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Turning now to 2018: Parenting & social media’s ‘breakup’

Think about this in terms of parenting and policymaking: “social” and “media are splitting up. 2018 will be the beginning of the end of “first-generation social media,” as tech reporter Taylor Lorenz put it. So when we’re parenting and setting policy about young people’s use of social media (at household, school and national levels), it’d be helpful to understand what’s happening with “social media.”

"Loading 2018"

(Graphic CC licensed)

To those of us who’ve been following media & kids a couple of decades, media’s taking a step backward to take who-knows-how-many steps forward: the social part’s becoming more private again and the media part more about public and broadcasting. Weird. But our kids’ use of Snapchat predicted it: “More and more, social media use in the traditional sense (individuals posting to public spheres) is done by an older demographic, whereas Generations Y and Z have moved their conversations to closed communication platforms such as Snapchat, WhatsApp and SMS,” reports WGBH Boston’s Tory Starr in the smartest look-back on 2017 media and tech I’ve seen this year.

The split

“By 2019 or even 2020, the wide-ranging, free-wheeling, oftentimes unmannerly dialogue that is the hallmark of social media today will have moved to closed networks,” e.g., our kids’ peer groups. Are you with me in seeing an upside to this? Harassment, trolling and hate speech feed on visibility. They won’t go away, of course, but the fuel, the public and social part, takes a back seat to the media part.

“Platforms seem to be anticipating this shift,” writes Lorenz at NiemanLab. “Snapchat announced it would split the chat function from its media portal in November. Facebook has tested a content-only news feed devoid of status updates by friends and launched Watch, a video portal that contains highly produced content from publishers and media partners. Instagram is spinning off its messaging function into Instagram direct,” as Facebook did with Messenger.

Have you noticed that, parents? You’re right in there with your kids if you’re having fun Snapchatting as well as texting with them. Facebook Messenger Kids is also good social media 2.0 “training” for family members of multiple generations – a great social media supplement to attentive, in-person interaction among family members in everyday life. [Or social media 3.0, actually, because 2.0 was when it went mostly mobile.]

On the media side of the “social media” split, “Facebook, Twitter and other public-facing social media platforms will become public vehicles for video content with an element of interaction [emphasis mine],” writes WGBH’s Starr. She adds that “it appears the hope for real, genuine conversations between strangers on social platforms was…a fleeting – albeit enticing – moment in history.”

A new kind of stability

We all feel like we’re running out of breath as we try to keep up with technology’s pace. That’s because, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman reports, it now takes humans “10-15 years to understand a new technology and then build out new…regulations to safeguard society…when the technology has come and gone in 5-7 years.” That’s in his latest book, Thank You for Being Latewhere he suggests that what will help us catch up, or at least deal with change’s acceleration, is not giving up stability but seeing it differently.

What might help is the bicycle metaphor. It’s not that there’s no longer any stability, it’s that there’s a new kind – a moving kind. On a bicycle, you can’t stand still; it’s a whole lot easier once you’re moving. Friedman calls this “dynamic stability” rather than the static kind. Our kids can help us with that – and parenting becomes much more meaningful, as well as easier, when we’re moving with them, right? Presence helps with that. So does being playful (see this about that).

Pop culture participation

Amanda Hess offers lots of examples of what’s been happening too – in an appropriately visual way. If you’re looking for a very accessible overview of how people young and old are using media now, do not miss “Internetting with Amanda Hess,” a series of 5 approximately 4 min. videos about Internet culture right now. There is so much packed into these little episodes – I want to watch them yet again. For example, Amanda talks about…

  • “The ugly business of beauty apps”: “Putting your face on the Internet is no different from showing up at a party and seeing your friends, but these apps don’t care about our becoming fully realized people online” – a good media literacy lesson for our kids (remember the news of “Am I pretty?” videos 5 years ago?). There is so much for families and media classes to talk about here (Episode 2).
  • “Meet my bitmoji”: Because feelings and emotions are hard to express online, we now “outsource our emotions,” Hess says, which is clever but not quite accurate. She continues: “Now all these little patches have popped up to help us express how we feel – emojis, text formatting and animated gifs.” That’s it. It’s not full-on outsourcing; gifs, emojis and other little graphical expressions of how we feel, think, etc., are just helping, not in any way replacing, our self-expression. In some ways, this is just a very creative, playful new form of it – and of participation. It can be a safe form of participation too, safer than coming out and saying something, sometimes.
  • Beware your inner conspiracy theorist: She talks about “database paranoia” as “the sheer access to so much information makes us feel like there’s something significant hiding in it…. These days even conspiracy theorists are struggling to keep up.” A lot is coming at us, which makes critical thinking more important than ever. I predict we’re going to be talking more and more about resilience and self-regulating anxiety and judgment.
  • Shapeshifting memes shapeshifting politics, culture: Hess talks about how memes affect politics (“There’s no longer any fixed idea of a candidate [or anybody, really] that can be disrupted by a gaff…. Any moment can be manipulated to a positive or negative, depending on your allegiance”) and how politicians and their fans use memes to spread manipulation. She also talks about how old ways of thinking and behaving, such as racism, encode themselves into new technologies (note what she says about “ironic racisim”).
  • How powerless control is: “Trying to shut down a meme only feeds it” or causes it to shapeshift or get appropriated by the very people it was originally meant to attack. Hess gives great examples.

