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We need to manage the social media backlash too

It’s like a moral panic on steroids. Adding to the “reckoning” already under way since the 2016 election (see Related links below) is the news yesterday of a new, high-profile coalition of some of social media’s creators and backers and Common Sense Media. The steroids part is the funding ($7 million from individuals, the Omidyar Network and Common Sense Media), the PR ($50 million in donated media from non-social media giants Comcast and DirecTV), lobbying at state and federal levels, and the coming ad campaign in 55,000 U.S. public schools.

The concerns aren’t new. Scholars have been documenting the moral panic for more than a decade. To name just a few examples, David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, even coined the term “juvenoia” in 2011 and wrote a paper about online safety’s “three alarmist assumptions” in 2014 (see this); another, Justine Cassell, focused in 2008 on the gender aspect of the panic; and more recently, many scholars pushed back against a colleague fueling fears of the smartphone’s impacts (in an Atlantic Monthly cover story headlined “Are Smartphones Destroying a Generation?”) by confusing causation and correlation and ignoring “multiple factors underlying social change,” as one internationally known researcher, Sonia Livingstone, put it.

In her new book citing dozens of researchers’ work on media and tech effects, The Art of Screen Time, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz points to a number of concerns parents have about technology’s effects: ADHD, lower test scores, aggression and depression and asks, “Does screen time cause these or make them worse?” Her answer: “Study after study says maybe – but, if so, only a very little, barely detectable, bit.”

What to do about the genie

Child's drawing

A child’s genie, as drawn in 1 min. 41 sec. in the game Drawception.com

Reality checks are fine. It’s good to stop and reflect. But this is not that. This is a new very sophisticated, well-funded appeal to our worst fears, focused on only one among many factors underlying the social change we’re now experiencing, the one in the palm of our hands. Of course it’s understandable that the new campaign’s creators are so focused on technology because that has been the focus of their careers. But this is our media now – we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. So what should we do?

First: I’m not going to deconstruct the messaging of this campaign here. I’ll say two things about it, then suggest one possible response that I feel would be helpful to our children. The two things are: it’s good to be aware of what the early social media founders say about behavioral engineering because that awareness will help us avoid being “engineered.” On the other hand, also be aware of lobbying efforts based on fear and aimed at laws restricting our children’s media use. Knowledge empowers; generalized restrictions disempower both us and our children.

Second: Stop and zoom into your own experience with young media users, then zoom way out with me. If you’re a parent or work with kids, engage with them. Focus on their own media interests, not headlines about them, with honest curiosity and a light touch. Two media professors have informed my thinking on that: USC’s Henry Jenkins advising parents to have their kids’ backs rather than look over their shoulders and University of Bournemouth’s Stephen Heppell illustrating the best way to mentor our young videogamers: turning videogaming into experiential learning.

Our children ground us. Yes we guide them, of course, but also they, their interests and their media uses need to guide us, our thinking and policy making. If we forget that, we leave ourselves out of their media experiences. We miss out on so much. And we delete our children’s agency and hand our authority and guidance over to technology (filtering, monitoring) and other people’s policies (rules, laws). This is not good for their long-term wellbeing.

As for zooming out

So instead of getting swamped by a new wave of moral panic, avoid jumping on this rocket-propelled surfboard and consider a satellite-type view now, so many years into the new media era.

What we could be seeing from this zoomed out position is an opportunity for genuine experiential learning, something we and our children cannot benefit from if we don’t take time as a society for what educators call “reflective observation,” which includes paying attention to the growing bodies of digital-media and youth-online-risk research worldwide. Without this reflection, it’s just experience; we haven’t turned it into learning. It runs away with us rather than becoming a tool for growth, moving forward and co-creating meaningful lives and helpful policies.

We can take a cue from the National Academies‘ 2016 report on bullying and cyberbullying, and get people with multiple types of expertise on youth in discussion together: education, law and policy, pediatrics, neurobiological development, criminology, technology, clinical and developmental psychology, as well as experts in behavioral engineering in tech. And we can take another cue from experts in other countries too – especially researchers studying youth online risk and safety. We have lots to learn from other countries and they from us. Founded a few years ago and now encompassing 12 countries, the Global Kids Online research network operates on the premise that “all children have their own identity and a set of personal resources (psychological and material) which partly influence how they go online (access), what they do online (practices/skills), and what opportunities and risks they encounter. What happens online is assumed to have some kind of impact on the well-being of the child,” these researchers say. “But this assumption is precisely what the model is designed to test.”

