Statement on youth and social media from ConnectSafely.org

Video testimony by Larry Magid
The following written testimony by Anne Collier

After a full review of the youth-online-risk research, two key conclusions of the Harvard Berkman Center task force on which ConnectSafely’s co-directors served were that:

Not all young people are equally at risk online, and if any generalization can be made it’s that…
A child’s psychosocial make-up and home and school environment are better predictors of online risk than any technology the child uses.

In other words, whether a child’s experiences in social media are positive or negative depends on “real life,” not something new and challenging called “social networking.” The Internet (including its mobile aspects) increasingly mirrors all of human life as it’s expressed in real time – our socializing, communications, entertainment, creations, learning, etc. More and more, it’s driven by its users, globally, and its content is social, or behavioral. This is why the latest task force we served on – the Online Safety & Technology Working Group, under the Obama administration – entitled its 2010 report to Congress “Youth Safety on a Living Internet.” It’s also why, among other things, we called for instruction in digital citizenship and new media literacy as a national priority.

If you take away nothing else from your examination of social networking youth, it’s that their socializing online – just like their social lives offline – is highly individual, a reflection of them, their peer groups, and school social life. Their Facebook use is embedded in those lives, the research shows. Therefore – contrary to the surfeit of negative messages we have all been receiving about online youth for more than a decade – their online activity is not inherently negative. It’s positive, neutral, and negative – just like their social lives. And, like life for all of us, it includes some degree of risk. We’re doing young people, parents, educators, and care providers a disservice if we continue to characterize kids’ online experiences as largely negative and them always as potential victims.

We and they need to understand that they hold the key to how well their online experiences go. The drivers of the social Web are actually stakeholders in their own well-being and that of their peers and communities, online and offline – because, in this increasingly social media environment, safety, privacy, and reputation management are a shared proposition – sometimes a negotiation.

Good citizenship is protective. What the research has shown us is that digital citizenship is not just a nicety or luxury. Because media is now an environment where behavior occurs, just as in our physical environment, we ruin it for ourselves and others with mean, degrading behavior (see a 2007 finding in Archives of Pediatrics that aggressive behavior online more than doubles the aggressor’s risk). Civility and critical thinking are essential to our well-being in today’s media environment, where content is behavioral and social and children, like everybody, are producers as well as consumers – especially since we’re still all working out the social norms of this environment together.

How to mitigate risk?

Just as a person’s experience of risk in New York City depends on a bunch of factors – how old they are, where they are in the city, who they’re with, what they’re doing there, whether they know their way around, etc. – their risk in social sites also depends on a lot of factors. And just as in real life, we mitigate a child’s risk by looking at some of those factors. It’s hard to find sound bytes or bulleted lists that summarize how to mitigate risk for all kids online, except very generally:

For parents

Talk with your own kid(s) – find out if they’re using Facebook and how they’re using the Net in other ways – because it’s impossible to extrapolate your child’s experience from news stories about the most egregious expressions of risk and danger.

The most important subject: How are you treating your friends (online and offline), and how are they treating you? Other possible topics: How can we make sure there’s a balance of online and offline communication and media use in your life? What apps are you using – are they installing any malware on your computer, generating spam, etc.? Are you on top of your privacy settings – could you show me how you’ve set them?

Embrace cyberspace in your parenting: It may seem like it, but it’s not rocket science. If you’re intimidated, you’re not alone. Many parents are. But there’s help at your house: Ask your child to show you the ropes. That could be a great start for the ongoing conversation parents and kids need to have about social media. If your child flat-out refuses, there’s undoubtedly a great librarian (aka media specialist) at your local library who can help.

You may need to monitor. If a child’s not being communicative, first make sure it’s not because you’re being overreactive, fearful, threatening, or confrontational – those approaches tend to reduce parent-child communication and send kids “underground” online at a time when that’s very easy for them to do and when open communication is needed more than ever. After considering that, tell your child that, in order to be sure they’re ok online, you need to “friend” them on Facebook. You won’t write on their wall (and embarrass them, which could cause social problems for them), but you need to keep an eye on things (there are 3rd-party monitoring tools if your child reacts strongly against friending, but be up front with him/her about using them).

Talk about tech aids. Facebook and most other social media have privacy settings (we used to call them “Preferences” and “Options”). Talk them over with your child – figure them out together. There’s free help with the FB ones in our “Parents’ Guide to Facebook” at FBparents.org.

For schools

There are three parts to school risk mitigation, none of them the quick fixes everybody would love (because, again, this is life and relationships we’re talking about):

Policy. A clear policy on bullying and cyberbullying is essential, but so is a respectful school culture. If policies and investigations are only punitive, school will experience little alleviation of bullying and cyberbullying problems. Suspension rarely fixes relational problems between students, whether bullying (involving a physical, social, or psychological power imbalance) or just conflict. And bullying and cyberbullying are both based on relational issues. Investigations should be done by a multidisciplinary team that includes a school counselor or psychologist and, ideally, some student leaders. The immediate goal of an investigation is not discipline (certainly not expediency) but rather support for the targeted student(s) and restoration of order. The ultimate goal, ideally, is learning for all involved in the areas of critical thinking, perspective-taking, and citizenship.

Climate. Work hard on developing a positive, respectful culture that includes everyone: administration, students, faculty, staff, parents. School risk-prevention experts say a whole-school approach is the way to go, and that the social norms strategy – communicating consistently in actions and messaging to the entire community that “our school community is civil and respectful” – has a great deal more mitigation impact than punishment, one-off assemblies, or flyers sent home.

Technology. Encourage the use of educational social media in core-curricula classrooms, pre-K-12 wherever possible and feasible, because students need opportunities to practice good citizenship online in the structured environment of school. And because schools need to provide the same guidance in students’ use of new media that they’ve been providing for centuries with traditional media. Involve parents in tech adoption processes; their buy-in will reinforce all your efforts at school. Just because there is some risk doesn’t mean that schools should avoid social media. School sports have risks, but we don’t ban them and encourage kids to play in the street. We employ coaches and teachers to teach them the rules and how to play safely and fairly.

Conclusion

So safety on an increasingly social and behavioral Internet that’s embedded in kids’ lives needs to be kid-centric, not tech-centric. It’s important to help each other see that this is not scary new territory for anyone who loves and works with young people. We may – and increasingly need to – use some social media and technologies in the process of doing our parenting, teaching, law enforcement, health care, and social work, so that we can work with them in the media they love. But let’s not forget that what we’re talking about is still largely about child and adolescent development, parenting, teaching, etc., that there’s as much familiarity (and learning) to this as there is newness, and our children can help us with the technology part.

Resources:

“Survey: 7.5M Facebook users below minimum age”
“Under-age on Facebook: Thoughts for parents”
“A Parents’ Guide to Facebook”
“Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth”
• “Youth Safety on a Living Internet,” the 2010 report to Congress by the Obama administration’s Online Safety & Technology Working Group (OSTWG)
“The OSTWG report: Why a ‘living Internet?” by OSTWG co-chair Anne Collier
“Net threat to minors less than feared” by Larry Magid on the Berkman task force report
• About a talk by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at UNH: “Juvenoia, Part 1: Why Internet fear is over-rated” and “Juvenoia, Part 2: So why are we afraid?”
• On how ‘Facebook depression’ claim is research-challenged, from Larry Magid on CNET and Anne Collier in NetFamilyNews.org
Hanging out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living & Learning with New Media – MIT Press, 2009


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