You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

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

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

Microcelebrity and Managing Online Identity

Clive Thompson of WIRED recently wrote a piece called The Age of the Microcelebrity. In it, he describes the phenomenon of being well known, followed, and even discussed by a group of followers, however small. Sure, well know bloggers like Scoble are followed by thousands of enthusiasts, but they are explicitly aware of this and, in my opinion, fall outside the realm of “microcelebrity.” As Thompson discusses interesting anecdotes of people being live blogged as they chat at a conference or his own experience finding a discussion about “whether it’s healthy for [him] to have a nanny look after [his] son during work hours ,” I started to consider how DNs negotiate this reality every day. How has the broadcasting of DNs affected their assumptions and how they operate?

Thompson suggests that “we are learning to live in front of a crowd,” and to some extent, I agree. It is normal on a Monday morning to receive e-mails that you have been “tagged” in photo albums that sprouted over the weekend. I imagine that bloggers with small followings experience the thrill of their posts being debated or discussed. For much of the information we post online about ourselves, privacy is not of paramount concern because we control it ourselves and—often, but not always—tailor the content for our target audience. But in some cases we may want to, as Thompson puts it and as I mentioned in an earlier post, use pseudonyms or private accounts to “wall off” personal details. And here is where many users of online services may go wrong. Although our profile may be hidden, the Terms of Use often allow the service provider to do anything it chooses with that data in the future. A false sense of security can be more harmful than none at all.

What are the effects of this (over)exposure to the rest of our social group and even beyond? Is it good to take care in what we say and do, for fear that we may be misrepresented? Or does that make normal conversation and expression rife with politics? Certainly the strains of managing one’s “personal brand” are felt more by working professionals than DNs still in school, but the skill to manage an online identity is a good one to have.

Thompson finishes with the keen observation that this may not be such a new thing: “Small-town living is a hotbed of bloglike gossip. “ It is true that networked communities dissolve geographic boundaries to give the feeling of that small down, but there are critical differences. Expression in the online world is replicable, searchable, oftentimes irremovable (from the web, once it circulates) and can be viewed by so-called invisible audiences. These differences are part of the digital literacy that is so important for DNs and other users of services to have and apply when negotiating their foray into the online world from the offline one.

   – Tony P.

Discussing ‘Born Digital’ with European Students

(Cross posted from Dr. Gasser’s blog)

John Palfrey and I are getting tremendously helpful feedback on the draft v.0.9 of our forthcoming book Born Digital (Basic Books, German translation with Hanser) from a number of great students at Harvard and St. Gallen Law School, respectively. Last week, John and I had an inspiring conversation about the current draft with our first readers on this side of the Atlantic: a small, but great and diverse group of law students here at The students, coming from Switzerland, Germany, France, Singapore, and the U.S., were kind enough to share their feedback with us based on reaction papers they’ve drafted in response to assigned book chapters.

Today, the second session took place. John and I are currently revisiting the final chapter of the book. The “final” chapter, of course, is by no means “final” – even not if it once becomes a chapter of the printed book. What we’re trying to do is simply to synthesize some of the things we’ve said so far, and to look ahead once again and ask ourselves how the digital world will look like for our kids given the things we know – and we don’t know – about their digital lives. In this spirit, the last chapter of the book in particular is an open invitation to join the discussion about the promises and challenges of the Internet for a population that is born digital. Against this backdrop, we prepared three discussion questions for today’s session here in St. Gallen.

First, what do you think is the greatest opportunity for Digital Natives when it comes to digital technologies? Second, what are you most concerned about when thinking about the future of the Internet? Third, what approach – generically speaking – seems best suited to address the challenges you’ve identified?

Here are the students’ thoughts in brief:

Greatest opportunities:

  • Democratizing effect of the net: DNs can build their own businesses without huge upfront investments (Rene, Switzerland)
  • ICT enables networking among people across boundaries (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Encourages communication among DNs (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • Increased availability of all kind of information, allows fast development and sharing ideas among DNs (Jonas, Germany)
  • Availability of information, DN can go online and find everything they’re looking for; this shapes, e.g., the way DNs do research; as a result, world becomes a smaller place, more common denominators in terms of shared knowledge and culture (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Efficiency gains in all areas, including speed of access, spread of ideas, … (Eugene, Singapore)

Greatest challenges, long-term:

  • Problem of losing one’s identity – losing cultural identity in the sea of diversity (Eugene, Singapore)
  • Dependency on technology and helplessness when not having the technology available; DNs are becoming dependent on technology and lose ability to differentiate b/w reality and virtuality; other key challenge: bullying (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Who will get access to the digital world – only the wealthy kids in the West or others, too? Digital divide as a key problem (Jonas, Germany)
  • Addiction: DNs are always online and depend so much on Internet that it may lead to addictive behavior (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • DNs can’t distinguish between offline and online world, they can’t keep, e.g. online and offline identities separate (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Notion of friendship changes; DNs might forget about their friends in the immediate neighborhood and focus solely on the virtual (Rene, Switzerland)

Most promising approaches:

  • Teach digital natives how to use social networks and communicate with each other; law, in general, is not a good mode of regulation in cyberspace (Rene, Switzerland)
  • Technology may often provide a solution in response to a technologically-created problem like, e.g., privacy intrusion (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Don’t regulate too much, otherwise people won’t feel responsible anymore; education is key, help people to understand that it’s their own responsibility (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • The laws that are currently in place suffice (except in special circumstances); learning is key, but who shall be the teacher (since today’s teachers are not DNs)? (Jonas, Germany)
  • Generic legal rules are often not the right tool, problems change too fast; instead, kids need general understanding of how to handle technology; goal could be to strengthen their personality in the offline world so that they can transfer their confidence, but also skills to the online world (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Technology will most likely help DNs to solve many of the problems we face today; education is the basis, but focus needs to be on the question how to put education from theory into practice (Eugene, Singapore)

As always, we were running short in time, but hopefully we can continue our discussion online. Please join us, and check out our project wiki (new design, many thanks to Sarah!), our new DN blog, or for instance our Facebook group. John, our terrific team, and I are much looking forward to continuing the debate!

-Urs G.

Cyberbullying on MySpace

As someone totally immersed in the digital world, I’m always a little surprised when I hear of people deeply suspicious of the Internet. It’s the 21st century, I think. But with stories like that of Megan Meiers, even I get shocked, slightly paranoid, and start fiddling with my Facebook privacy control.

Megan Meiers was an 8th grader in Dardenne Prairie, MO who began exchanging messages with a boy, Josh Evans, she met on MySpace. Out of the blue, Josh wanted to break off their relationship and sent messages saying, “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I’ve heard that you are not very nice to your friends.” Megan, who had a history of self-esteem problems and depression, committed suicide.

The bizarre and tragic twist to this story is that Josh Evans turned out to be a fake. He was an online identity created by a mother of Megan’s former friend. The original St. Charles Journal article left out the names of the imposters, but bloggers have outed their identity online. Megan’s parents went to the media with their story and are pushing for legislation to criminalize the mother’s actions. Anyone with legal expertise have any thoughts?

The issue here obviously stretches beyond the digital world, but it does bring up the unique problem of cyberbullying: anonymity. After all, anyone can be a dog on the Internet, and anyone could be your ex-friend’s mom.

-Sarah Z.

Building Walls in Facebook

As a college student who has been using Facebook for the past few years, I have noticed a pronounced change in how some of my peers are using the tool: they are becoming wiser with regards to privacy. It’s as if all of the articles about people getting fired and losing job offers have had an effect. But there is another reason why people have started to restrict access to their photos, wall, and other sections of their profile: their audience has changed.

There are, of course, still millions of college students who post anything and everything to their profile, with no qualms about who sees it. Call it negligence, call it expression, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, and what interests me, is the growing group of students who have taken control of their digital identity by using granular security settings; ones that allow you to control who sees what, on a per-person and per-item basis. Potential employers have been prowling Facebook for at least a couple years, so why the change now? It’s simple: they’re out of the shadows.

Before Facebook opened up to anyone, the audience of whatever digital identity you had was visible only as your peers, the people whose faces showed up under your “Friends” box. Now, with adults (that could be offering you a job in the near future) and younger siblings (who can tell mom and dad) joining social networks, the presence of the complete audience is known. The reaction of people to control who sees what is a normal one: we speak differently and of different things with recruiters or professors than with our friends, and the success of a social network that strives to capture users across all ages may hinge on its ability mimic real life walls. By empowering users to control access to different parts of their digital dossier, they can construct settings that represent the different real-life social circles. I want to be connected, not exposed.

– Tony P., Cambridge, MA