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Frontline’s “Growing Up Online”: What about the digital dossier?

PBS recently aired “Growing Up Online” (and posted the entire episode on their website) – an inquisitive look into the lives of so-called Digital Natives.  The program presented a world of young people spending much of their lives immersed in digital media – constantly connected to friends and others via mobile phones and web sites such as MySpace and YouTube. These are the lives of young people who are the first generation to grow up online, or those “born digital”, to borrow the term from John Palfrey’s and Urs Gasser’s forthcoming book of the same title.  Frontline addressed several of the key issues the Digital Natives project is investigating, including education in the age of internet, online identity play, cyber-bullying, and online sexual predators.

While the documentary hinted at the types of creative expression and activity taking place online, the focus was very much on the risks associated with socializing on the internet.  Discussion of young people’s private lives, which are increasingly taking place online, touched upon the shifting notions of privacy among youth raised with a mouse in-hand, and a number of the issues regarding the wide and unknown audience they present themselves to.  Hats off to Frontline for taking a fair – and realistic – stance in addressing the sexual predator issue.  Despite media portrayal of sexual predators lurking behind every corner of the internet – NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” has quite a good hand in this – research is beginning to show that this is a seriously, and dangerously, overblown threat.  A Cal State study by Larry Rosen mentioned in the program found that young people on MySpace are rarely approached for sexual liaisons, and those that are tend to be seeking these types of interactions.  Our research on the Digital Natives project has supported these findings – the overwhelming majority of teens are very aware of sexual predator concerns and are incredibly savvy at navigating the internet and avoiding contact with creepy strangers.  In fact, most youth we spoke with largely avoid online contact with anyone they don’t know personally.

The risks associated with teens socializing online were further highlighted by Davina, a high school student interviewed who took part in a lunchroom fight that ended in chair-throwing and a video that proceeded to earn her YouTube fame.  Davina is now legitimately concerned that this video – and her behavior –  is now permanently available for all to see – including college admissions officers. While kids socialize in online spaces they often feel are out of the realm of adults, college admission officers and prospective employers are trolling sites like MySpace and Facebook, searching for evidence of illegal or unsavory hijinks to deny offers of admission or employment. A media blitz last spring highlighting stories of employers discriminating against college grads based on unsavory Facebook photos and police officers searching for evidence of underage drinking on MySpace, appears to have affected youth behavior, to a degree.  We have found that youth, particularly those attending more elite high schools and universities, are increasingly becoming wise to these issues. They are taking charge of their social networking sites’ privacy settings, or removing all together those frat-party videos that seemed so funny last Saturday night. A serious issue is the inequality of awareness we have found among the students we talked to – in more affluent schools, college counselors and teachers are adamantly warning students from the start to be careful what they post online, while students from lower performing schools were more likely to hear the warnings from after-school programs they were involved with, or else, wait for the warnings to be passed down from friends.

One issue of a life online which was completely ignored by Frontline is the digital dossier:  the accumulation of personal data collected as people use digital technology.  In focusing the program so heavily on social networking sites, it is surprising that there was no discussion of the repercussions of the availability and permanence of online personal data – not to sexual predators or college counselors, but in mass form, to service providers and marketers.  As teens socialize online they share photos, videos, blog posts and personal musings – all of this content is hosted by sites that wield enormous power over what they do with these data, and who they share them with.  As children grow up online – starting with NeoPets at 4, to MySpace at 14, to Facebook at 24 – they document everything, and leave this documentation in the hands of companies that have profit, rather than kids’ best interest, at heart. For example, Facebook collects information about users and then reserves the right to share all the amassed information with third parties.  When signed in to email or blogger, Google is keeping tabs on every search the user conducts.  In twenty years, marketers may know a six-year-old’s interests and habits better than he knows them himself.

Our research has shown that while many young people are disinterested about data collection issues, they are also largely unaware of what is being collected, how it is being used, and what the repercussions may be.  Some who are more aware, cite the inevitability of compromising their privacy if they are going to engage in the social world, which, for the 12-24 age group, has migrated online.  As one student we talked to – a particularly thoughtful high school senior – said “… anyone can have access to your stuff. [..] do you accept that because you participate in using internet and technology like that or is there a way to fight that and create ways in which you can keep stuff private and keep stuff yours? [..] People Google everything because they just think to. They don’t know where this information goes. They don’t know that [..] when you log on to certain sites [..] they keep track of [..] when you log on and what you write. [..] It’s the fact that people don’t know. ..There’s not enough transparency for young people to know and they participate very unknowledgeably. That’s what scares me because you don’t know what that will end up looking at later on.” Perhaps rather than focusing efforts on bills like DOPA that limit access to social sites in response to sexual predator fear, congress should focus on protecting the mass amounts of information service providers like MySpace and Facebook amass from the millions of young people that live their lives on these sites.

