Changing the Conversation About Internet Safety

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, May 31, 2012 @ 03:06 PM

In case the importance of Facebook was lost on anyone in the youth space, the recent IPO reaffirmed that this college-dorm-room start-up has changed the way we lived now – or at least we believe it has. It’s hard to argue that this generation of youth encounters a new set of challenges, driven by their digital experiences, than any before them…But perhaps inevitably, technology that transforms the way we live causes many childrens advocates to ask, “is this doing more harm than good?”

In the “safety” tracks at kids conferences, in blogs and books, and on the sites and speeches of the many, many agencies and organizations that specialize in making the online space safe for youth, advocates and experts have questioned whether the Internet has made our children vulnerable to threats ranging from stumbling on salacious content to exposing too much of one’s self to social networks. For adults, the notion that kids, tweens and teens have access to a tool that allows them to torment another child (or be the victim of vicious attacks), or that a teen might make an ill-conceived comment that isn’t just public - it’s permanent and is troubling to say the least.

But as complex as this conversation might sound, we can’t help but ask, is it complicated enough? The discourse surrounding this topic is saturated with scary statistics and wrought with regret over the simpler childhoods that have been lost. Kids, tweens and teens are simultaneously assumed to have the authority over their own actions that allow them to make major mistakes, and vulnerability that frames them as victims. Advocates voice strong opinions, as is expected, but is there a more balanced approach to thinking about the Internet’s opportunities and offerings?

Here are just a few habits that we hope to see adopted by the future contributors to the conversation about Internet safety:

  1. Take stats seriously. Peruse any of the websites for advocacy organizations related to online safety and you will find plenty of statistics to support how much time youth spend online, and how devices have come to dominate their daily existence. Yet many claims (especially those that compare how kids used to be and how kids are now) come from first-hand experience versus hard data. Many of these data points are disseminated without doing the due diligence of revealing sample source, size or method.  In short, if we want to ground the conversation in reality, we have to give each other the information necessary to understand the reality.  
  2. Define terms. If you’re like us, when you hear commonly used heuristics like “screen time” coupled with an average number, you cringe just a bit. Is it just us, or do the numbers cited (often 8 hours in a day), seem just a bit unrealistic for kids who are in school for most of their day? Each study chooses how to calculate this number, grappling (we assume) with how to treat multi-tasking, whether to ask about time spent or use another means to ascertain time spent, how to treat background viewing versus attended viewing, and whether texting counts as screen time. And how about Skype? Is that a chance to connect with relatives who live far away, or just another instance of screen time, lumped in with gameplay and TV? But these decisions – which greatly affect how the ubiquitous screen time stat should be understood – are able to be revealed in a sound bite made for media. To have a real conversation about Internet safety, media addiction, and even media as a learning opportunity, we have to compare apples to apples and strive for transparency when we’re using ambiguous terms.
  3. Reexamine nostalgia. “When we were kids…” How many conversations about tech in general, the Internet specifically, and Facebook for sure start out this way? For us, this signals less a pending history lesson and more a sign that some serious revising is about to begin. First, not all of our childhoods were the same. I know mine included no Atari – unusual for a kid of the 80s – but plenty of TV. My town wasn’t wired for cable until eighth grade, but I did watch more than my fair share of Mork and Mindy, The Facts of Life, Different Strokes, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. I spent Saturday mornings watching Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny. These shows – viewed by kids if not intended solely for them – certainly had content that wouldn’t be deemed appropriate for today’s children.  And screen-time wasn’t a concern because this kid – like all the kids in my neighborhood – watched, but also read, played sports (organized and pick-up) and ran around til the lightning bugs came out and flashlight tag began. Childhood has been complicated for a long time, and we do a disservice to today’s kids when we suggest that they’re missing out on a pure existence that might not have been. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply what we know now, and continue to create better content for kids (my own son doesn’t get to watch Tom and Jerry, but Mike the Knight, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, and The Kratts Brothers are tune-in TV for him). But it does mean that we should be realistic and not overly romantic about children’s culture of the past.
  4. Include parents in the conversation. We conducted our own online poll last week in response to this question (n=217 parents of kids ages 2-17) and found, not surprisingly, that these parents are largely split, but as a collective, have a harder time dismissing the Internet than some experts do. With the exception of a few, most parents temper their critiques of the Internet with an acknowledgment of all the ways that the Internet has served their children well – helping them explore their passions, efficiently and effectively complete homework, play stimulating and challenging games, and more. And for many, it’s not a matter of being “good” or “bad,” but how they can make the most of it for their children… YB Blog   internet pie chart 02
  5. Listen to kids. At a recent conference, countless speakers noted the importance of preventing children from getting on social networks too early, supported by statistics that suggested that they were on before the legal age of 13. They suggested that teens were ill-prepared for handling the sticky social situations that these networks facilitate, and that they can’t handle the gray area between public and private. But at the end of the day, a group of youth filed onto stage for the requisite “live” focus group. When asked about social networking and online experiences in general, many rattled off strategies for handling online strangers (disengage and walk away), for negotiating the “out-there” nature of the space (remember that mom has friended you and don’t reveal where you live), and for avoiding cyberbullying (don’t do it). This prep might be more easily spoken than practiced, but it told us that teens are capable of learning strategies and rules (like the New Media Literacy Skill and Cultural Competencies identified by MIT professor Henry Jenkins) to help them navigate the murky waters of the Internet. 
How would you like to see the conversation about Internet safety change?

