By Anne Collier
The subhead might be: “Birth and growth under the digital microscope” or “The ‘observer effect’ with digital media.” And a red-tailed hawk family in New York City is the metaphor. In this case, mom and dad hawks built a nest outside the window of the 12th-floor office of New York University’s president, and “furnished it with three speckled buff-white eggs,” the New York Times reports. The Times set up a Webcam, er, “Hawk Cam,” so the world could watch the chicks hatch and grow. The story in yesterday’s paper is about how, after the university’s president waxes a little poetic about the transcendence nature brings to things, things “turned out a little messier and perhaps a little less transcendent” than initially felt – not just with the bits of plastic painter tarp, hand towel, and artificial Easter grass in the nest but with the drama of man and nature’s “fraught interactions” and man’s fraught speculation: Maybe incubation was going on too long, maybe the chicks were dead; then maybe the swelling from that metal wildlife-identification band too high on the mother hawk’s leg would kill her, which would in turn kill the chicks; maybe she should be treated, but maybe treatment at the Bronx Zoo would increase the risk to mother and chicks; etc. In other words, put nature under a microscope (or Webcam), then we can fix it. Or not. (As of yesterday’s reporting, mother hawk and chicks seem to have survived her human-caused injury.)
Social ‘kid cam’ effect on parents
So what does this metaphor have to do with human drama in the digital age? Digital media allow us the same kind of close, blow-by-blow observation of our children’s public lives and social interactions – sub in the Facebook “Kid Cam” for “Hawk Cam.” That exposure is causing us increased anxiety and inclination to intervene (see my “juvenoia” parts 1 and 2 ). But does our anxiety lead to intelligent action, when we know that risk assessment is a necessary part of adolescent development? Are we really thinking about when and how intervention actually helps? I asked myself these questions in the wee hours of this past Saturday night. While one son is backpacking with a friend in Southeast Asia, the other, five years younger, is transitioning from middle to high school and apparently a new, broader group of friends representing new social pressures, with new anxieties for him and thus his parents. But, I asked myself, do they learn what they’re meant to learn if we intervene or try to micromanage their experiences? We parents have, I think, the lowest tolerance ever for their risk-assessment process – and quite possibly one of lowest-ever levels of respect for our children’s ability to negotiate those risks. The Kid Cam is not helping, contrary to what we reflexively think. (Though of course it’s not just an observation tool, it’s also our kids’ self-expression, collaboration, research, social, etc. tool, so there are multiple reasons why it needs to be handled with care).
So what are some takeaways from the hawk family?
1. That, through many “streams” (Facebook, monitoring software, parent-child texting, conversations, everyday family life, the grapevine, the news), we now have a very powerful Kid Cam providing nearly 24-hour exposure to the minutia of our children’s lives and thoughts.
2. That the temptation to intervene or “fix” situations probably grows in proportion to the granularity and constancy of that exposure
3. That the observer’s intervention very possibly may not be needed and can sometimes be destructive, so we need to think carefully before yielding to intervention temptation.
And in social media, the 24/7 Web cam is much more wide-angle than a single child’s Saturday night, of course. We see bits and pieces of the messy human-growth experiment in many lives and on many levels, from a child’s social circle to the social drama of entire peer groups in a school to, depending on the tools we use and the people we follow with them, the working out of the social Web’s social norms worldwide (an experiment that will yield the norms that prevent and protect online as well as offline going forward). Social media afford tremendous, sometimes overwhelming observational powers. So the advice of “Uncle Ben” to Peter Parker (aka Spider-man) – related by University of Southern California Prof. Henry Jenkins in his talks about youth and social media – is as valuable to parents as it is to kids: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The ‘observer effect’ in social media
So back to the Hawk Cam metaphor: What the Hawk Cam shows is part problem but mostly plain old hawk life in an urban setting – in addition to some not-so-pretty aspects of the hawk-human nexis. But the medical rescue team didn’t end up intervening. It thought twice. Maybe the “observer effect” of social media is like that of the Hawk Cam experience: not that the observer necessarily increases the drama observed but maybe that the observer’s (the parent’s, the government’s, etc.) *sense* of drama is increased by all the observation – which can then lead to an increase of the drama if the “dramatized” (traumatized) observer chooses to intervene! At least our willingness to wait and see how things get worked out plummets in proportion to the constancy of our monitoring. Does that make sense? Another way to put it might be: It’s a good idea to think twice before getting so caught up in what we’re observing, often out of context, that we become more of a problem than what we’re observing. Social media is demanding an awful lot of us – so, like Uncle Ben said, “With great power….”
[Lots of thinking “out loud” here, so please comment in my blog, with additions, arguments, insights, etc. I’d love to get your thoughts!}