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Friday, May 01, 2009

Where will online teens go next?

Some of us are watching to see if, now that so many parents are joining Facebook, teens will migrate somewhere else (see this post, suggesting that mobile texting might be a sign of diversification vs. mass migration). In her YPulse blog, Anastasia Goodstein just asked a good (related) question: "Should Large Social Networks Give Teens Their Space Back?" Teens have always needed to have hangouts of their own, away from parents (online too, now). I posted a comment to that effect at YPulse but want to blog about this too because I think the social network space is in a bit of a transition right now, and parents and teens might want to think together about and weigh in on this.

Where online socializing's concerned, I can see merit to both sides of the debate - on one hand, that teens deserve their own space and should have their own social network sites and, on the other, that it's more "normal" or reflective of the "real world" for sites, worlds, and games such as MySpace, Facebook, and World of Warcraft not to age-segregate.

Some social sites and services - such as, Teen Second Life, and a forthcoming service called "My Secret Circle" - make segregation an actual safety feature, but I think segregation for safety will slowly be replaced by segregation by interest - people sharing interests such as fairies (as in Disney's PixieHollow), slopestyle skiing (as in NewSchoolers), or teens who aspire to be professional writers (as one teen told me is her reason for spending time on YourSphere). Segregation by interest brings a measure of safety with it, I believe, but you may be asking why I think segregation for safety is losing steam....

Because it's a response to the predator panic teens and parents have been subjected to in US society, not to the realities of youth on the social Web. What nearly a decade of peer-reviewed academic research shows is that peer-to-peer behavior is the online risk that affects many more youth, the vast majority of online kids who are not already at-risk youth offline (see the 12/08 Internet Safety Technical Task Force report's Executive Summary). Segregating teens from adults online doesn't address harassment, defamation, imposter profiles, cyberbullying, etc. It may help keep online predators away from kids (even though online predation, or abuse resulting from online communication, constitutes only 1% of overall child sexual exploitation, according to UNH's Crimes Against Children Research Center), which is a great outcome, but it's not enough unless all that parents are worried about is predators. A long-winded way of explaining why I think age segregation is losing steam: the facts are emerging, and parents, schools, policymakers, and businesses will increasingly respond to reality rather than hyperbole (call me an idealist, but isn't this the way it works?) - please post if you disagree.

So my vote's with diversification. Teens will simultaneously: 1) continue to diversify their platforms and channels for socializing (social sites have lost a percentage of teens' social/leisure time to texting on phones, but I think also to a lesser degree to massively multiplayer online games and gaming communities like Xbox Live and Sony Home); 2) stay in the giant, general-interest social network sites just because that's where everybody is and these really are social utilities that for teens have replaced email, chat, IM, etc. as separate social tools; and 3) also increasingly hang out together in vertical sites and other quiet corners of the Web where parents aren't around.

As for Anastasia's question about whether the giant sites should give teens their space back? I don't know about should because I'm sure she'll agree the business question is would they? And the answer is no, because their massive-traffic business models won't allow it. The logical question is where the social Web's natives and early adopters will choose to go not just to hang out, but to do the amazing array of things they use the fixed and mobile social Web for: keeping in touch, comparing class notes, designing, software writing, fiction writing, commentary writing, video producing, being entertained, job seeking, marketing, activism, solidarity - generally just the digital version of living. The answer to that, necessarily, is a vast and growing number of social media and technologies. I don't think it's going to be a giant monolithic thing like social networking again. But I definitely could be wrong about that. Please tell me if you disagree, especially if you know what the next big thing is!

Related links

  • "Living and learning with social media: Many American youth are embracing a wide array of social media as part of their everyday lives," a talk given by social media scholar danah boyd at Pennsylvania State University
  • For some background on social networking in general: "The Life and Death of the Social Network: The Glory Days Are Over"

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  • Thursday, April 30, 2009

    Schools twittering parents

    More and more schools are keeping parents informed via Twitter. “Tweets” - little 140-character messages and updates like phone text messages in a Web site - "about student achievement, homework, school plays and school boards in Georgia and across the nation are being sent to [parents] like breaking news bulletins interrupting network programming," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. As of the article's pub date this week (4/29), the Georgia Department of Education had the beginnings of a following, at 62 followers. "Forsyth County Schools, which debuted as the first metro Atlanta public school on Twitter in March, has 300 followers. That’s more eyes glued to its posts than the nation’s largest district, the New York City Department of Education, which only has 220," according to the Journal-Constitution. But - get this - Florida's Broward County School District has a whopping 900 followers, adding new ones at a rate of about 200 a week!

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    Fewer child-porn sites worldwide

    There were 10% fewer Web sites depicting child abuse images last year than in 2007, reports the Internet Watch Foundation, a UK nonprofit organization. However, the child-porn images on these sites are more violent, the IWF adds. Graphic violent images were found in 58% of child-porn sites last year, compared to 47% of the sites the year before. Also extremely concerning is that "24% of the children used in the photographs and videos appear to be 6 years old or younger," the IWF said. According to The Economist, "Self-regulation by Internet authorities and Internet service providers (ISPs) may be having some effect in combatting the worst kinds of online crime.... Although a worrying 1,530 sites were in operation globally, this is somewhat lower than the peak of almost 2,000 in 2006, perhaps because of more effective cooperation from ISPs and better data sharing with international authorities. The IWF notes that domains are often moved around every few days, making it much harder to block them."

