Now that I’ve just passed the 20-year mark of writing about youth and digital media, I thought I’d share with you my top takeaways as a participant observer in the Internet safety space. Here‘s Part 1. Now the three chunks of Part 2:
4. It’s individual, situational and contextual. Internet safety works best from the inside out. I love the irony of generalizing the individuality of social media’s use. But I think it’s the most important generalization I’ve ever made (or not wanted to make): What we do and experience online is a reflection not only of us, our families and our social circles but also a snapshot or freeze frame of what’s going on in everyday life – both internally and externally in a moment in time and in a particular set of environmental conditions (home, work, public, private, etc.). Which is true of our children too. We can’t possibly know what we’re seeing about a child without getting a handle on those conditions, which includes understanding the child too (or trying our best to). Each harassment or cyberbullying incident is as unique as the individuals involved. That’s why it’s bad – potentially harmful to the kids – to take what we see out of context and summarily react, punish, call school officials, call the police, etc. We always need more information than what we see in a photo, comment thread or profile, and that’s more information from the young people involved. We need to know what’s going on in their heads, day, life, relationships, etc., before we take action. We need context.
That’s why social media companies have an almost impossible task in responding to abuse reports within their systems. It’s why the vast majority of the abuse reports they receive are not actionable. They’re highly contextual. The companies have even less context than us parents and educators for what shows up in their apps. They often need “trusted reporters” like Internet helplines and thoughtful law enforcement people to provide that context. Like anyone on the outside, the companies can’t tell if some post was an inside joke with no hurt felt, a cruel, cutting comment, part of repeated aggression, something said once in a fit of anger, part of a trivial argument, etc., etc. It’s why communication is essential to keeping our kids safe online. We have to talk with our kids to find out what happened – what they were feeling at the time, what the social context was of something painful, whether online or offline. We have to keep communication lines open – and be genuinely curious and open-minded to keep them open always – so that they’ll come to us when they need help. This is simple logic. Because we’ve learned from the research (specifically, the pivotal lit review of the first task force I served on in 2008, the Harvard Internet Safety Technical Task Force), that a child’s psycho-social makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk or safety than any technology the child uses – which are also the predictors of a child’s physical, social and emotional safety or lack thereof in physical spaces, right?
5. Human beings not “human becomings.” That’s from Danish sociologist Jens Qvortrup, who is cited in two books by researchers who’ve had a lot of influence on my thinking about youth and digital media: Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press, 2009 and 2019) and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age (NYU Press, 2016). [I mentioned the former here and reviewed the latter here.] The authors represent two of the most important research projects of the first quarter century of kids online: 1) the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project (kicked off by media professor Henry Jenkins with this 2006 paper and representing 3 years’ work by more than 2 dozen U.S. researchers) and 2) EU Kids Online, which encompassed research in more than 2 dozen countries and is now Global Kids Online.
But still and probably for a long time to come, because of the pressures on us as parents and educators and the general forward-focused pressure of life in developed countries (in developing ones too?), we think of our children much more as human becomings – in various developmental stages on their way to the successful lives we want them to have. Our safety messaging (in many countries) has to date almost exclusively modeled what Harvard researchers call “consequence thinking” (consequences to self) rather than moral thinking (consequences for known others) and ethical thinking (consequences for unknown others, e.g., one’s community or planet). To be crystal clear, let’s call it “future consequence thinking”: with messages like, what you share online will be there forever, don’t post that because it could hurt your future prospects, turn it off and go outside or you’ll get fat, anti-social, or socially excluded, etc. Do we think about the laser focus on consequences to self and whether that supports social emotional health, deep connection with others and civic engagement? Do we think – and help our children think – about how their activities in this moment are providing or supporting meaningful connection and collaboration right now?
6. Young human beings’ rights: the imbalance. They’re rights, not just digital rights – especially now that we know, as our Internet natives have always known, that “online” is just life, or just another place where life is lived and expressed. But important work is being done on youth digital rights right now to ensure that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child embraces digital spaces as well as physical ones, and this work is, importantly, exposing a serious imbalance. The CRC has a framework of three sets of rights, the “three Ps” – rights of Protection, Provision and Participation (the digital versions explained here) – but too often we, from parents to policymakers, forget that third P, the researchers leading this discussion, explain. “Efforts to protect [youth] unthinkingly curtail their participation rights in ways that they themselves are unable to contest,” Profs. Sonia Livingstone and Amanda Third write. The imbalance only makes sense if people under 18 are seen and treated merely as potential victims in digital spaces, the prevailing message of Internet safety’s first two decades, with their primary focus on control (filtering, blocking, rules, laws) and surveillance (monitoring).