Wow, right? To all the above. So it would be a good idea not to view and set policy on children’s use of social media through a scratchy old first-generation social media lens. And it would not be good to set policy without their input. Because the only clear lens we’ve got, really, is our children’s use of tech and media – and, for the big picture, what research turns up. Also because the Internet is increasingly illustrating for us that we can’t enforce policy if we see its would-be beneficiaries merely as subjects, rather than agents and participants in their own right. They know how to deal with rapid change – they don’t know life without it – so they can help us stay on that metaphorical bike.

Related links

  • Don’t miss Tory Starr’s8 Things We Learned about Social Media in 2017,” and not just the one about how 2017 was “when social media became a punching bag.” We collectively got less utopian, which is good, but the backlash is still too shallow to accomplish anything. “We need to examine deeper societal factors instead of merely blaming the technology,” Starr writes, and we need smarter responses, e.g., what Friedman describes as “use-by dates” for laws and regulations. “Government regulators need to…be as innovative as the innovators,” he wrote. And I’d add, given the waning power of control mentioned above, it’ll have to be more about collaboration – among corporations, users, public interest groups and regulators – than power-wielding.
  • Researchers in 32 countries recommend mediated rather than restrictive parenting where digital media’s concerned (short English-language videos from each of them starting on p. 21 of this mixed-media report from EU Kids Online)– “mediated,” as in working and playing with them in media rather than merely restricting its use. As for risks they might face online, the research project’s director, Sonia Livingstone, wrote elsewhere that what should be in the back of our minds whenever we see reports about “online risk” is that, if data’s being presented, it’s showing “the probability of something happening, but whether [that something] does [actually result in harm] and for how many it does, remains unknown” (see this for more on that).
  • What hasn’t changed is that parents and kids use technology differently. Way back in 2003, Dr. Herb Lin, research scientist and editor of the first National Academies report on youth and digital media (when content was our main concern), told me that was a big takeaway for him when he was producing that (he thought “out loud” with me about what that meant for parenting his then-8 year-old daughter).
  • About those gifs: This is a global media culture/popular culture story all by itself – how people all over the world are, through gifs, drawing on “a globalized media ecosystem to express themselves online,” per “What Love and Sadness Look Like in 5 Countries, According to Their Top GIFs” in today’s (12/29) New York Times. You can bet that, if your children use social media, they’re participating in this creative, playful, sometimes funny, sometimes mean practice, at the peer group level or the planetary one. So jump in – and encourage media literacy education that includes this visual media participation (over the holidays, our family let gifs “speak [joke] for us” a lot, in strings of text-free text messages, courtesy of the Giphy app). Here’s TechCrunch on imgur, now with “more than 250 million users” and “Snacks,” the imgur version of Snapchat and Instagram “Stories.” [I don’t know if this is still entirely the case, but last year described imgur as the image-sharing service and Giphy as the GIF database and search service.]
  • The New Yorker’s famous cartoon “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog” turns 25 next year. Whoa! It was published in 1993, a year before the first Web browser, Mosaic, became Netscape, the Washington Post reported. Thirteen years later, in 2006, Slate’s Michael Kinsley grumpily marked the rise of social media declaring, “On the Internet, everybody knows you’re a dog.” Gosh, this coming year, it may be more like, “On the Internet, only your friends know you’re a dog.”
  • About “The state of global youth, digitally speaking from UNICEF, researchers and – to all their credit – youth themselves, in 26 countries
  • My post last month on “Online safety now, predictions for 2020”
  • Posted back in 2012, “The whitewater kayaking kind of learning needed today” about another visionary’s view of dynamic stability – John Seely Brown’s
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