We need to neutralize ‘negativity bias’ against kids’ Net use

By Anne Collier

This post is not about technology. It’s about how we (humankind) have been wiring our brains to think about technology. We have quite a hole to climb out of. Not only are our brains already “wired to scout for the bad stuff,” the Huffington Post reports, referring to what neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson calls our “negativity bias.” We’ve been reinforcing that bias with at least 15 years of largely negative news coverage and “awareness-raising” about new media’s effects on children.

“The brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones. This ‘negativity bias’ causes the brain to react very intensely to bad news, compared to how it responds to good news – research has even shown that strong, long-lasting relationships require a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions in order to thrive” because “negative interactions affect us so much more strongly. The brain has evolved to be constantly scanning for threats, and when it finds one, to isolate it and lose sight of the big picture.”

So we’re naturally much more likely to retain bad news, and that has an impact on household, school, and national policymaking. It even has an impact on our research agendas.

Key researcher calls for more balance

In a recent keynote speech, psychologist and long-time youth online risk researcher Sonia Livingstone looked at the “big picture” from every angle, in terms of geography (global) and focus. She said researchers might consider giving more focus to the benefits of Internet use for children. She didn’t say anybody should stop researching risk, but that too often we stop there – “we measure the risk of the risk,” she said, rather than moving on to figure out what harm actually results. And she said we stop at opportunities without following through to understanding the benefits of Internet use.

“If our knowledge of children’s digital experiences is really to guide policy … we somehow need to make the move from talking about risks to talking about harm and we need to move from talking about opportunities to really measuring and tracking benefits,” Dr. Livingstone said. “How do we want children to participate in the digital age and how are we going to find a way to allow very risk-averse societies [like the US and UK] to let children try things out and build their resilience in so doing?”

Greater safety with balance

There’s a message in there for parents and educators too – that we need to be careful not to be so focused on the negative that we’re not allowing our children to do the exploring, learning and risk assessment that develop the resilience and social skills that protect them well beyond leaving home and high school. Negativity “makes it hard for us to learn from our positive experiences, even though learning from your positive experiences is the primary way to grow inner strength,” neuropsychologist Rick Hanson said. That’s the resilience Livingstone and other researchers have been talking about, the internal safeguards I feel we haven’t been focusing on enough in “Internet safety education”: resilience; empathy; digital, media and social literacy; and a strong inner guidance system (sometimes called a moral compass).

Hanson offers five tactics for neutralizing a “negativity bias” (please see the article for them, starting with “Take in the good”). [My thanks to Nancy Willard of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age for pointing the Huffington Post piece out.]

Sidebar: The ‘wild west’ metaphor

At the very end of the Oct. 17 event at Harvard University, Livingstone talked about the “wild west” metaphor so often applied to the Internet. We think it’s so yesterday, but it isn’t, she said – we still think about the Internet in stark “wild west” terms, with just good guys and bad guys. She spoke of watching a John Wayne film on her grandparents’ black and white TV “as a very small child [in the UK] many decades ago,” then later visiting one of those bleak western town movie sets in the US. She said that what made that scene that John Wayne walked into so scary was what we couldn’t see then and what we’re not seeing about the Internet now (I’d add what we have a bias against seeing): “a whole host of infrastructure, of culture, of norms, of ways of behaving, ways of looking out for children, ways of providing for and ways of allowing children to be protected….

“That’s what isn’t there online and I do think that’s what we’re evolving, and when we do it, there will be cities and towns and countrysides and they will be fantastically different all over the Internet just like they’re fantastically different all over the world. So that’s my John Wayne metaphor,” she said. “It was the absence of all that stuff that makes us civilized that we don’t yet have online but that we are developing.”

I doubt Livingstone views the Internet as a new, separate reality where special online social norms are developing from scratch. Even she said earlier in her talk that it represents every aspect of everyday life and is embedded in it (in many countries). So I’d like to take it a step further and say we’re not developing new protective norms online, we’re learning that they’re already there, because “online” is part of life, where social norms and culture have been developing for millennia. LIFE is the context under discussion, here – life that has digital aspects, not a separate digital life that needs its own norms (or a whole new kind of citizenship).

The Internet can’t, shouldn’t – actually won’t ever – have a completely new set of social norms all its own. It’s only as long as we think of the Internet as a brand-new or separate reality that we’ll think of it as a “wild west” that has no social norms or cultural infrastructure and needs to get some. As fear of the unknown fades, we’ll use these digital tools and spaces more effectively and we’ll increasingly rely on – and teach our children to make good use of – our well-established social norms in digital spaces too. That’s what I think Livingstone is saying is happening (I’ve learned some of this from her). And I predict that, as we neutralize the “negative bias” and actually see those protective social norms flowing into the digital parts of life, we’ll experience a flood of creativity in 21st-century education, policymaking and parenting.

Related links

  • A UN economic development report released last month focuses on the positive: “Report Calls on Policymakers to Make Happiness a Key Measure and Target of Development,” its press release says.
  • Sonia Livingstone, who pioneered Europe’s youth online risk research with the EU Kids Online project, co-wrote a paper for UNESCO about developing a research agenda for the world, one aimed at learning from less-developed countries (where most people are hopping online for the first time with mobile phones) and helping them fill in the research picture started in developed countries. She proposes that future research be framed the way children’s rights are framed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: into three categories: protection, provision (of basic needs) and participation (in the community) for all children.
  • Amanda Lenhart, senior researcher at the Pew Internet Project, also stressed at the Harvard gathering the importance of balancing risks and opportunities, “and not having us just focus on risk, risk, risk, risk, harm, harm, harm, but on the good things that can come out of this [global research] so that good stories and bad stories can be told from this research and that it can really be used to make positive policy.”
  • About three key EU Kids Online studies, the first two earlier this year, “In their own words: What bothers children online,” “Study on long-neglected factor in Net safety: Resilience,” and “From Europe: Top 10 Internet risks
  • Last month, in “Challenging Internet safety as a subject to be taught,” I proposed a more balanced, literacy-plus-risk-prevention approach to Internet safety education too: enable children’s effective use by teaching the literacies of today’s media (media literacy, digital literacy, social literacy) and provide risk prevention education that places so-called “Internet risks” in the context of existing, well-established risk-prevention education (e.g., bullying, sexual health, sexual harassment/dating abuse, etc.).