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Friday, August 28, 2009

Parental disconnect: Good, bad & increasingly nonexistent?

In "What Parents Don't Know," MediaPost blogger Jack Loechner echoes Common Sense Media's own conclusion from its recent survey: that there's "a continuing disconnect between parents and kids when it comes to kids' digital lives." [Pew/Internet reported a "digital disconnect" in 2002, but between students and their schools, which I plan to write about next week.]

But how different are kids' "digital lives" from their real ones? As far back as the beginning of 2007, Pew/Internet reported that 91% of teens were socializing online with people they see a lot in real life. They're not "social networking"; they're just socializing – online, offline, at school, on phones, on Xbox Live, in virtual worlds, on computers, wherever. And there always has been a developmentally normal disconnect between parents and teens, where the latter's social lives are concerned. We can't and shouldn't know every detail of what they're up to when socializing with peers. They need some privacy, psychologists say – growing degrees of it, as they mature – because it's their job to disconnect from us as they become adults. To mix metaphors horribly, I hope that survey conclusion won't stoke the fires of helicopter parenting.

Teen social lives more visible than ever. Because so much of their socializing is visible on the social Web, parents actually have an historically unprecedented opportunity to know what's going on in their children's social lives (does the appeal of cellphone texting as kids' counter-measure surprise anyone?). Common Sense says that, "as our kids increasingly communicate through social networks, parents are cut out of the process of hearing how and what they say to each other." I'm sure that's true, but it's not the advent of social networking that's cutting them out; it's more because parents aren't engaging with their kids about how they're using social sites and technologies (though this has to be changing, now that research shows half of all Americans now use social network sites - see this USATODAY blog post). The need for parental engagement is probably what Common Sense (an organization I think highly of) is trying to get across, but I suspect many readers "hear" more of a blame-the-technology message.

The two points in Common Sense's conclusion that I think deserve much more attention are these:

1. "Social networks and mobile communication connect our kids to their friends 24/7." We really need to think about the implications of this for our kids. My younger child, my first one "texting-enabled" as he entered middle school (my older one "just" had instant messaging in middle school, which isn't entirely different, but it required a less-mobile computer). I'm observing that, for kids with texting, there just are no breaks from the drama. They're literally inundated with gossip or running commentary on their peers' inner and outer lives. Much more easily than their parents, who only had 2-3 phones in the house and often had to ask to use one, our children can be caught up in and sometimes emotionally carried away by this collective drama, their own school community's on-campus, off-campus, 24-7, highly personalized "reality-TV show." At the very least it can be distracting, and sometimes emotionally overwhelming. It can have tragic consequences it involves bullying. I'd love to have a parent summit where parents, psychologists, educators, school counselors, social workers, and teens who've been there can together think through the implications of 24x7 drama.

2. "When teens communicate either anonymously or through a disguised identity, the doors are left wide open for them not to be held accountable." Yup. We're talking about the impact of online anonymity and the "disinhibition" to which it gives rise (borne out in the "skank blogger" story I blogged about earlier this week, and these were grownups). Our "social intelligence" – ability to see, hear, or intuit the impact of our behavior – is impaired somewhat when we're online and on phones (see "Social intelligence & youth"). What happens when social intelligence goes down while social information goes up (or floods one's mental scene!)? We all need to be talking more about what mitigates disinhibition, which what's behind so much online harassment and bullying: training students in empathy and citizenship; showing them that they're not really anonymous online; helping them (and us) "get" that those are human beings with feelings behind those profile comments, text messages, and avatars; maybe all of the above? [See also "Digital risk, digital citizenship".]

Then there's the media literacy piece to parenting the digitally literate. Right from the start of their exposure to media online and offline, we can show our children how to take what they read with a grain of salt , think about who the source is and what his, her, or its goal or intention might be, etc. YPulse's Anastasia Goodstein models this traditional media literacy in her commentary on the Common Sense study. When you turn the figures upside down, as she did, you get quite a different takeaway from the survey:

  • "63% of teens said they DO NOT USE social networks to make fun of other students [emphasis Anastasia's]
  • "87% of teens said they HAVE NOT posted naked or semi-naked photos or videos of themselves.
  • "76% of teens said they HAVE NOT signed on to someone else's account without permission
  • "72% of teens HAVE NOT posted personal information that they normally would not have revealed in public."

