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6 takeaways from 20 years of Net safety: Part 1

I usually write about other people’s work – especially that of the researchers I’ve followed through the years. But now that I’ve just passed the 20-year mark in writing about youth and digital media (yikes!), I thought I’d share with you my own top takeaways as a participant observer of Internet safety’s early years (1997-now). Here’s Part 1 (Part 2 on this page):

1. A generalization about generalizations. First of all, I’ve come to believe generalizations serve us even less when they’re about social media, and how people of any age use it, than about nearly anything else. Except maybe about the way people live their lives. Because generalizations are so final. These are only observations – snapshots. This is one very fluid subject, right? But it can sometimes be useful to snap something in motion in order to zoom in and do a reality check. The following observations could seem like generalizations, but I can tell you there’s nothing final about any of them. We’re talking about social media’s earliest period.

Many members of the generation that grew up with social media will be parents in a decade (or less). Even the phrase “Internet safety education” is a placeholder. I wrote about that in 2013, then asked the lead author of that milestone research, Lisa Jones, PhD, what she thought of the placeholder characterization. She said she wished she’d thought of that word. She and I were part of a working group that, in late 2011, developed the conceptual underpinnings of the Born This Way Foundation’s work, work that confirmed for me how central and critical social emotional learning (SEL) is to safety and efficacy online and offline – for individuals and communities. [I do want to note that online and offline are a complete mashup for many of us now, not just youth.]

2. Fundamentally, what we’re seeing in our children’s social media use is the exposure of their deepest needs: deep connection and to be heard and accepted by people they love or care about. It’s just that only some of the connecting that happens day-to-day in social media satisfies those needs. I think it’s quite possible that the less the real need is met, the more sharing and connecting of the shallow sort tends to happen. In other words, excessive exposure should give us pause; it could well be an indicator of great need (or unmet needs). For example, excessive sharing probably represents a cry for attention or social anxiety in some kids. I’m skeptical that social media is addictive – it’s more like kids are “addicted” to their friends and social circles and keeping up with what’s happening in them – but I do think the level of use can be symptomatic.

safety pins for Net safety

(CC licensed)

Quite naturally we parents want to control the sharing because we see the vulnerability involved, but that’s not likely to be effective. The question we need to consider with our children is what kind of sharing, posting and communicating is going on – is it really serving you and your friends? So far we have focused much more on how young people are exposing their needs and less on how to meet them. The more they’re acknowledged and met, the less vulnerability would be on display, probably. But we don’t know that yet. Most research so far has focused on how media harms them (per our fearful policy and research agendas) and not on how to meet the needs being exposed in media. [Certainly there’s research on the needs part, just not much, if any, yet on the relationship between needs and how they show up in media.]

3. What kind of privacy? While we’re on the subject of exposure, let’s look at privacy. There are clearly developmental reasons why connecting is just as, if not more, important to young people than privacy – except privacy from us. Privacy from us (their parents and other adults who care deeply about them) is a developmental imperative because kids can’t truly develop in a Petrie dish where we’re the lab technicians looking into it all the time. Yes, life in general is more of a Petrie dish, or fishbowl than ever, for everybody, but our watching their every move and innermost thoughts (as expressed, e.g., in a Snapchat Story) can 1) make it so that growing up is as much about us as about them – their worrying all the time about our worrying about their developmentally normative risk assessment work. How fair is that to them? It’s also pretty normative (especially in our risk-averse societies) for us to worry about them and want to minimize, if not completely delete, all risk – except that, for their own long-term safety, they need to develop resilience and can’t do so when not exposed to any risk, right? So some sort of balance needs to be struck. 2) They also can’t develop in a Petrie dish because – also developmentally – they need to figure stuff out themselves and with peers. That’s why they don’t come to us as much as we’d like them to when things aren’t going well. Of course we have to get involved sometimes for their own good, but sadly we also have to let them grow up, so it helps to understand their developmental work of identity exploration and finding their place in the world – and their need for some privacy from us. Besides, 3) they’re less likely to come to us for guidance if they see us as so fearful, disrespectful or untrusting of them as to monitor their every move online.

So we can now add to the cliché that social media is here to stay the understanding that it’s also actually part of our children’s development as human beings – to see that our imperative in supporting their healthy development is to enable their development of the skills of healthy development amid the conditions of a networked world (transparency, community, inter-dependence, etc.). Those skills are every bit as much social and emotional as they are cognitive and digital. Which brings us back to the skills of social emotional learning or emotional intelligence mentioned above. Just as we all need media literacy more than ever, we need social literacy skills for life in this ever more populated fishbowl. Digital literacy is essential too, but it’s not enough, and we can’t continue referring to it as such. It’s lonely without its companion literacies, and our children need all three.

Next, in Part 2: The (protective) rights of young human beings, not “human becomings”

Related links

  • Lisa Jones’s colleague, David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the researcher who coined the term “juvenoia” in 2010, later gave a talk on what’s wrong with Internet safety education and what we can do about it (2012) and, in 2014, published a commentary on Net safety’s “3 alarmist assumptions.”
  •  About It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens (Yale University Press, 2015), by danah boyd, one of the first researchers in the world to be laser-focused on teens’ own interests and activities in social media (here‘s her 2008 PhD dissertation). Over in Europe, EU Kids Online talked with 25,142 people aged 9-15 and their parents (in 25 countries), publishing “In Their Own Words” in 2013 (my post about it is here). And this recent post at the London School of Economics’s Parenting for a Digital Future blog presents video interviews with young people talking about their online experiences, linking to more.
  • The best thinking I’ve seen on “Internet addiction” is reflected in this comment by pediatrician Michael Rich MD, and here‘s the latest from Oxford University on the subject. Past posts of mine link to other studies and stories.
  • For researchers’ findings on a fairly fraught subject in this space, see “The trouble with screen time rules” and “How dropping screen time rules can yield extraordinary learning” at the Parenting for a Digital Future blog
  • In late 2015, at the request of one of Argentina’s national dailies, Clarin, I wrote “10 tips for digital citizens’ parents,” published there in Spanish (so with their permission I posted it here in English)
  • Protecting student privacy calls for student participation, which calls for education in digital privacy and literacy, as well as media literacy (see also this post picking up on danah boyd’s talk about privacy at South by Southwest in 2010)
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