In spite of the current lack of attention among US lawmakers to these concerns, issues of privacy stemming from the use of new technologies are becoming increasingly relevant not only for digital natives, but for all citizens living online.   In Europe, stricter privacy laws are bringing more attention to these issues: the Council of Europe has organized the second annual “Data Protection Day” (January 28, 2008) marked by campaigns to raise awareness amongst middle school and high school students about how and why personal information is collected, and what is done with these data. As part of this initiative, the transatlantic privacy perspective will be discussed at Duke University Center for European Studies. Education about issues of privacy must be extended beyond fears of sexual predators and trolling college admission officers or potential employers.  The reality and implications of the widespread and largely unregulated collection and dissemination of private data must be taught to youth that spend so much time living and sharing online.  In order to be successful, this is an effort which must be undertaken by the many stakeholders involved – parents, schools, young people themselves, and policy makers. It is not only necessary to reform current laws in order to make service providers act responsibly in the collection and sharing of user data, but also to help young people understand the online world they inhabit, so that they may engage in knowledgeable and critical ways.

 – Corinna di Gennaro & Miriam Simun

Internet-assisted suicide?

One of the main themes in Frontline’s documentary “Growing Up Online” was that the media has overblown the threat of online predators, while giving short shrift to the internet’s effects on teen behavior.

The former may be true, but the latter isn’t. In particular, over the past few months the media has directed much attention to the internet’s role in several teen suicides.

One such suicide was a major focus of the Frontline special. 13-year-old Ryan Halligan hung himself in 2003 after getting mercilessly cyberbullied, and finally meeting a fellow depressed kid who encouraged him to commit suicide.

Still more attention has gone to the suicide of Megan Meier, which made national headlines last November when it was revealed to have been spurred by an adult’s cyberbullying.

And just in the past week, the media spotlight has fallen upon a string of 13 allegedly internet-inspired suicides in south Wales. Police suspect that these young people were motivated to take their lives by a desire to be “immortalized” in virtual memorials on the social network

These are wrenching stories. But are they isolated incidents or a worrying trend? There’s no doubt that, to quote the Frontline piece, “The computer has become a new weapon in the arsenal of adolescence.” But the media has a dangerous way of turning problems into mass hysteria.

In response to the Wales suicides, blogger Constantine von Hoffman wrote “When I was in college there was a report of a wave of teens hanging themselves on Long Island. If memory serves experts offered theories ranging from the then-nascent MTV to the ever popular alienation.”

The popular women’s blog was less jaded: “can’t we f***ing BAN MYSPACE, and all its bastard social networking stepchildren, already? What redeeming social value do these sites have?” The comments to that post indicated that many readers agreed.

Clearly that’s an extreme reaction, and unlikely to happen any time soon. Yet for the most part, the reaction to cyberbullying has been focused on new laws and crackdowns.

Yet we have to remember that although teen suicide is rising, it is not a new phenomenon. Even Parry Aftab, executive director of the prominent anti-cyberbullying organization, acknowledged to Frontline that “No one really knows how many of the suicides you can tie to the Internet.” Blogger Paul Smith wryly noted that one might even argue that Romeo and Juliet glamorizes suicide.

Personally, my main problem with the Frontline piece was that, while it made a commendable effort to balance fear with skepticism, it paid scant attention to the real positive goods that the internet can provide young people.

Indeed, a recent study from the University of Alberta has suggested that the internet is an effective way to offer psychological help to depressed teens.

Perhaps then, in the famous words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

-Jesse Baer

PBS Frontline: “Growing Up Online” with danah boyd – January 22nd

(cross-posted from Berkman home)

An upcoming edition of PBS Frontline on “Growing Up Online” will feature Berkman Fellow danah boyd sharing her expertise on how young people are using the internet. The website explains, “In ‘Growing Up Online,’ FRONTLINE peers inside the world of this cyber-savvy generation through the eyes of teens and their parents, who often find themselves on opposite sides of a new digital divide. From cyber bullying to instant ‘Internet fame,’ to the specter of online sexual predators, FRONTLINE producer Rachel Dretzin investigates the risks, realities and misconceptions of teenage self-expression on the World Wide Web.”

danah comments: “You have a generation faced with a society with fundamentally different properties thanks to the Internet… We can turn our backs and say, ‘This is bad,’ or, ‘We don’t want a world like this.’ It’s not going away. So instead of saying that this is terrible, instead of saying, ‘Stop MySpace; stop Facebook; stop the Internet,’ it’s a question for us of how we teach ourselves and our children to live in a society where these properties are fundamentally a way of life. This is public life today.”