    New media literacy's an ever more important part of parenting (and education) too – the kind that uses and models critical thinking about what we say, produce, and upload as much as what we see, read, and download. That, too, is protective and mitigates disinhibition.

    I would love your input on all this. Please comment here or in the forum – or send an email to anne(at)

    Related link

    "They're Old Enough to Text. Now What?" in which the New York Times's John Biggs looks at what type of texting device is appropriate for what age level - about LeapFrog's Text and Learn, Kajeet, Peek Pronto, and T-Mobile's Sidekick (not the very popular iPhone, interestingly)

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  • Thursday, August 27, 2009

    Facebook & Ottawa reach privacy agreement

    Facebook and Canadian privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart today announced an agreement to, among other things, "give users more control over the information they share with third-party applications like games and quizzes," Yahoo Tech News reports. The Vancouver Sun explains that what the commissioner objected to was that, currently, "in order to download popular games and quizzes, Facebook users must consent to share all their personal information, except their contact details. These companies, totaling nearly 1 million, operate in 180 countries." Now, app developers will have to "specify which categories of data" their software needs, and Facebook will give users the ability to "decide accordingly," Yahoo News says, adding that "users will also have to specifically approve any access Facebook applications have to their friends' information," subject to the friend's privacy and application settings." All that sounds pretty complicated, but the agreement also provides for better clarity. In its blog, FB says about the agreement, "We'll be making a series of improvements that include notifications and information about privacy settings and practices, additions to Facebook's privacy policy, and technical changes" as mentioned above.

    I hope this agreement is a precedent for how governments and social-media companies work together. Not so much in terms of threatened legal action (though of course not to be ruled out) as in where governments get their information. The Sun reports that the Canadian government's "privacy probe began last year when the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa filed an 11-part complaint, alleging Facebook violated key provisions of Canada's private-sector privacy law." The model, here, is reputable companies working with informed policymakers from a basis of understanding the risks involved and arriving at what companies can in fact do about them.

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    Wednesday, August 26, 2009

    Social networkers' computer (in)security habits: Study

    A small survey ("250 consumers") found that, while a majority of social networkers are "afflicted by Web-borne security problems," less than a third of them are doing anything about it, its press release said. The sample is small (more on that in a moment), but the results are suggestive of where social networkers run into trouble as far as computer security's concerned. More than a fifth (21%) of social site users "accept contact offerings [friend requests] from members they don't recognize"; 50+% "let acquaintances or roommates access social networks on their machines"; 64% "click on links [which can lead them to malicious sites] offered by community members or contacts"; 26% "share files within social networks." The study, sponsored by security firm AVG and CMO Council, also found that, in spite of that risky behavior, 64% infrequently or never change their passwords, 57% "infrequently or never" use privacy settings, and 90% "infrequently or never" let the site know they've had problems. Even so, nearly 20% "have experienced identity theft"; 47% have been "victims of malware infections"; and 55% have "seen phishing attacks." But besides the small sample and limited detail on the study, there's another important caveat: "To say that users of social-networking sites have been exposed to phishing and malware would be like saying that most people who eat spinach are likely to have had measles when they were children. There is a correlation, but no evidence of causality," ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid, wrote in his CNET blog. See his blog for some good security advice, and check out ConnectSafely's tips for rock-solid passwords.

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    Houston schools 'just say no' to sexting

    The Houston Independent School District, one of the US's biggest school districts, decided to adopt a new no-sexting rule "before some 200,000 students returned to classes after their summer vacation," Agence France Presse reports. Sharing nude photos by phone hasn't been much of an issue in the district, but some principals brought it up over the summer as an issue in the news and "wanted a policy on the books just in case it happens," the Dallas Morning News reports. The Mesquite, Texas, district joined Houston, but other districts, such as Dallas and Garland, felt their policies - against "sending, sharing, viewing or possessing pictures, text messages, e-mails or other material of a sexual nature in electronic or against distribution of obscene material via any electronic device" - about covered the issue. I'd say so. But I hope any sexting incidents are handled as "teachable moments" and not just further opportunity to suspend or expel students. Meanwhile, Forbes reports that New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a law against charging minors under the state's child pornography law for sexting when it's "part of a romantic partnerships." The discussion follows next-door neighbor Vermont's new law decriminalizing sexting by minors (see this).

