with the students and their parents, he said he would file felony charges against the students unless they agreed to six months of probation, among other terms. He gave the parents 48 hours to agree. The parents of the three girls in the ACLU suit refused to sign. Skumanick then threatened to charge the girls with producing child porn unless their parents agreed to the probation, and sent the teenagers to a five-week, 10-hour education program to discuss why what they did was wrong and what it means to be a girl in today's society." [See also our sexting prevention tips at, and this from my co-director Larry Magid about the need for calm discussion.]

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    A great teen-adult conversation to join

    I've just joined the Focus on Digital Media community and hope you will too. This three-week-long online conversation starts April 13 (but you can register now here) and is the "first-ever among parents, educators, and teens about ethical questions in digital life ... questions like, "Should parents and teacher ‘friend’ their kids on Facebook?" It's a joint project of New York-based Global Kids, a nonprofit urban youth educational organization; San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media; and the Harvard Graduate School of Education's GoodPlay Project, exploring how youth view and practice ethics and citizenship in social media. This is a key question for everybody's online well-being going forward, I think, and young people involved in this exploration are doing pioneering work. I want to see what they think about the idea that civility, ethics, and new media literacy bridge the participation gap by fostering participants' physical, psychological, and reputational safety (see this on Henry Jenkins's 2006 white paper on the participation gap and this more recent post on social media literacy.

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    Wednesday, March 25, 2009

    Sexting overblown? Yes and *no*

    Not having heard the term "sexting" before the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed her, one 17-year-old referred to the practice of sending nude images of one's self or peers on phones as "lame" and plain-old drama creation. Her comment "echoes a view shared by sexual-health educators, teen advocates and academics gathering in San Francisco [last] week for Sex Tech, a conference that promotes sexual health among youth through technology. They believe that the sexting 'trend' is a cultural fascination du jour and is way overblown," the Chronicle reports. But, they indicate, it's also a very risky way to act out normative sexual curiosity (if that's what's involved and not peer pressure or bullying).

    Where minors are concerned, sexting is definitely not overblown. Besides the psychological consequences of teens having intimate photos of themselves sent or posted anywhere, anytime, in perpetuity, the practice is illegal. Under current child pornography laws, taking, sending, and receiving nude photos of minors is production, distribution, and possession of child pornography. Right now these laws are extremely black-and-white and don't distinguish between sexting and "traditional" child porn trafficking. The piece in the UK's Daily Mail I blogged about last week suggests that sexting is becoming a social norm, and a recent survey said a third of young adults and 20% of teens had posted nude or semi-nude photos or video of themselves (which also means 80% haven't, sex educators pointed out in the Chronicle). The 20% figure seems high, but even if sexting is becoming normative, the bottom line is: the law hasn't caught up with the norm and - as long as bullying is, if not a norm, a reality of adolescent life - where teens are involved, concern about sexting is justified! They need to be educated about both the legal and psychological consequences (see also "The Net effect"). My hope is that law enforcement people called in by schools to deal with these cases will treat them as "teachable moments" and play an educational role - not send these cases to prosecutors. [Last week I blogged about a wise district attorney who does not want them to reach his desk.]

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    Stings still working, ICACs overworked

    It was a question always in the back of the minds who follow online safety: what with all the sting operations run by Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces around the country (and so visibly for so many "predator" shows by Dateline NBC), don't those predators get more cautious about making "dates" with fictitious 14-year-olds? Of course they don't know at the time that the "teens" they talk with are really law enforcement people well-trained in, but wouldn't they get some clues or get cautious and stop getting "stung" so easily? Answer: Apparently not, which says something about what a sickness pedophilia is. "Despite the publicity then and now, the bad guys haven't gone away. They've quietly multiplied. Trading child porn online and grooming underage targets in chat rooms has exploded nationwide," reports the Associated Press in an in-depth look at the subject, both big-picture and a specific case. The AP adds that - in Wisconsin, anyway - their arrests have more than quadrupled in the past 10 years. See also "Pennsylvania case study: Social networking risk in context."

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    Monday, March 23, 2009

    'Kids being raised in captivity': UK's Byron

    This may sound about right on this side of the Atlantic too: UK clinical psychologist Tanya Byron - prime minister-appointed author of the 2008 Byron Review of child safety on the Web and in videogames - told an audience that their risk-averse society was keeping children cooped up at home on a "global playground" called the Internet, where they can be at greater risk than if allowed out more, The Telegraph reports. Speaking at the annual gathering of Britain's Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel, "the industry body that regulates sexual content in publications for young people," Byron suggested that adults need not only to understand the potential risks but the nature of the playground itself, how - if parts of it have curfews or are deemed off-limits to youth - they can simply move on to more risky areas. "Professor Byron said that many adults had responded to her review by suggesting that the Internet should be shut down completely, or that a 'watershed' must be imposed so that children cannot access it after 9pm - showing their failure to understand it.... Instead, she said parents and teachers ... should learn more about what young people are doing online." [For related links, here's video of her speaking - as a parent, psychologist, and researcher - at the Oxford Internet Institute, "Beyond Byron: Towards a New Culture of Responsibility" (I found it fascinating to hear her talk about her Byron Review development process, working through all the various perspectives); coverage in The Guardian of another talk, at a conference held by UK regulator Ofcom, where Byron cautioned against overregulating the Internet; and the Byron Review's own Web site and my coverage upon its release.]

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