Youth input necessary

But there is no experiential learning about youth and media without active participation by youth – for obvious and ethical reasons. The call to honor young people’s digital rights in a balanced way is 3+ years old now. In 2014, author and law professor Urs Gasser of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center called for “enhanced engagement of children in the digital rights discourse,” and last year, in a special issue of the scholarly journal New Media & Society, Profs. Sonia Livingstone and Amanda Third wrote that, “over and again, efforts to protect [young people] unthinkingly curtail their participation rights in ways that they themselves are unable to contest, given the nature of Internet governance organizations.”

For wholly practical reasons – our need to understand their media use and their need for agency, voice and competency – our children must be in this discussion. Does the just-announced coalition get direct input from tech users under 18 and from researchers who do as part of their methodologies (e.g., “In their own words” and It’s Complicated)? Are the members consciously honoring young tech users’ rights of participation in this discussion and in balance with their rights of protection and provision – as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

So while we’re being urged to manage our social media, let’s manage the social media backlash too. It’s not all bad, but it will be bad if we let it manage us. This newest phase of it is not focused only on kids, of course, but they’re named as beneficiaries. And they are media’s early adopters, key stakeholders and future leaders of this networked world. They know the genie’s not going back in the bottle. It’s our job to help them see he’s not in charge – they are. Remember that, when the genie pops out of the bottle, he usually says, “Your wish is my command.” Let’s help our children exercise their powers for good online as well as offline. This may be a setback for social media, but we just mustn’t let it be a setback for the agency and rights of young media users.

Related links

  • Indicators of the social media reckoning, from a thoughtful keynote last July by Pew Research’s Lee Rainie to apps’ “behavioral engineering,” suggestions that smartphones “destroyed a generation,” news of Facebook’s changing newsfeed, the many efforts to defeat “fake news” (such as Harvard’s Shorenstein Center’s), and the growing number of great parenting books about mentoring young media users (two great examples: The Art of Screen Time and Screenwise).
  • This (research) just in!: One day after I posted this and timed to Safer Internet Day 2018 (Feb. 6), a headline in The Guardian read: “Digital media can enhance family life, says LSE study” – and here‘s the authors’ post about their study in the London School of Economics’s “Parenting for a Digital Future” blog. Don’t miss p. 4 of this policy brief based on that study; it elaborates on 5 “Key Messages” about our moving “beyond a sole focus on risk,” allowing for families’ “diverse approaches,” how “the emphasis on ‘screen time’ is misleading,” how “one size does not fit all,” and “roles for policymakers and industry.”
  • The clearest and most authoritative explanation of tech-related “addiction” (“problematic interactive media use,” or PIMU) I’ve seen is from Michael Rich, MD, at Harvard Medical School.
  • “Panicked about kids’ addiction to tech?” by parent and researcher danah boyd
  • “The Return of the Techno-Moral Panic” in the New York Times last Dec.
  • Block, monitor, control/regulate: For 15+ years, these have been the dominant messages to parents about tech and media. They suggest that children’s digital well-being comes entirely from forces external to them – and that control and surveillance are what keep people safe. Young people’s agency, values, and intelligence have not been acknowledged. So in 2013 I suggested that we balance external with internal “safety tools” (resilience, empathy, respect for self and others, ethics, social skills, media literacy and digital literacy). These safeguards may not be all that we need to avert behavioral engineering, but if we had spent the past decade and a half teaching the skills that empower us rather than dependence on external protections, we and our children would be in a stronger, less fearful place right now.
  • If there’s lobbying to be done, lobby to get a curriculum like Living Online Lab into U.S. education which gives students context for the media they’re using. It’s the only one I know of, and it teaches students about how the Internet got started, big data, algorithms, identity, privacy, digital rights, etc., etc.
  • Less parental control, more support of kids’ self-regulation,” about a large-sample national study in the UK
  • Facebook’s Messenger Kids: my thoughts last December on the newest digital parenting tool
  • 6 takeaways from 20 years of Internet safety,” Part 1 and Part 2
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