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    Tuesday, August 25, 2009

    Social-networking-style problem solving (& policymaking)

    I think, or at least hope, online safety (the whole world, actually) is going in the direction of what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman prescribes for solving most global problems: toward using the social-networking model. "Huh?" you might ask. Right, Friedman didn't call it that. But I see a lot of similarity between his prescription for solution development to the collective way young people increasingly do everything from socializing to producing to problem solving. And their collaborative, inclusive approach as well as participation are definitely needed in the Net-safety mix (see "Online Safety 3.0" for more on this). Think "social producing," "creative networking," or interest-driven, social civic engagement (see also the report of the Digital Youth Project). Friedman wrote: "We’re trying to deal with a whole array of integrated problems – climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, poverty alleviation and the need to grow enough food to feed the planet – separately. The poverty fighters resent the climate-change folks; climate folks hold summits without reference to biodiversity; the food advocates resist the biodiversity protectors. They all need to go on safari together," he said, writing from Botswana's Okavango Delta. "We need to make sure that our policy solutions are as integrated as nature itself." Exactly. In other words, not just integration of skill sets within a field by "experts," but collaboration among fields and disciplines, incorporating all skill sets, including the participants or beneficiaries of policymaking and education.

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    Overreaction to cyberbullying not good: L.A. Times

    This is interesting, in light of the recent "skank blogger" story in New York: "Overreaction to online harassment," an editorial in the Los Angeles Times. It makes a similar argument about prosecutors' "remedies" for bad behavior online that I've made for bad online behavior in school communities: that the solution is not some sort of new add-on to the curriculum or school life (or students' "real lives") called "online safety instruction" any more than the problem is just technology or the online environment. The Times argues that "if something's a crime in the physical world, it should be in the virtual one too. The problem is with prosecutors who think that transgressions are automatically magnified if they occur in cyberspace." I think this is a misconception so many adults have – that the problem is technology (that they don't fully understand), not behavior, as abhorrent as the behavior sometimes is. Technology can affect the equation (see "The Net effect"), but it's not the whole issue. The Times also refers to bad federal legislation that members of Congress introduce "when state law doesn't produce the results they seek," such as some pretty extreme cyberbullying cases in Missouri (see my recent post on the latest).

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    Monday, August 24, 2009

    'Skank blogger' story revealing in more ways than 1

    The story of the "Skanks of New York" blogger illustrates how "unreliable" online anonymity can be for anyone considering hiding behind it to harass or defame others. "A Manhattan Supreme Court judge forced Google to unmask [the blogger Rosemary] Port, rejecting Port's claim that blogs 'serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting' and shouldn't be regarded as fact," the New York Daily News reports. Judge Joan Madden wrote that "the protection of the right to communicate anonymously must be balanced against the need to assure that those persons who choose to abuse the opportunities presented by this medium can be made to answer for such transgressions," reports. Online privacy groups are worried about the precedent his decision may set, the Seattle Post Intelligencer reports, pointing to the view of the Electronic Freedom Foundation that using a court "as your personal private investigator to out anonymous critics is a dangerous precedent to set." Port told the Daily News that "she's furious at Google for revealing her identity, so much so that she plans to file a $15 million federal lawsuit against the Web giant." That you can't "count on" anonymity is a good family discussion to have, because it doesn't always take a court order to unveil a meanie or cyberbully, especially if blogger and victim are minors and in the same community, like a school, when administrators consider the behavior disruptive. [See also "Social intelligence & youth" and "Online harassment: From one who's been there."]

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    First UK teen to be jailed for cyberbullying

    After pleading guilty to harassment,18-year-old Keeley Houghton of Worcestershire was "sentenced to three months in a young offenders' institution" after posting death threats in Facebook, The Guardian reports. It added that the person she had threatened, another 18-year-old, Emily Moore, "had been victimized for four years [by Houghton], the court heard, and had previously suffered a physical assault as well as damage to her home." Houghton had two prior convictions as a result of that offline harassment. Here's coverage from the Times Online and the BBC.

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