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Friday, March 26, 2010

Empathy training gains ground in schools

Used to be, if a student behaved badly s/he was sent to the office. Now, at Public School 114 in the South Bronx, a teacher sits down with students and finds out what's wrong. P.S. 114's principal told the New York Times that the school's had workshops run by David Levine, author of Teaching Empathy, since 2006 and has seen the number of fights drop from 1-3 a week to "fewer than three a month." The Times published this story a while ago, but I hope this growth trend is continuing. It's ever more important in the current highly charged climate (see below).

The Times says similar workshops are being held in the high-end community of Scarsdale, N.Y., where one parent feels parents should be attending them too! Eighteen states "require programs to foster core values such as empathy, respect, responsibility and integrity." One such state is California, and "Los Angeles is spending nearly $1 million on a nationally known program for its 147 middle schools called Second Step that teaches impulse control, anger management, and problem solving as well as empathy. The Times gives other examples but adds that some people are questioning "whether such attempts at social engineering are appropriate for the classroom or should remain the purview of parents" and extracurricular programs (and whether there's even enough to teach academics in school). I can understand the question, but all this isn't just addressing "Mean Girls" – it's also addressing cyberbullying. I wonder if these programs are folding online behavior into the discussion. It should be there! If kids don't distinguish much between online and offline, why address social cruelty in one "place" and not the other? I think the need for other-awareness and perspective taking in all aspects of our lives (not just children's) is increasing as – enabled by digital media – the world crowds in on all of us more and more. But what do you think? Feel free to email me via anne[at], comment below, or join the discussion at ConnectSafely.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cyberbullying & the dark side of 'flash mobs'

There's something Dark-Ages about Philadelphia's flash mobs – more like the digitally assisted Paris riots of 2005 than the "impromptu pillow fights in New York," as described in today's New York Times, the train-station group dancing in Europe (great example on YouTube here), and the giant, lighthearted Dupont Circle snowball fight I witnessed while stuck in snowbound Washington last month. Philadelphia's have "taken a more aggressive and raucous turn here as hundreds of teenagers have been converging downtown for a ritual that is part bullying, part running of the bulls: sprinting down the block, the teenagers sometimes pause to brawl with one another, assault pedestrians or vandalize property." City officials are considering a curfew, holding parents legally responsible for their kids' behavior, and other measures to get the situation under control the Times adds. Not everyone calls the seemingly spontaneous violence in Philly "flash mobs," and some sources the Times cites say it's due to fewer jobs for youth in a touch economy and "a decline in state money for youth violence prevention programs."

Whatever, this is, it isn't happening in a vacuum. There seems to be an increasingly uncivil, angry tinge to exchanges between people who disagree and members of opposing political parties on Capitol Hill, the airwaves, and online. Is it possible that all these adults publicly modeling disrespectful, degrading behavior are creating a new, very destructive social norm? Could cyberbullying in schools and teens' destructive behavior on city streets have something to do with that? I think so. Experts rightfully alert us to the sexually toxic culture our children are growing up in; they're also growing up in a behaviorally toxic culture and media environment. Media and technology can make mobs grow fast, but they don't create the underlying attitudes. All of which points to the critical and growing need for education in good citizenship, online and offline, and new media literacy (critical thinking not just about content, texts, and comments being consumed or downloaded, but also sent out, posted, produced, and uploaded). [See also "Social norming: So key to online safety."]

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

MA's hard-fought anti-bullying bill

Both houses of the Massachusetts legislature have voted unanimously to approve anti-bullying legislation that mandates training for teachers and requires them to report incidents to principals," reports. The legislation also "requires principals to investigate bullying incidents, use appropriate discipline if necessary, notify parents on both sides of the incident, and report to police and prosecutors if a crime is thought to be involved." The legislation follows two young people's tragic suicides in the past year, most recently that of Phoebe Prince, 15, reportedly after being bullied at school and online, and last April that of Carl L. Walker-Hoover, 11, "after what his mother said was continual bullying by classmates," MassLive said. The bill will House and the Senate are expected to create a committee to develop a compromise of the bills approved in each branch. The legislation will now go into committee, where a compromise bill will be hammered out. That will go to each house for a final yes vote before going to the governor for signing.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

'Recombinant art,' life?: Parenting & the digital drama overload

As Moby does with other people's sounds and musical phrases, David Shields does with words, saying that mashing up other people's words (or "recombinant" art) is much more interesting than creating fiction, which is sort of an appropriation of Mark Twain's "reality is stranger [more interesting?] than fiction." "Mr. Shields’s book consists of 618 fragments, including hundreds of quotations taken from other writers like Philip Roth, Joan Didion and Saul Bellow," the New York Times reports. That's a huge contentious subject – copyright, intellectual property, fair use, etc. – important and fascinating, but it's only about content. What about the other part of new media? Moby, Shields, and other mass-media natives are gutsy, but they're focused merely on content at a time when there's a lot more going on in media. Much more interesting for our (parents') purposes is the behavioral part: all the sociality we – especially youth in the pressure-cooker social environment of school life – are constantly observing, appropriating, and mashing up with the help of social digital media.