This episode will air on January 22nd at 9PM on PBS. You can stream the trailer at Frontline’s website, and the entire program will be posted after it airs. To learn more about danah’s work and Berkman’s project on how young people use the internet, visit the Digital Natives webpage and blog, and be sure to check out danah’s apophenia blog.

The Internet is first source of campaign news for young Americans

(cross-posted from Corinna di Gennaro’s blog)

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press has just released a new survey on the role of the Internet in the 2008 US campaign. The report shows that almost half (42%) of 18 to 29 year olds learns regularly about the campaign from the Internet, double the number in the 2004 campaign (20%). The age divide between young and older people in looking for campaign information online has also doubled since 2004 from 13 percentage points in 2004 to 27 percentage points in 2008 (it should be noted though that the proportion of 30 to 49 year olds and 50 year olds and older turning to the Internet has also grown since 2004, although not as dramatically as amongst 18 to 29 year olds – showing that the Internet is increasingly becoming a source of political information amongst the general population, even though it is still lagging behind TV and daily newspapers).

The Pew findings also show that traditional online news websites such as MSNBC, CNN and Yahoo remain the most visited sites for political information seeking, but amongst young people 37% of 18 to 24 year olds (and 27% of those younger than 30) have gotten campaign information from social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook (compared to 4% of those in their thirties and 1% of those 40 and older), showing how these online spaces have become an important space not only for entertainment but also for more civic minded activities. Two caveats, though….

…there’s a feeling amongst pundits and young people themselves (as many of the young people we interviewed for our Digital Natives project voiced) that membership in political groups on Facebook is so low cost that it is actually meaningless: joining a candidate’s group is like putting a bumber sticker of your favourite candidate on your car. But does this translate into actual offline participation/higher voting turnout? Also, Pew reports that 59% of web users under the age of 30 have come across campaign news online while they were actually looking for something else. Is this kind of exposure better than no exposure at all? Should we consider as political engagement only the one that is costly and face to face, like canvassing and campaigning door to door in the rain or is this exposure to online news a good starting point?

MacArthur/MIT Press Series on Youth, Media, and Learning

(Cross posted from Dr. Palfrey’s blog.

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation, along with MIT Press, announced the release of a series of new books on youth and new media. The series is a treasure trove.

I have been working my way through the six books over the past several weeks as I’m simultaneously working on late drafts of the book that Urs Gasser and I are writing on a similar topic, called Born Digital (forthcoming, Basic Books, 2008).

I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in the topic to read these books. They are academic in style, structure and language, but remarkably accessible in my view. I’m not a social scientist, nor an expert in most of the fields that are represented by the authors (in fact, I’m not sure if there are any lawyers at all in the list of authors!), but the editors and authors have done a lovely job of making their fields relevant broadly.

For starters, the series Foreword, by the group of “series advisors,” is wonderful. I can’t imagine how six people came to agree on such a clear text, but somehow they did. There must have been a lead author who held onto the pen; it’s far too coherent to have been written by committee. (The advisors are: Mizuko Ito, Cathy Davidson, Henry Jenkins, Carol Lee, Michael Eisenberg, and Joanne Weiss. One imagines that the voice of the program officer at the MacArthur Foundation who made it all possible, Connie Yowell, is in there somewhere too.)

The Foreword is worth reading in full, but a few key lines: “Unlike the early years in the development of computers and computer-based media, digital media are now commonplace and pervasive, having been taken up by a wide range of individuals and institutions in all walks of life. Digital Media have escaped the boundaries of professional and formal practice, and the academic, governmental, and industry homes that initially fostered their development.” Those are simple statements, clear and right on. One of the reasons to pay attention to this topic right now is the pervasiveness, the commonplace-ness of the use of these new media, especially by many young people.

Also, their working hypothesis: “those immersed in new digital tools and networks are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.” The work of the series authors, I think, bears out this hypothesis quite convincingly.

At the same time, the series advisors make plain that they are not “uncritical of youth practices” and note that they do not claim “that digital media necessarily hold the key to empowerment.” It is this spirit of healthy skepticism that one can hear through most of the essays in the series — and which is essential to the academic enterprise they’ve undertaken.

So far, I’ve finished the book on “Youth, Identity, and Digital Media” (ed. by David Buckingham) and “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning” (ed. by Katie Salen) and am part of the way through each of the others. Each one is excellent.

