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Friday, May 22, 2009

Debating cyberbullying legislation

It's called the Cyberbullying Prevention Act of 2009, but some are calling it the "Censorship Act of 2009." The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), "is designed to prevent cyberbullying, making it punishable by a fine and up to two years in prison," reports. One critic of the bill, UCLA law Prof. Eugene Volokh, said that - if the law were passed - he could go to jail for what he's blogged about the law! And my co-director at ConnectSafely, Larry Magid, told Fox News that "you can't legislate against meanness." MSNBC columnist Helen A.S. Popkin suggests that, with laws like this, legislators seem to be clear on principles but not on where the Internet comes in, as a reflection of humanity good and bad. "You know how shutting down the 'erotic services' section on Craigslist won't stop sex workers, or eliminate their higher probability of becoming crime victims by the marginalized nature of the trade? Similarly, outlawing meanness on the Internet won’t prevent hectors from preying on the weak on the Internet or turn jerks into saints in any aspect of their lives." And here's what really resonates with me: "Unfortunately, sensation rallies a mob more efficiently than adequate research and dissemination of critical information: how to recognize dangerous behavior, mental illness and suicide risk in teenagers, no matter the stressor," Popkin writes. Representative Sanchez defended her bill in the Huffington Post.

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A 'Glympse' of your kid's whereabouts

Glympse is a new geolocation tool that's very different from the "social mapping" services I've seen so far. You download it to a cellphone the way you do Loopt and Google's Latitude, but the key difference is the tracking times out. You track the phone only for a session set by the phone's owner. That's why it's called "Glympse." I like this concept because it requires parent-child communication. Here's what I mean: A kid's going to a game in the next town. The parent wants to be sure she gets there ok. The parent asks the child to send him a Glympse, and he can track her for the time they've decided it should take her to get there. He can track her progress on a Web page, courtesy of Google Maps, and even tell how fast she's driving. Once the session's over - say 45 minutes later - she's no longer being tracked. Dad can always call her up again in a few hours and request a Glympse that tracks her home. I'm not saying parents should use this service, and certainly not constantly, but I like that it 1) affords a young person some measure of privacy if her safety's somehow of concern (maybe it's used as a repercussion rather than all the time!) and 2) promotes conversation (rather than mere control, I hope). As TechCrunch blogger Jason Kincaid puts it, it's tracking without the social network (TechCrunch has photo). Here's an audio interview my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid did with Glympse CEO Bryan Trussel at CNET. [Glympse, loopt, and Google are supporters of, which I co-direct.]

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Harassed online, teen star bites back

Miley Cyrus, aka Disney's Hannah Montana, has tweeted against cyberbullies. She "posted an angry tirade on her Twitter page following a flurry of criticism about her weight after she joked about her thighs jiggling," Reuters reports. She told her harassers to stop calling her fat, writing, "I don't even like the word. Those remarks that you hateful people use are fighting words, the ones that scar people and cause them to do damage to themselves or others." She suggested that people who spend a lot of time gossiping should "read their Bible" and articles about how cyberbullying affects people. Reuters adds that, over the past 10 years, 37 US states have adopted laws requiring schools to implement anti-bullying policies.

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YouTube's new profanity filter

YouTube, where billions (yes, billions) of videos are viewed each month, has a new feature for users not interested in verbal abuse. If you want to read the text comments under a video and don't care to see swear words, lewd comments, or racial slurs, you can "bleep" them out with "Filter W*rds." Just go to any video and look for "Text Comments" under it. Under "Options" just to the right, check "Filter W*rds" (you can also just hid all the comments). YouTube's parent, Google, says it knows this is a small step and not a parental-control tool or anything. The aim is just to give users more control over their experience on YouTube. So far, Filter W*rds only works for English words. Here's the page about this in YouTube's Help section. Meanwhile, Americans viewed 14.5 billion online videos just during the month of March, according to comScore (the latest figure available), up 11% over February. YouTube provided about 41% of those video views (5.9 billion). The No. 2 online video provider is Fox Interactive (with about 3% of video market share, or 437 million views), and No. 3 is Hulu at about 2.6%, or 380 million views.

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Criticism of, changes at Craigslist

Apparently responding to criticism that it was facilitating prostitution, online classified ads giant Craigslist is making some changes. It "will replace its 'erotic services' section with a new adult category that will be more closely monitored, the Washington Post reports. Craigslist, which gets "an estimated 20 billion page views worldwide a month" for a huge variety of ads, says every ad in the new category will be reviewed by a person, and there will be no sex-for-money ads or pornographic images. On the one hand, that doesn't stop people from placing inappropriate ads in other categories; on the other hand that would make such ads harder to find in a medium where there are many sites dedicated to adult content and services. Police cited in a separate article in the Post caution against (anyone) using the Web to arrange in-person meetings and going alone without notifying anyone. Later this week Craigslist sued South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, "asking a judge to stop him from threatening to prosecute [the company's] executives ... on prostitution or obscenity charges," the Boston Herald reports. CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote in the Craigslist blog that "many prominent companies, including AT&T, Microsoft, and Village Voice Media, not to mention major newspapers and other upstanding South Carolina businesses feature more 'adult services' ads than does Craigslist, some of a very graphic nature," according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

