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Friday, December 18, 2009

'Teens would ignore texting-while-driving laws'

With texting up 10-fold over the past three years and as momentum for a nationwide law against texting while driving builds, there are indicators that the driver demographic that texts the most would benefit the least. "Already 19 states and the District of Columbia ban texting by all drivers, while 9 others prohibit it by young drivers," Reuters reports, but "at least one major study has found that, with mobile devices now central to their lives, young people often ignore laws against using cell phones or texting in the car." Police say such a law would be tough to enforce for the mere fact that they can't see the phones when drivers are texting. "The California Highway Patrol has handed out nearly 163,000 tickets to drivers talking on hand-held phones since mid-2008" partly because the phone is at the ear and can be seen through the window. When texting, drivers' phones are in their laps, out of sight. Reuters talked to four teens in the Phoenix area, where there has a ban on texting while driving since 2007. Three of them "admitted texting while driving and a fourth said he had stopped only after his cousin caused a serious traffic accident while sending a message." Parents, at least be sure you never text your teens while driving; I recently heard an interview in which a teenager said that even when she texts her mom to stop texting her while driving because it's unsafe, her mom won't stop!

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

School cyberbully wins free-speech case

This week the Los Angeles Times told the story of an 8th grader who walked into her school counselor's office in tears, saying she just couldn't go to class. Another girl had posted a humiliating video about her in a video site and the targeted girl was sure half the school's 8th-grade class had seen it. After much discussion among school, district, and district lawyers, the school suspended the video's producer for a couple of days. She and her dad, a lawyer, sued the school for violating her free-speech rights, and a federal court in L.A. decided in favor of the degrading video's producer, saying that, by suspending the girl for her video, "the school had gone too far," the L.A. Times reports. In his 60-page opinion, US District Judge Stephen V. Wilson wrote that, "to allow the School to cast this wide a net and suspend a student simply because another student takes offense to their speech, without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school’s activities, runs afoul of Tinker" (referring to the widely cited 1969 case Tinker v. DesMoines Independent Community School District). This was "a disturbing decision in a cyberbullying case," says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use, because the court placed too much emphasis on whether evidence could predict physical harm and substantial disruption, was dismissive of emotional harm to students, and failed to consider the video's impact on the victim's own "educational performance and right to feel secure at school, and thus her right to receive an education." She argues that, "in addition to the substantial disruption test, Tinker held that a school may regulate student speech that interferes with the 'the school’s work or [collides] with the rights of other students to be secure and be let alone'."

I couldn't agree more. Children who are being bullied online and offline need to be able to seek relief at school, especially when - for some children – school is the first line of defense. And schools have got to be able to intervene in cases where individual students are experiencing psychological as well as physical harm. But Willard says it much better than I can: "Research has consistently revealed that these incidents can be exceptionally emotionally traumatic and frequently are related to school failure, school avoidance, violence at school - and sometimes youth suicide. To protect the well-being of youth, school officials must have the authority to respond to these incidents and, if justified, remove offending students from school for a period of time." If we can get to that point, then maybe the discussion about cyberbullying can be less about avoiding litigation and more about helping kids. Here's Willard's analysis of J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District, "There is No Constitutional Right to Cyberbully."

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oz to filter criminal content

The Australian government is forging ahead with nationwide filtering "despite widespread criticism that it will strangle free speech and is doomed to fail," reports Agence France Press reports. However, it looks as if all that will be blocked is "Web sites containing criminal content" or child pornography, according to the BBC, the kind of filtering that has been in place in the UK for some time. "Blacklisted sites would be determined by an independent classification body via a 'public complaint' process," Australia's communications minister, Stephen Conroy. [I last posted about filtering in Oz in July.]

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More public Facebook => more careful selves (I hope)

Don’t miss Julia Anguin's Wall Street Journal blog post about how "friending" has gone from knowing what the kid three rows back thinks about the latest celeb news to a popularity contest to, now with Twitter, a "talent show" among "followers" (who are much less complicated than "friends") – or how "to prove your intellectual prowess in 140 characters or less. But where she's going with all this, really, is the bottom line of Facebook's privacy changes. It's not a particularly new bottom line, just a more-so-than-ever one: "I will also remove the vestiges of my private life from Facebook and make sure I never post anything that I wouldn't want my parents, employer, next-door neighbor or future employer to see. You'd be smart to do the same. We'll need to treat this increasingly public version of Facebook with the same hard-headedness that we treat Twitter: as a place to broadcast, but not a place for vulnerability.... Not a place for intimacy with friends." Parents, talk with your kids about this! Anguin's piece is a great talking point. [For advice on how to hide that Friend List from Everyone, see this from's Larry Magid, and for last week's news, see "Facebook's privacy changes" last week, when the company said these changes "have no impact" on how FB makes money.]