If we see children and young people as human beings, actors in their own right, potential change makers and stakeholders in their own and each other’s safety and wellbeing – not just as human becomings and potential victims – we see their exercise of participation rights as protective as well as empowering. They have in them the power to help and protect themselves and each other; we clip their wings by withholding their agency and suggesting that they’re dependent solely on us, technology, surveillance, rules and laws for protection. On the flipside, we enable their safety and self-actualization when we help them develop their internal safeguards such as resilience, critical thinking and the literacies of today’s very social digital media – social literacy, media literacy and digital literacy – the 3-pronged literacy education that enables citizenship, digital or otherwise. And we enable them to be the “upstanders” we’ve been urging them to be for their peers and in their communities online and offline.
So I’ll wrap all this up by going back to the research (coming home, in effect, for Net Family News): what remains cutting-edge advice from an extraordinary collection of short video interviews with researchers in 32 countries released by EU Kids Online in 2014. Culturally, the researchers were all over the map (of eastern, western, northern and southern Europe), but there was surprising uniformity in how they responded to a question about key recommendations coming out of their research: As much as possible, base family policy on communication not fear, on kids’ own interests and concerns not adults’. Mediation (mentoring) works better than restriction because 1) kids need to learn how to navigate the media of their present and future and can’t do that with media avoidance and 2) although reducing media use may reduce risk, it also reduces young users’ opportunities (and, in any case, risk and harm are not the same thing), this research has taught us.
We human beings tend to fear what we don’t understand, so the fears of media and tech that dominated Internet safety’s first 20 years were not especially surprising. But thanks to the work of researchers and wise practitioners all over the world, we understand a lot more now. It’s time to start consciously managing our fears, honoring children’s rights of participation, protection and provision in a balanced way, and helping them exercise those rights for safe, successful engagement with an increasingly transparent, networked world.
In case you haven’t read the first 3 chunks yet and want to, here’s Part 1 about generalizations, privacy and what we’re really seeing in social media (not in that order).
- “It is very difficult to predict how social media will affect any specific individual – the effect depends on things like their personality, type of social media use and social surroundings,” Oxford University researcher wrote last month, sounding very much like findings from the lit review done by our 2008 task force at Harvard’s then Berkman Center (now Berkman Klein Center). See also “Digital parenting: Individual, situational, contextual.”
- “Western societies have a deeply ambivalent, even paradoxical, approach to children,” write Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green in their 2016 book The Class. “They assert a positive view of them while simultaneously devaluing or neglecting their needs and experiences; children are disenfranchised within the public sphere yet castigated for being apathetic; they are subject to increasing surveillance yet seen as subversive; their imagination is valued, yet their lives are increasingly controlled; their protection is widely promoted, yet society allows many children to encounter serious risk; and so on” (Note 60 to Chap.1, citing “the sections on “human beings and human becomings” in Lee (2001) and James et al (1998), as well as Jens Qvortrup (1995).
- “Children and young people’s rights in the digital age: An emerging agenda,” by professors and project editors Sonia Livingstone in the UK and Amanda Third in Australia. See also this coverage in Phys.org and a comment on the work from England’s Children’s Commissioner: “Making the case for a new UN framework for children’s digital rights“
- My post about the UNCRC’s “three Ps”: “Proposed ‘rightful’ framework for Internet safety”
- My 2016 TEDx talk on “The Heart of Digital Citizenship” and the logic of citizen-sourcing it, honoring the citizens’ rights, supporting their agency, teaching the 3 literacies and allowing for practice (in digital spaces)
- On the digital age literacies, as spelled out in the 2014 report of the Aspen Task Task Force on Learning & the Internet, and other internal “technologies” as children’s most long-lasting safeguards: “Balancing external with internal Internet safety ‘tools'”
- 3 conclusions in a recent study at Duke University that looked at parents’ top fears and whether they’re merited: the effects of new technologies on adolescent development are not uniform”; while new technologies are offering new platforms” for teen interaction, “online behaviors can often be predicted by offline behaviors”; more research is needed which is innovative and looks at whether new technologies are introducing new risks/opportunities or just mirroring offline ones (in “7 fears and the science of how mobile technologies may be influencing adolescents in the digital age” from Duke University)
- Thoughts on where Internet safety needs to go (Version 4.0, if you will) written in late-‘2014, and I still stand by them!