School & social media: Uber big picture

When I think about how the book, enabled by Gutenberg's press, was pretty controversial back in the day (15th c.) and probably didn't make it into "school" for a while (though it fueled the Renaissance and the Reformation), maybe I understand why there's resistance to using today's media - called social media - in school. But things are moving a little faster these days, and students are actively using social media anyway outside of school (books were less accessible to students in the 15th and 16th centuries than the participatory Web is today). Social media researchers tell us some amazing informal learning is going on in this out-of-school use (see the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth research findings), but what about the formal learning part - the potential for student engagement in school (and community, government, etc.) if media so compelling to students could be used in schools nationwide - not to mention the potential for schools themselves, and for the advancement of American education as a whole in this shrinking world, where the US ranks 15th in terms of per capita broadband penetration, as the Financial Times reports?

Books and literature were made so meaningful to me in AP English - in school - way back before social media. Now social media, e.g., Teen Second Life, can help schools help make literature more meaningful to students. I watched a presentation by New York educator Peggy Sheehy at NECC (the National Educational Computing Conference) last summer, showing how the courtroom scene in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was acted out by students (playing judge, jury members, DA, court reporter, etc.) in a virtual world. She said they mined that book, read every word, so they could play their roles intelligently. Here's what an educator in Connecticut writes about what's happening at Peggy's school. Other prime examples are what Global Kids is doing for students in and after school in New York City and what Digitales' digital storytelling workshops are doing for students in schools around the country (e.g., this one). The work of these educators and the visionary administrators and superintendents behind them is key to school's relevance to students as well as to American education's competitiveness in the developed world (see Appendix B of the New York-based Joan Ganz Cooney Center's study "Pockets of Potential" for classroom mobile social-media projects in 7 other countries).

But that's not all. These educators know how to increase the value of social media for youth by making new media as meaningful and enriching for them as my AP English teachers made books for me. That's a lifelong gift to students as well as to a society that can't afford to lose the engagement of its youth. Renewed relevance is also a gift to schools, of course.

Team of Rivals author Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us Abraham Lincoln was desperate to get his hands on books - any book. Today's youth probably have a comparable level of interest in all forms of social media: virtual worlds, social sites and technologies, online games, vertical-interest online communities, and all of the above on phones as well as on the Web. That presents schools with an opportunity as much as a challenge. Maybe parents, law enforcement, and policymakers can help schools shift the focus more toward the opportunity side so that school can seem less like the "prison house" referred to by British educator John Gibson (see the BBC). New media are a little scary to anyone who doesn't understand them. But then there's the promise they hold. In a way, we're back at the beginning of the Renaissance.

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Schools as 'prison houses': Misunderstanding media

I'm not sure what the game of "conkers" is like but, at the gut level, UK Independent Schools Association chair John Gibson certainly resonates, probably with most parents, when he says that playing outside "as a child and taking part in activities such as putting an oily chain back on a bike, or playing conkers, exposes children to emotions such as disappointment which prepare them for adulthood," as the BBC reports. He told the Association's annual conference that "many children are living in a 'prison-like environment' surrounded by technology," according to the BBC. Part of that makes some sense - and echoes UK clinical psychologist Tanya Byron's suggestion that "kids are being raised in captivity" (see this) - but what Gibson says about technology is way too simplistic, if not incorrectly dismissive. He said, "When your life is lived through images constructed by a technical genius from Silicon Valley played on a high definition screen I just feel it will be more difficult to experience those important rehearsals for adult life." Equating virtual worlds, et al as images on a HD screen reflects a basic misunderstanding of social media as mere technology, an add-on to "real life," while social media are people's real-life producing and socializing 1) appearing on a screen and 2) extended onto the Web - not much like TV! The very "prison houses" of school and home Gibson refers to (and made so because of the fearful adult society Byron refers to) are what have made social media so compelling to youth!

Gibson told his audience, heads of independent schools in England and Wales, that they should offer children a diversity and excellence of experience to challenge the culture of technology in which they live outside school. Absolutely. But maybe word it a bit differently: to enrich, rather than "challenge," the cultures and interest groups they're participating in with the help of technology. Seems to me that, if schools could use social technologies to help teach social media literacy and citizenship, they will contribute to and enrich children's positive participation in participatory culture and society (moving full-steam ahead right now, largely without our education system). Just as school has helped make the use of books and other conventional media meaningful for youth for centuries, it can do so now with new media. [Meanwhile, the debate about whether the evolving Internet is hurting our children continues - see "Social networking infantilizing kids' brains?"]

