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Researcher says time online can be healthy for kids

  • Washington Post
  • Published Tuesday, March 18, 2014, at 3:19 p.m.

To America’s fretful parents of teens obsessed with social media: Chill out, the kids are all right. That’s the message of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” by youth and technology researcher Danah Boyd.

What about cyberbullies and predators? An exaggerated problem dished out by the media, Boyd says. Are smartphones turning children into narcissists or making them socially stunted? Parents, take a look in the mirror, she says, or at least up from your own smartphone at the dinner table and stop sending mixed signals on the use of tech.

Boyd’s pro-technology message for youngsters goes against the grain of popular concerns about children being exposed to more media online than ever before. Child development experts have cautioned that a generation of “digital natives” may suffer from all the time they spend texting, Snapchatting and gaming on the multitude of devices at their fingertips. Maryland and other states have enacted cyberbullying laws; federal lawmakers are considering similar action.

But the Microsoft researcher and fellow of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society says that time online can be healthy. Boyd’s research has been warmly received by parents tired of being told to be afraid for their kids.

She also has drawn criticism from some parents, educators and law enforcement officials who have seen the rapid-fire spread of cruelty online. The effects of the Internet on social development are still little understood, social scientists say, and it’s too early to say the kids are OK. Excerpts of the conversation:

Q: Why write this book?

A: It’s the culmination of a decade of research. What I was hearing from parents and the media when it came to teens and social media was, “Be afraid, be very afraid.” But it was clear to me from the data that that shouldn’t be the message. Largely, kids are as all right as ever.

Q: Why the fear-mongering?

A: We get so caught up in our imagination of the worst-case scenario. On the sexual predation conversation, the majority of youth experience sexual predation at the hands of a sexual peer. But instead of focusing our efforts on preparing a 14-year-old that a senior may rape her, we focus on the potential for a stranger online going after teens. The media is not helping this.

Q: But what about the growing number of bullying cases that involve social media and that are connected to suicides of youth? Rebecca Sedwick in Lakeland, Fla., for example, apparently sought help from adults and appeared to be targeted by middle-school peers on various social networks. One problem her death highlighted was the challenge for parents, educators and law enforcement to even keep up with the many social networks being used by kids and bullying that occurs on those sites.

A: The challenge in that case is we don’t know all the nuances. Emily Bazelon at Slate has done amazing work on reports of previous cases of cyberbullying-related suicides. In many cases where the media was very prosecutorial of kids involved in bullying, she found that the stories were much more complicated and that mental health issues were involved.

There is a whole range of meanness and cruelty, but the media lumps it all into one category. And law enforcement has gotten much worse with overly broad laws that are very punitive.

Q: So what is the data on cyberbullying? Is it getting worse?

A: The problem is methodology. There is no methodology that everyone can agree on. But the problem is broader than tracking by numbers. It’s cultural. We live in a culture where reality television shows’ messages of cruelty and cruel behavior is rewarded. What we need to do is start the conversation on building bonds within a community.

Q: You say parents are terrible models when it comes to tech. Explain.

A: Let’s focus on distracted driving. When I started asking youth why they text and drive, they say that if they don’t answer their parents right away they would be inundated by texts from parents asking why they weren’t replying. Parents are giving mixed messages because they want to put a digital leash on young people but have no limits on their own behavior.

Q: How is this different from past generations? Our parents said no TV but couldn’t get enough of it themselves.

A: The difference is that when we were kids, we got on our bikes and checked in every once in a while at home but weren’t expected to be connected to parents all the time.

Q: So what’s your checklist for parents and other adults on how to talk to kids about social media?

A: There is no checklist. It’s an ongoing conversation. Be present. Be engaged. Listen. And that’s particularly hard … when everyone is way, way too stretched in different directions.

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