In the ID book, I found particularly helpful the first piece on “Introducing Identity” by David Buckingham, which took on the hard definitional and discipline-related questions of identity in this context. He put a huge amount of scholarship into context, with sharp critiques along the way. The essay by our colleague danah boyd (on “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites,” a variant of which is online) is already a key document in our understanding of identity and the shifts in conceptions of public and private (”privacy in public,” and the idea of the networked public — related to but not the same as Yochai Benkler’s similar notions of networked publics). And the notion of “Identity Production as Bricolage” — introduced in “Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities” by Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell — is evocative and helpful, I thought. The many warnings about not “exociticizing” (danah often using the word “fetishizing”) the norms and habits of young people and their use of technology, as well as echoes of Henry Jenkins’ work on convergence and his and Eszter Hargittai’s study of the participation gap came through load and clear, too. (I am pretty sure I can hear dislike of the term “digital natives” in between certain lines, as well.)

There’s much more to like in the book, and much more to work into our own understanding of ID in this environment, than I can post here. There’s an equal amount of insight in the Games book too. (The class I am co-teaching with David Hornik starts in 31 minutes and I should probably prepare a bit more than I have already.)

John Palfrey

Youth Turnout in Iowa

(Cross posted from Dr. Palfrey’s blog)

It seems as though there was another promising uptick in voter turnout last night in Iowa. This fact, if true, is the best news out of the caucuses, in my mind. (I am supporting Sen. Obama for president, so I’m excited about that, too.) Early analysis by many of those working on getting youth out to vote, like Adrian Talbott and his colleagues at Generation Engage, suggest that the youth vote is headed up. So reported the Boston Globe as well. Congratulations to all who have been working so hard on this crucial topic.

John Palfrey

The Digital Native Divide

When we talk about Digital Natives, are we just talking about privileged kids with access to technology? Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of an upcoming book on Google, thinks so:

Invoking generations invariably demands an exclusive focus on people of wealth and means, because they get to express their preferences (for music, clothes, electronics, etc.) in ways that are easy to count. It always excludes immigrants, not to mention those born beyond the borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.

In the case of the “digital generation,” the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to this. In a recent talk at Berkman, sociologist Eszter Hargittai discussed her finding that “the only statistically significant predictor of engaging in creative activities at all is parental education.” And communication researcher John McMurria has observed that “a glance at the top 100 rated, viewed and discussed videos, and most subscribed channels [on YouTube] reveals far less racial diversity than broadcast network television.”

“It’s not just about access to the technology,” Henry Jenkins explained at the Totally Wired forum. “It’s access to defining skills and experiences. This is the new hidden curriculum.”

Unlike Vaidhyanathan, however, I see this as no reason to throw out the Digital Native metaphor. To the contrary. Unlike Baby Boomers or Generation X, Digital Natives are growing up now. When we use the term, we not only describe the past, but also look ahead to a future we can still change.

So let’s keep using the term, but as an aspiration as well as a description. Rather than pretend all kids are Digital Natives, let’s make that our goal. Because if we don’t act, the problems could get even worse. At her Berkman talk, Hargittai said she’s concerned unequal opportunities will become a vicious cycle:

I do think it’s going to create a greater divide, because I do think that for those who have the opportunities and have the skills, there really is so much out there. … It’s the people who don’t have the education, who don’t have the networks to figure it out, who aren’t going to be benefiting.

So how do we avoid this? I see hope in projects like One Laptop Per Child. Although that program is specifically aimed at the 3rd world, it points to the possibility of making laptops and wireless internet affordable to everyone, bypassing the time limits, crippled access, and dated technology too often found on the public computers at libraries and schools. Connecting to my last post, I’m also excited about the ideas coming from Katie Salen and her cohorts in the “edutainment” field.

These are just the first thoughts that come to mind. What do you think? How can we confront the problem of unequal access? And do you think the term “Digital Native” helps or hurts the cause? Comment away!

-Jesse Baer

Text Messaging and Public Graffiti

There was a great article in the Boston Globe yesterday about two Boston area companies, Aerva Inc. and LocaModa Inc., that are pioneering so-called “public graffiti spaces.” In essence, they are connected displays that show content submitted via text messages. It is also broadcast online so that others can tune in to a given location and even submit content themselves. As “out-of-home” displays become more popular, I’d like to discuss the current and future applications of this idea, as well as the implications it holds for digital identity and privacy.

