Net safety: How social networks can be protective

By Anne Collier

Hmm. It’s arresting to think about what Stewart Wolf, M.D. – discovered and presented at medical conferences, as told by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – in the context of social media and online safety today. Back in the 1950s, he found a community in Pennsylvania statistically very free of the No. 1 medical concern of the time, heart disease, and looked into what was going on there. When Wolf presented his research, he found that his skeptical colleagues “weren’t thinking about health in terms of community [emphasis Gladwell’s].” Now sub in (online) “safety” for “health”: “Wolf and [his co-researcher, sociologist John] Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn’t be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual’s personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were….”

Now add the online piece
A child’s (anybody’s) safety and wellbeing have a lot to do with his community offline and online, since the research shows that our online social networks are largely our offline ones.

Almost echoing Dr. Wolf, USATODAY reports that, “for the most part, being part of a social network is good for you…. For example, a study in this month’s Scientific American Mind finds that social support and social networking offer benefits, from additional resilience to greater life satisfaction to reducing the risk of health problems. Other studies in the past two years have found that feeling like a part of a larger group helps in stroke recovery and memory retention and boosts overall well-being.” And the co-authors of a new book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, report that so much of what we think of as individual, e.g., body shape, politics, happiness, are really “collective phenomena.”

About peer groups, not technology
The USATODAY piece is balanced, pointing to author and Iowa State University prof. Michael Bugeja’s concern that we’re not looking at online social networks enough from a computer-science perspective. But what we’re addressing in the field of youth online safety is much more about young people’s interests, social groups, and home and school environments than about computer science – as pointed out in last year’s Internet Safety Technical Task Force review of Net-safety research through last year. The studies in the USATODAY article that look at community are more helpful to moving the youth-risk discussion forward, suggesting that we consider three things: the impact of an individual’s community (online and offline) on his or her well-being; how the individual affects the community; and how the community functions and addresses problems for its members (as a group of people, not a site or technology).

The guild effect
On that third item, author and USC media professor Henry Jenkins made the point at our Online Safety & Technology Task Force meeting in Washington this month that online communities themselves tend to shape members’ behavior to protective effect, e.g., through social norming or influencing, behavior modeling, and peer pressure or ostracism. Educators who play World of Warcraft tell me this community self-regulation certainly happens in the “guilds” of that massively multiplayer online game.

So when we work in the field of youth online safety, it might be helpful to think about young people, its intended beneficiaries, in context – as participants in their online/offline communities rather than potential victims, as we have so much in the past. As for those communities: there may be times when outside intervention (from, say, friends, parents, or Customer Service) is necessary but other times when a little time is needed to allow the community itself to sort out how to deal with antisocial behavior. The other piece that needs more consideration is how to encourage youth to develop a “guild effect” in their online environments, so they’re invested in the wellbeing of the community and fellow members, as well as themselves.

From interest-driven to friendship-driven
Not that they aren’t already doing this. “Kids play socially…. We’re growing a bunch of people who see what they do as social and collaborative and as part of joining communities,” said author and Arizona State University literacy studies professor James Paul Gee in an interview with PBS Frontline for “Digital Nation.” He talks about how young people quite naturally function in “teams,” where “everybody is an expert in something but they know how to integrate their expertise with everybody else’s; they know how to understand the other person’s expertise so they can pull off an action together in a complicated world.”

What this suggests to me is that “the guild effect” (safe, civil behavior as a social norm) kicks in quite naturally in “interest-driven” social networking, one of the two forms of social networking described in last year’s study from the Digital Youth Project (see “*Serious* informal learning“). The question is, how can the guild effect be just as effective in “friendship-driven” social networking and across the entire social Web, fixed and mobile? I think this may be the central question for online safety going forward.

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