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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.