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Friday, January 23, 2009

Youth perspective essential

I've been reading social media scholar danah boyd's PhD dissertation, "Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics," the result of her 2.5-year enthnograpic study of how teens use social-network sites. The study is unique in a couple of ways: she was like an embedded reporter, not a data cruncher, and she approached her fieldwork very differently than most adults - "with the belief that the practices of teenagers must be understood on their own terms."

I think the perspective this approach brings is essential to understanding teen use of social networking, a medium so youth-driven - not the only perspective, just one very important one. Sure, the data crunchers of quantitative research ask young people questions, but those questions are generally formulated by adults. We can't sufficiently understand teen social networking when we view it through an adult lens. Just as always in parenting, but even more so now with our digital natives, we need multiple inputs - our own children's, that of current teen practices and behaviors in general, that of research where available, and that of the contexts (school, community, society) in which young people are growing up.

So the other day, when boyd was blogging about the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report released last week (she led its research team) and wrote, "I strongly believe that we need to stop talking about the Internet as the cause and start talking about it as the megaphone," she was referring to two perspectives. The adult view is that the Internet (or Net-based technologies such as social networking) is the cause, while the youth (and researchers') view is that it's more the amplifier of the problem. [Other distinguishing and destabilizing factors the Net brings to the mix, boyd says, are persistence and searchability (Net as permanent searchable archive), replicability (the ability to copy 'n' paste from one site or phone to another), scalability (that anything posted has high-visibility potential), invisible audiences (not always thought of before posting), collapsed contexts (lack of spatial and social boundaries), and the blurring of public and private (the one probably best-known to parents).]

The rest of boyd's post about the Task Force is really worth considering too: "The Internet makes visible how many kids are not ok. We desperately need an integrated set of compassionate solutions. Digital social workers are needed to reach out to troubled kids and guide them through the rough spots. Law enforcement is vital for tracking down dangerous individuals, but we need to fund them to investigate and prosecute. Parents and educators are desperately needed to be engaged and informed. Technical solutions are needed to support these different actors. But there is no magic silver bullet. The problems that exist cannot be solved by preventing adults from communicating with minors (and there are huge unintended consequences to that, including limiting social workers from helping kids), and they cannot be solved by filtering the content. It's also critical that we engage youth in the process because many of them are engaging in risky behaviors that put them in the line of danger because of external factors that desperately need to be addressed."

In that point, boyd's echoing the Task Force report's finding that children's psychosocial makeup and the conditions around them are better predictors of online risk face than what technology they use. [For more on the Task Force report, see "Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released."]

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