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    Live video streaming from phones

    Think mobile Webcam. This is just the sort of tech development that's good for us parents to think about out of the gate: software that turns mere camera phones into videocams, making it that much easier for people to "broadcast" whatever they want live to the Web or another phone. Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute blogs about a spectrum of implications in the Huffington Post, but let's zoom in on the part about kids, "the early adopters of all things mobile," Balkam writes. "Parents have bought their teens and tweens mobile phones in the millions to keep in touch with them and, in some cases, track where they are at any given time. Do they realize they've just handed them a mobile production unit for live television? Will this take sexting and cyberbullying to a new and more challenging level?" Great fuel for family discussion!

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    Wednesday, April 29, 2009

    Zero tolerance = zero intelligence: Juvenile judge

    Most schools in the Atlanta area - "and across the nation" - have “zero-tolerance” policies where fighting's considered, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. But Judge Steven Teske, president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia, told the Journal-Constitution that "zero tolerance is zero intelligence. It’s merely a political response, a knee-jerk reaction and often not put much thought is put into it.” Under that policy, both bully and victim are disciplined and schools don't find out who the primary aggressor and get to the bottom of the problem, which can help change behavior. Aaron Hansen, principal of a middle school in Ely, Nevada, reportedly has had success identifying and working with bullies at his school to change their behavior - see this report at Fox News.

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    Anti-gay bullying most pervasive

    This month two 11-year-olds, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Mass., and Jaheem Herrera of DeKalb County, Ga. - neither of whom identified as gay - committed suicide after anti-gay harassment and bullying at school. "Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers," the Salt Lake Tribune reports, adding that "two of the top three reasons secondary school students said their peers were most often bullied at school were actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression." The Tribune was citing research by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and Harris Interactive. New York Times columnist Charles Blow cites even more data in an eloquent column, "Two Little Boys," where he considers why bullying of any kind, including what Carl and Jaheem endured, is so devastating for kids: "Children can’t see their budding lives through the long lens of wisdom - the wisdom that benefits from years passed, hurdles overcome, strength summoned, resilience realized, selves discovered and accepted, hearts broken but mended and love experienced in the fullest, truest majesty that the word deserves. For them, the weight of ridicule and ostracism can feel crushing and without the possibility of reprieve." GLSEN's latest study, its just-released "Harsh Realities," can be found here.

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    Tuesday, April 28, 2009

    Being up front about monitoring online kids

    I see no point in parents secretly monitoring kids' online activities - except if a parent feels a child is in danger and the child is unwilling to communicate or make a change in those activities and is being secretive him or herself. If those exceptional criteria are met and a child is at risk, surreptitious use of monitor software is very probably necessary. Otherwise, the only kind of monitoring I'd recommend - for the average kid who's not at risk offline and is lucky enough to have engaged parents (the vast majority of online kids) - is open monitoring involving lots of communication and maybe technology. Which is why I like the whole concept of Norton OnlineFamily: It's not just about technology. I'm not aware of any other online-safety or parental-control product or service designed from the ground up around in-person parent-child communication. "OnlineFamily is meant to be completely transparent between parent and child," writes USATODAY's Ed Baig in his review of the product. Also good: It's free till next January. "Symantec isn't committing to a price after that but says a one-year subscription is valued at $60," Baig adds. For video on the product, see Good Morning America.

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    Monday, April 27, 2009

    'Continuous partial attention...'

    ...leads to "continuous partial empathy"? "Continuous partial attention" is the way some researchers are describing what's happening when people communicate or socialize with social-media tools like Twitter, instant messaging, chat, texting, etc. Fast Company looks at a new report from the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, which argues that the brain is quick to recognize and empathize when people see physical pain or fear in others but "much slower to recognize and empathize with emotional pain.... What this means is that, in a media environment where our social encounters happen very quickly, we may not be giving our brains a chance to generate appropriate compassion or admiration." I wonder if writer Jamais Cascio (or the researchers, if this is their concern) is factoring in the fact that social-media users usually bring existing "real world" relationships to their social-networking, IM, and Twitter accounts, relationships in which empathy is often already established - that tweets and profile comments are not the all of their relating and socializing. SN comments are more effect than cause of relationships.

    But what this does suggest to me is that empathy, citizenship, and anti-bullying training in schools needs to be sure to fold the "continuous partial attention" element of online social networking into instruction. And what we might teach students is consideration - giving consideration as much as being considerate. Referring to what business consultants have been calling the new "attention economy," another Fast Company writer, Richard Kadrey, cautions - wisely, I think - that "what's limited isn't attention, but consideration [emphasis his]. Not just hearing, but listening. Not just seeing a message, but understanding its meaning." I think that goes for the social-media-enabled participatory culture in which our kids are so active. Think about this comment of Kadrey's in the context of teaching new media literacy: "It may be worth considering how we'd structure our digital world if the point wasn't just to 'pay attention' but to 'give consideration'" - perhaps another way to look at both critical thinking and empathy.

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