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

House rules for teen texting

I really like MomHouston's "10 rules for tween texting", but I recommend that - before they're unveiled (ideally in a family discussion) - parents have repercussions in mind for when rules are not followed, as well as for who pays when a phone's dropped in a tub or pool! Most of these are great for teens too, especially "No texting after bedtime," "Answer me when I'm texting you," and "More than 10 texts in a row and it's time to pick up the phone" (some of these fall under the "Get a life" category, or in the Think About the Message Behind the Text Department). So much of this is common sense and courtesy, which stand us all in good stead regardless of age or the technology or device being used. For example, "Don't text while fighting" is just the cellular version of "If you're angry, sleep on it" (before you write, call, comment, email, blog, etc., etc.). This is about parenting, not technology! As we model this phone behavior for our kids, fewer rules are needed. A couple of MomHouston's rules are more like pet peeves, which is fine - one size never fits all where kids' tech use is concerned. One minor point where I differ with her: I'm not entirely sure I'd want my kids to turn off the ringer - sometimes it's good to hear how much they're texting, especially when they're supposed to be focused on something else, such as homework or what Grandma's saying! Lord knows their phones are on vibrate and they're in stealth mode enough of the time. But tell me if you disagree with any of this (in comments here or in our ConnectSafely forum. For more on ageless cellphone etiquette for everybody, see this in the Washington Post.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Teens, age segregation & social networking

"Kaitlyn" doesn't use Facebook to hang out with school friends because it's "for old people!" she told danah boyd. She and her friends use MySpace, but Kaitlin does mix it up with her own relatives (grownups) in Facebook. "She sees her world as starkly age segregated and she sees this as completely normal," danah writes. "'Connor,' on the other hand, sees the integration of adults and peers as a natural part of growing up." They're three years apart in age (Kaitlyn 14, Connor 17) and Connor's in a slightly higher economic bracket, but in her blog post about her conversations with the two, danah writes that "the biggest differences in their lives stem from their friend groups and the schools they attend.... [Connor] told me that in Atlanta, most schools are 60% or more black but his school was only 30% black. And then he noted that this was changing, almost with a sense of sadness. Kaitlyn, on the other hand, was proud of the fact that her school was very racially diverse. She did complain that it was big, so big in fact that they had created separate 'schools' and that she was in the school that was primarily for honors kids but that this meant that she didn't see all of her friends all the time. But she valued the different types of people who attended.... Connor's friends are almost entirely white and well-off while at least half of Kaitlyn's friends are black and most of her friends are neither well-off nor poor." So Kaitlyn appreciates ethnic and racial diversity, Connor age diversity. Are these differences reflected in social network sites? To some degree, and we all wonder which is more causative offline socio-economic and -cultural differences or online ones (how much of a factor is Facebook's origin in an elite Ivy League school?). danah also wonders about inclinations or aversions to age segregation: "There's nothing worse than demanding that teens accept adults in their peer space, but there's a lot to be said for teens who embrace adults there, especially non-custodial adults like youth pastors and 'cool' teachers. I strongly believe that the healthiest environment we can create online is one where teens and trusted adults interact seamlessly. To the degree that this is not modeled elsewhere in society, I worry." I agree with her - and worry that efforts by adults not following social-media research to impose age verification will create an artificial age divide on the social Web. For a broader sweep of observations on teen social-media users, see danah's response to questions in Twitter mostly from adults.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Digital risk, digital citizenship

It's becoming increasingly clear that - in a highly participatory environment such as the fixed and mobile social Web - risk and citizenship are directly related. Risk-prevention experts show how online community mitigates risk. Inner thoughts are expressed outwardly, and peers notice a friend in crisis and get help by any means possible. Online social networks are powerful tools for peer help and protection. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has data back several years showing how effective social network sites are as sources of referral (see a post of mine from back then, "The social Web's 'Lifeline'").

Helping one another is one vital aspect of digital citizenship. Researchers such as Harvard education professor Howard Gardner (second link below) are now turning up important findings on how youth function in digital communities. Their work is the kernel of the digital citizenship instruction and practice that will increase safety and trust in an environment that increasingly mirrors the "real" world (for youth, the fixed and mobile social Web is not something separate from "real life"). How will digital citizenship increase online safety? It includes the ethics, civility, empathy, social norms, and community awareness that can mitigate aggression and other results of online disinhibition. We know from the work of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at UNH, for example, that "youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization" (see their analysis in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine). In any case, digital citizenship by definition teaches the community awareness that protects individuals, enables collaboration, and promotes civic engagement.

Both of these features illustrate the clearer definition of "online safety" that has emerged since the end of last year, with the help of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. The ISTTF's report, which summarized all online-safety research to date, showed that 1) not all youth are equally at risk online, 2) the youth most at risk offline - of sexual exploitation, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, etc. - are those most at risk online, and 3) young people's psychosocial makeup and family and school environments are greater predictors of real-life risk than the technologies they use. Now we're finding that the use of those social technologies is not only not the best predictor of risk, it can be 1) an avenue to help both immediate and enduring and 2) a means for learning and practicing good citizenship.

In other words, yes, dysfunctional, anti-social behavior is acted out online as well as offline but so is the exact opposite behavior - and the latter can be reinforced for the well-being of individuals and society (see "Geeking out for democracy" at media scholar Henry Jenkins's blog.

The two features:

  • "A summit for saving lives"
  • "Learning how to navigate virtual communities: Key to digital citizenship"

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