After I posted this, the New York Times reported that the Electronic Privacy Information Center and 10 other consumer privacy organizations filed a complaint with the FTC that Facebook's latest privacy changes "violate user expectations, diminish user privacy, and contradict Facebook’s own representations." Paramount to us at is that Facebook ensure that the friend lists of users under 18 be hidden from public view by default.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sexting: New study & the 'Truth or Dare' scenario

Three up-to-the-minute developments – fresh data on sexting from Pew/Internet, an important podcast about technology & developmental behavior among teens, and a summit held by the National District Attorneys Association and the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse – offer important insights....

1. 4% of US teens have sent 'sext' messages

It's a significantly lower figure than two previous national studies, which arrived at 10% and 9% for youth who had sent sext messages (see links below). The Pew Internet & American Life Project today released a survey finding that only 4% of US 12-to-17-year-olds had sent a sexually suggestive nude or semi-nude photo or video of themselves via cellphone, and 15% had received one on their mobile from someone they know personally. The explanation for the lower figures may be that Pew focused solely on images on cellphones, not on text either via phones or other electronic means. "We chose this strategy because the policy community and advocates are primarily concerned with the legality of sharing images and because the mobile phone is increasingly the locus of teens’ personal, and seemingly private communication," Pew says in its report. In other key findings....

  • There was no gender difference in the sending of sexting images – boys and girls were equally engaged.
  • "Older teens are much more likely to send and receive these images."
  • More intense users of cellphones are more likely to receive sext images.
  • 18% of teen cellphone owners with unlimited texting plans have received such images compared with 8% of teens on limited plans and 3% of teens who pay per message.
  • The teens who pay their own phone bills are more likely to send “sexts”: 17% of those who pay for their phones had done so, while 3% of teens who don't pay for their phones or pay for a portion of the cost had.

    With the University of Michigan, Pew conducted six followup focus groups this fall with middle and high school students in three cities. The focus groups showed that "these images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other. And they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun," said the study's author, Amanda Lenhart.

    [Here are links to my posts on previous sexting surveys, the MTV/AP study early this month and a Harris Interactive study for Cox/NCMEC last june.]

    2. Digitally 'enhanced' Truth or Dare

    It can sound a little clinical when researchers or law enforcement talk about sexting, so let's look at one scenario at the middle school level – which ideally has everybody (girls, boys, and parents) thinking about cellphone-"enabled" sleepovers.

    Remember that classic adolescent game of "Truth or Dare"? Well, in a recent "Family Confidential" podcast with educator and author Annie Fox, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes Rosalind Wiseman told Fox, "When we were growing up and even just five years ago, if girls in the 6th, 7th and 8th grade [had] ... a sleepover and played the Truth or Dare game – a classic thing you'd do when you were in middle school, a lot of the dares being about testing what you were thinking about, your sexuality, about coming into your sexuality; it's developmentally appropriate. But back then, if you'd do something in the dare category, not many people would see it and it would have a limited life-span. But now, this school year, Truth or Dare for 7th and 8th graders can include, 'I dare you to take a picture of yourself naked and send it to the boy you like,' and of course that boy will forward it to everybody he knows.

    "This developmentally appropriate moment," says Wiseman, "has become a huge weapon to humiliate a girl forever, in her mind ... so the impact and the ability to degrade people's ability to go through their sexual development in an appropriately uncomfortable but comfortable way is lost when we have these kinds of things happen." [That's at about 13:40 in the MP3 version of Fox's podcast.]

    But we're not just talking about victims, of course. Later in the podcast (26:05), Fox comes back to this sexting situation, as she and Wiseman are talking about how these dares and other developmental tests and risk-taking "really go both ways," Wiseman said. These situations are very fluid and have tech-enhanced ripple effects.

    Fox said, "The girl who was humiliated pushed Send." Rosalind agreed: "Yes she did, she needs to think about what was motivating her to capitulate – we have to talk about that that if we want the child to be able to stop it the next time it happens.... She also needs to think about why she was unable to hold her ground and wants attention from boys in a particular way. Why is that? It's partly that, for a girl growing up in this culture, the culture says that's how you get attention from boys, but this is an opportunity for reflection about the cost of doing that."