LocaModa Inc., which provides a service called Wiffiti (short for wireless graffiti) views interactive out-of-home displays as the answer to consumers’ “insatiable desire for connectedness” and the shift from a “’lean back’ TV experience to a more active ‘lean forward’” one. Traditional narrowcast displays, like those found in Wal-Mart or other retail stores, have been vehicles for open loop advertisements that do not respond to users or incorporate user-generated content. Wiffiti works by having a display in a public place, like a café or club, to which users can send text messages that will be immediately displayed on screen. A particular establishment can extend the effectiveness of the device by prompting the audience to, say, submit music requests, vote on their favorite bartender, or answer trivia questions. The model for this is shown below:

Public Texting

Marketers love this idea and view it as the new way to connect with potential customers. The Economist reports that Proctor & Gamble ran a promotion inviting women to text “secrets” to giant screen in Times Square that would also be broadcast on the website. (A representative message confessed, “I cut my sister’s hair when she was younger and told my parents that she did it herself.”) Executives at the company praised the promotion for dramatically increasing brand awareness.

Public text messaging appeals not only to the need for connectedness that some of us have, but also to marketers and the owners of a venue because of the inherent data collection ability. A user’s cell phone number acts as a unique identifier (like a cookie on a website) that can track the screens to which someone submits, what they actually said, and could possibly be combined with other databases of personal information. Of course, the availability of those other databases depends on the data sharing policies of companies with which one engages in business. Unfortunately, most people never read the fine print when they sign up for rewards cards at retail stores or other promotions. If the store has a lax data sharing policy and collected your cell phone number when you signed up, then the club or café across town might be able to associate you with previous purchases and be able to target advertisements, offers, or anything else in your direction.

But advertising companies are treading carefully; the trust of a consumer is of extremely high value and firms are anxious to preserve that. The founder of LocaModa notes that “the future of out-of-home screen media is unlikely to follow [an] Orwellian model.”

An important question about this technology is whether or not it helps the social nature of the location. Some would say that the last thing we need is another excuse to pull out a cell phone in a café or club. In my own experience, it is common for digital natives to be in a social, public space and message friends that aren’t present. During the time it takes to communicate, the DN displaces him or herself from the environment they are in. They are temporarily closer to the recipient of the message, miles away, than other people just a few feet apart from them. (For more on this, see Sherry Turkle’s excellent piece, Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self.) Proponents of social graffiti spaces say this is just the opposite; it is immersive in the way it connects an individual to the people in the same space.

What do you think about social texting? Would you engage in it at a café or club? Do you think it helps or hurts the real life social relations between people?

– Tony P.


“School play”

As I mentioned in my last blog post, one of the most interesting things about the Totally Wired forum was hearing Katie Salen talk about games in education.

In her introduction (PDF) to a new volume entitled “Ecology of Games,” Salen quotes Nobel laureate Herbert Simon: “the meaning of ‘knowing’ has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it.” Salen believes that games are a perfect way to teach these “new media literacy skills.”

The use of games in school is controversial, and it’s easy to see why.

On one hand, learning through play is so fundamentally natural that it transcends species.

Moreover, games are especially relevant to digital natives. A recent study found that games are the most popular use of the internet among kids in the US aged 6 to 11 — far more than homework, email, music, video, or just surfing.

On the other hand, playing games in school clashes with a long held cultural belief in the separation of work and play.

“Education and entertainment are two different processes,” Iowa State journalism professor Michael Bugeja recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “They require two different interfaces. Our whole society is being eroded by entertainment.”

Personally, I have no doubt that kids can and do learn a lot from games. Salen has amply proven this with a plethora of ideas and insights she’s gained by looking at education through the eyes of a game designer. I came away from Totally Wired wondering what other sundry subjects could be illuminated by game design, Freakonomics-style.

Still, I wonder how much of this game-based learning needs to happen in schools. Obviously kids need no encouragement to play. Why not focus on making educational games kids will want to play on their own time, and invest school time in activities most kids won’t do on their own, like read Shakespeare, or build robots?

To be fair, kids will undoubtedly learn more from games when guided by teachers and well designed curricula. As for traditional literacies, Salen acknowledges their importance, and believes they should be taught in tandem. In fact, she told the audience last week, “for kids and even for us, it’s not a huge distinction anymore.”

At any rate, soon Salen’s theories will be put to a dramatic test. She’s currently spearheading development of The Game School, an experimental public school in New York City that, according to its website, “will use game design and game-inspired methods to teach critical 21st century skills and literacies.” Talk about an exciting experiment! From a July article in Wired News:

Right now, the ideas are vague but intriguing: Alternate reality games could be used to study science, as those players typically seek out and analyze data, and then propose and test their hypotheses. Salen also envisions harnessing the creative urges that kids already express through fan fiction, blogging and the creation of avatars and online identities.

How well this works remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure though: a lot of fun will be had finding out.