Tags: internet, Youth, culture, youth media, tweens

Causes and kids – getting it right

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, May 15, 2012 @ 02:58 PM

Years ago, it was unheard of to be a brand in the youth marketplace without a promotion…These days, it seems that connecting with a cause is cost of entry for companies who create products or experiences for kids, tweens or teens. It’s not enough to focus on making good products – now brands and manufacturers are forced to think about doing good along the way (although, of course, this comes more naturally to some brands than to others).

Or are they?

DoSomething.orgWe’ve been among the many who have noted that this generation of youth wants to make a difference.  MTV’s ongoing work with Millennials suggests that the most recent round of young adults has a can-do kind of consciousness that makes them both altruistic and entrepreneurial. Dosomething.org has been thriving based on its model of making causes accessible to both brands and teen consumers. And our data continues to show that youth of all ages care about causes (56% of kids, 63% of tweens and 64% of teens report having supported a cause in the past month). Recently, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm made headlines when her online activism (she authored a petition at change.org) won her a meeting with Seventeen Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief. Bluhm’s cause is hardly new – her petition protested the over photoshopping common to most mags, and asked the magazine to feature one photoshop-free spread each month.

But at the same time that more and more orgs have helped youth channel their passions and companies find their corporate responsibility raison d’etre, we know that many brands have abandoned the altruistic approach. It’s not because they aren’t interested in being nice – it’s because they don’t have evidence that these initiatives have made an impact on youth.

So are youth all talk and no action? Is this generation more selfish than sympathetic? Are they eager to help only when they can help themselves?

While there may be a bit of truth to all of these assessments (and to be fair, couldn’t we say the same about even the most altruistic adults – just a bit?). But we think that getting kids, tweens and teens giving isn’t always as simple as it seems. Because we believe in youth, and we believe in brands doing right by them, we offer a few simple guidelines for getting your cause marketing efforts off the ground:

  1. Take a page from the book of Global Philanthropy Group (advisers to celebrity philanthropists), and know who you are before promoting your cause. This advice serves their celebrity clients well, but it also makes sense for brands. Sound self-serving? Consider this: a message that matches your mantra not only oozes authenticity, but it also removes one step for consumers to climb in order to keep your cause in mind. Six degrees of separation between your brand message and your cause is not only confusing, but it counteracts the altruistic action that you’re hoping to catalyze.
  2. This one sounds so simple that it might not seem worth saying…But trust us, it’s one of the most common mistakes that youth brands make. Here goes: make it fun. That simple. Not every cause is a laughing matter, and we don’t suggest that you should make what might be serious silly. But making it fun (satisfying fun, challenging fun, nurturing fun, social fun, etc.) is as important as aligning with a cause that’s relevant. Brands often stumble when they make their cause efforts to earnest, and forget that kids, in particular, are willing to do good, but will be more likely to do so when they get something for their efforts. Sound too self-centered? Keep in mind that getting in the habit of doing good can be hard – especially when it’s accompanied by self-sacrifice. While some kids might be motivated to make this effort on their own, we think there’s nothing wrong with making kids think that giving back is easy/intuitive/energizing and interesting…and for brands who genuinely want to help, creating a generation of youth who thinks that altruism is a breeze might be the best service of all.
  3. Finally, make it easy. For this one, see above. But importantly, when designing your cause efforts, keep in mind that practical barriers often stand in the way of kids, tweens and teens practicing what they preach. Sure, it’s nice to think that every tween can take a trip to a homeless shelter. But remember, they’re years away from being behind the wheel. They might want to donate, but don’t have the means. And even cause-marketing mainstays – collect labels, lids or box tops – require quite a lot of cooperation from mom or dad. Fortunately for the modern-day cause marketer, youth can connect with their friends over causes online. So make sure your efforts are accessible–Partner with online piggy banks (that allow kids to choose to use their allowance to spend, save or give), like Three Jars or Guluck. Get connected with one of the orgs mentioned above who link like-minded brands with motivated youth. And ask your audience what their obstacles are before asking them to do something out of their reach.

Tags: Education, youth research, kids tweens teens, culture, MTV

What Maurice Sendak Got Right About Kids

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, May 08, 2012 @ 04:13 PM

In the past few years, when Maurice Sendak was in his 80s, he talked more than we had ever heard him talk about his views on children and children’s literature. In his lovely conversation with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, in his energized and honest dialogue about his own childhood with director Spike Jonze and documentarian Lace Bangs (captured in the HBO documentary “Tell Them Anything You Want”), and even in his irreverent comedic conversation with Stephen Colbert, he shared not only some of his own inspiration, but also some surprising ideas about what it takes to connect with children.