We are remixing and creating a recombinant reality that is pressing in upon us with the same constancy, volume, and intensity as content is. Can you imagine a time in history when there was ever a greater need for media literacy than there is now, with our children growing up with online+offline, 24/7 exposure to the school, family, local, national, and international dramas of life – but, for them, especially school-related drama? Or a greater demand on all of us, too, for civility, perspective-taking, and respect for self, others, and community? If we can't model these for our children – at home and school, on phones and online – how can we teach them? If we keep fearing and blocking new media, we can't really be there for them in these tricky media waters. As they navigate both adolescence and the new-media space, they need breathers, reality checks, a sense of balance, and guidance (shore leave, buoys, dramamine, and a lighthouse, maybe? Sorry!), by which I mean:

  • Breathers. Breaks from "peer reality" (which can feel overwhelming) in the form of quiet conversations, hugs, and support in dealing with social-scene overload (aka The Drama) are better, more positive than a negative approach of taking away technology or media. Tech and media don't create drama, people do; rather, tech and media are drama-enhancers, -extenders, and -perpetuators. Restricting the latter can help sometimes, if the goal is helping kids get perspective, but it can also cut them off from friends and situations, when being plugged in has become a social norm for youth.
  • Reality checks. Our kids deserve reminders every now and then that the tsunami of school life they "wade" into everyday and then bring home on their phones and usually have on their screens while doing homework is not the all of reality: There is much more to life and much more to them. Much more to them than the role they play at school, where it's hard for them totally to be themselves.
  • Balance. This is pretty intuitive for parents, the need to help kids balance the activities in their lives – social, academic, onscreen, offscreen, etc. But go deeper. With constant exposure to friends' thinking, do kids have enough chances for the reflection and independent thought that help them figure out who they are in relation to it all? In "Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self," MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle writes, "The anxiety that teens report when they are without their cellphones ... may not speak so much to missing the easy sociability with others but of missing the self that is constituted in these relationships."
  • Guidance. This is intuitive for parents, too, but how do we offer that guidance? The command-and-control, sage-on-the-stage way, or as guide by the side? In today's media environment, the former simply doesn't work. Am I just being one of those overly permissive parents? No, I'm being realistic. With all the workarounds kids have to restrictions on their digital social tools, it's way too easy for them to break the rules and hack the parental controls. And the research backs me up – see the work of Prof. Sahara Byrne at Cornell University linked to in the third paragraph of "Soft power works better."

    Remixing content may lead to "recombinant art," a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction or an alternative altogether. But what about when we add to this recombinant content, constantly coming at us, the online/offline mashup of all the sociality – family, school, local, national, and international – we're also exposed to? I think we increasingly need to be very centered and mindful, very socially and media literate to stay firmly on course in our lives. Especially when some of us are still growing up. Let's be sure to support our children's developing tech literacy, media literacy, and life literacy! They never needed or deserved these skills and our support more.

    Related links

  • "The Digital Skeptic," Washington, D.C.-based technology-policy pundit Adam Thierer's review of Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
  • "Clicks & cliques: Really meaty advice for parents"
  • "*Social* media literacy"
  • For media-literacy training, the best school libraries help develop filtering of a different sort, the kind that improves with age and goes with them wherever they go
  • "The age of remixes & mashups"
  • "Remixes & mashups: Study on fair use"

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  • Monday, March 22, 2010

    Growing consensus to handle teen sexting differently

    Great news on the New York Times's front page yesterday: "There is growing consensus among lawyers and legislators," the Times reports, "that the child pornography laws are too blunt an instrument to deal with [naked photo-sharing, or sexting, which the paper describes in a slightly odd way as] an adolescent cyberculture in which all kinds of sexual pictures circulate on sites like MySpace and Facebook." The description left out cellphones, largely the focus of the public discussion about sexting (if not the activity itself). "Last year, Nebraska, Utah and Vermont changed their laws to reduce penalties for teenagers who engage in such activities," the Times continues, "and this year, according to the National Council on State Legislatures, 14 more states are considering legislation that would treat young people who engage in sexting differently from adult pornographers and sexual predators." And last week saw "the first case ever to challenge the constitutionality of prosecuting teens for 'sexting'," reports. "A unanimous three-judge panel [of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia] concluded there was no probable cause to bring any charges against the girls who had appeared in various states of undress in photos shared among a group of teens. Missing from the prosecutor's case, the court said, was critical evidence about who exactly had transmitted the images," according to, which added the court also found that former prosecutor George Skumanick, Jr., had "violated parents' rights by usurping their roles." According to the Times, states are considering various ways to handle sexting by minors – some as a misdemeanor, others as a juvenile offence along the lines of "truancy or running away." Do read the Times piece for legal scholars' views. [Here's my earlier post about the Pennsylvania case.]

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