    Scenarios like this can be great talking points for calm, supportive, nonconfrontational discussion at home and school about all kinds of issues: at school, the legal and psychological costs of caving to peer pressure and forgetting to treat self and others with respect; at home, whether our kids have felt or observed that kind of focused pressure from peers; how they handled it; how they'd like to be able to handle it; whether they'd feel comfortable coming to us about it and what their conditions for doing so would be; where technology comes into play (literally) and what we can do about it in specific situations; and so on. [A similar scenario played out in Indiana a few months ago (see "Students sue school for social Web-related discipline").]

    3. The law enforcement piece

    Social media researcher Sameer Hinduja told after the just-ended meeting of the National District Attorneys Association that participants were "clamoring for research on who's most likely to be an offender, or a victim, what are the contributing factors, what are the consequences." Certainly more research is needed, but look at those terms "offenders" and "victims" in light of the snap-and-send "Truth or Dare" scene. Can the children at that sleepover reasonably be frozen in time as either "offender" or "victim"? Do you, too, see a disconnect between 7th-graders engaged in casual, developmental risk-taking and what the law requires of police and prosecutors, and sometimes schools, handling "cases"?

    I hope against hope for two things: that 1) except in cases involving criminal intent, law enforcement can play an educational rather than prosecutorial role where sexting by minors is concerned (helping middle and high school students understand related law) and that 2) there will be more calm, respectful communication between parents and kids, between schools and families, and within whole school communities about all aspects of this issue. There is nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost from dealing with sexting strictly as a legal issue. How can schools fear litigation less? How can we all acknowledge multiple perspectives? It may take time, but if we can collectively focus on respectful communication and effective prevention as well as response, maybe we'll have fewer sexting and cyberbullying "cases" develop. As difficult as this may be, youth and society will gain from the conscious, collaborative effort.

    Please see Dr. Hinduja's own blog post about the summit (organized by National District Attorneys Association and the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse), where he, too, recommends "multidisciplinary prevention and response."

    Related links

  • "Sexting as a form of relationship currency" is an important insight from the Pew study that the blog zooms in on.
  • This week the Virginia Crime Commission decided against recommending any changes in state child pornography laws in light of “sexting” by teens, with Commission Vice-Chair David Albo saying that "a well-intended change could prove to be 'a roadmap for freaks' on how to skirt the law," the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. Vermont, on the other hand, revised state child-pornography law last summer so that "minors caught sexting would not be charged with a felony and forced to register as sex offenders" (see my post).
  • CNN's coverage of the Pew study - interesting that, in headline, it went for 15% of teens have received sext messages rather than 4% have sent
  • Audio interview with Pew/Internet's Amanda Lenhart on teens & sexting at Public Radio International
  • A bit more on peer pressure & sexting at NetFamilyNews
  • See also our tips for parents about sexting at and Common Sense Media's video advice.

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  • Monday, December 14, 2009

    iPod Touches in the classroom

    The Salisbury Post tells the story of how a school district in North Carolina got its start with mobile devices in the classroom – in this case, iPod Touches narrower than "a deck of cards," weighing a little over 4 ounces, and putting "the complete works of Shakespeare, movies, a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia, SAT preparation materials, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, USA Today, the Weather Channel and educational games" in the palms of North Rowan High School freshmen's hands. What I found especially interesting in the story the possibility of a spatial element to improving student engagement. One student told writer Maggie Blackwell that it really helps when what's being taught isn't across the room, it's right in his hand, and when it's "right here," there's less distraction, more ownership. The ownership part of that comes from the district tech director, Phil Hardin, who told Blackwell it's not about putting technology in students' hands ("that way, they would just be spectators," he said) but rather how they learn with it and demonstrate that learning (so that they come to "own the knowledge"). They use the iTouches to do research, listen to podcast book reviews, play educational games such as "Word Warp" during class transitions, etc. "One of the first projects the teachers developed spanned all subjects. Students learned about philosophers in history and science. They talked about Euclid and Pythagoras in math and Julius Caesar in English." Everything the students needed was available through the iTouches. Maybe attendance is a measure of student engagement: "In the month since iPods were introduced, absences have dropped 4.6%," Blackwell reports. Tardies have also dropped. The devices are configured to work only on the class network. [See also "From 'digital disconnect' to mobile learning."]

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