Maurice SendakOn the surface, Maurice Sendak’s works are about the freedom and fun of childhood: being wild, sailing away, exploring the city in the middle of the night. And of course, engaging in wild rumpuses of all sorts! But while his sentiments and his scenes of fantastic flight might seem like simple and sweet children’s dreams, Sendak’s secret was not about sugar-coating childhood at all – far from it. Instead, his uncommon insight was that children’s lives are full of dark corners and eerie events. They see the world as slightly askew, but, they see it. And importantly, they experience the world as complicated. And even more importantly, they, themselves are complex. In his interview with Colbert, he quipped, “I don’t write for children. I write and they tell me it’s for children.” Sendak did write for children, however, He just wrote for a child that was knowing and fragile at the same time. Who was neither an adventurer nor fragile, but was, in fact both. He wrote stories in which the tables-turned, and perhaps more telling, lent his drawings to quirky stories like Janice Udry’s Let’s Be Enemies, which acknowledged that children can be impetuous and self-interested, but that doesn’t always mean they are cruel. They can be angry one moment, and appreciative in the next. They can confront issues like death, without being frightened. He didn’t find everything that children said or thought to be adorable, but he did think it was important. He thought of them as human, and deserving of stories that treated them as such. And perhaps this is why his works continue to resonate with us, and take on different meaning as we re-read them for our children, or re-discover them in different stages of our lives.

Perhaps Sendaks’ closing line from his interview with Terry Gross is an appropriately complex sentiment for this sad day. “There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."

See our blog on Maurice Sendak (among other literary luminaries) from late last year.

Tags: reading. movies, movies, free time, kids tweens teens, culture, youth media

Brand Customization and Youth

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, May 04, 2012 @ 09:28 AM

Sleeping bags with their names embroidered on the edge, room décor that notes the name of the space’s chief resident, Wii “Mii”s that are made to look like their young users (or purposefully look quite different from them), and even made-for-me versions of Nike products...It’s hardly hard to find examples of customization in kids’ worlds.

As an element of evergreen youth culture, and as a go-to-tool in the marketers’ toolbox, customization sits alongside collecting as a “classic.” But why does customization connect so strongly with youth? And what, importantly, are its limitations as a lever to pull when it comes to creating powerful youth products and salient services?Brand Customization in Youth

First, customization’s cache can be explained, at least in part by kids’ and tweens’ developmental needs and stage-related goals…

  • The need for power and control. Despite being a cohort that’s often considered to be consulted and catered to, the experience of childhood is still one in which every freedom on the playground is countered by a limitation or a rule. Kids, focused on mastery, and tweens, focused on finding their way through a fitful trip in-between childhood and teendom, both seek ways to get a grip on the world around them. Getting to go beyond voicing one’s opinion to actually creating an object of their desire, to their own specifications, provides tangible proof that they can affect the world around them. It’s not the only way they feel powerful, but asserting their own style on everyday objects can carry more layers of meaning with it than it does for adults.
  • The need to fit in. Customization might seem contrary to the desire to fit in, but for kids and for tweens, being one of the crowd often means balancing the desire to fit in with the need to assert one’s own identity. Historian Nicholas Sammond points to the early Mickey Mouse Club, with its members dressed in standardized suits with their names clearly visible on the front, as evidence of a distinctly American way of balancing these two seemingly conflicting goals.
  • The need to be known. It used to be that getting a piece of mail with one’s name on it evoked a certain kind of euphoria among youth: “Someone knows I’m out there!” For this cohort, it might be more like the first email, or the acquisition of a screen name that shows them that they are known outside the domestic domain.  Either way, seeing their moniker on the mail, or their name in lights isn’t about stardom or fame as much as about the simple notion that they are a person. For young kids in particular, this recognition of their separateness from their family and their siblings makes them feel special.
  • The need for the now. Kids and tweens are certainly seasoned at impulse control – or at least savvy to the need to exhibit it in specific situations. But being told not to wait – that you can have something (an experience, a product, a service) – on your terms is not only indulgent, but exhilarating for kids and tweens.

But when you’re creating customize products or experiences for kids and tweens, proceed with caution…

  • Kids and tweens don’t really want to create from the ground up – at least when it comes to make-it-themselves products. Some kids and tweens, certainly, feel confident enough to act as authentic auteurs. But most prefer to put the pieces together in a unique way. And they want some assurances that you’ll help them “get it right” by giving them enough – but not too many – ways to assemble themselves.
  • Customization, alone, isn’t a proposition…Most brands, like Nike, need to establish themselves as products and experiences to admire and aspire to first. Once the brand is established, letting kids take it back and make it their own is all the more compelling.
  • Finally, customization looks different by age and stage.  Tweens shift from preferring their name emblazoned on everything to carefully selecting where they display. While kids and tweens both conceptualize customization as “play,” tweens are less interested in experimenting with forms and flavors than with their emerging identities. And putting their stamp on something they own is a much less risky proposition for confident kids than for tweens, who suddenly perceive that all eyes are seeing them.

Now, here’s your chance to customize this blog! Who do you think is getting it right when it comes to customization? Make your mark below!

Tags: Youth, shopping, kids tweens teens, trends, parenting