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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Panel on CyberAggression with Sen. Amy Kobuchar

I had the distinct honor of being asked to serve as a panelist for an event sponsored and moderated by Minnesota's own Senator Amy Klobuchar (I'm a big fan) last week at Augsburg College. The local media covered it fairly nicely, and it was an amazing opportunity for me to meet some people who have a true passion for battling cyberaggression (which covers a lot, by the way -- online spying and surveillance, cyberbullying, cyberharassment, misrepresentation online, etc.). In addition to the Senator, the panel included Nikki Jackson Colaco, Public Policy Manager of Facebook;
Detective Brian Hill, computer forensics investigator with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office;and Lynn Miland, of Northfield, the parent of a child who was bullied and now a parent advocate with the National Center for Bullying Prevention, which is affiliated with Minnesota-based PACER Center, a national center that champions children with disabilities. (Lynn's story about her daughter was particularly touching and troubling, and I was really happy she was able to do the panel and tell her story.)

The experience was mostly good. Mostly. Maybe I'm being hypersensitive as a journalism professor (specifically one who just taught a lesson in good, ethical headline-writing in class this morning), but The Star-Tribune literally seized upon one fragment of one of my sentences about defriending and blocking falling under the category of cyberbullying -- I assume because they found it to be ridiculous, and I agree it sounds ridiculous without the context of the rest of the remarks. The headline and story ran like this:

'Defriending' latest form of adolescent cyberbullying

Anyway, obviously, there's more to it. :-)

Here are a few of the other stories about the panel:

Q&A With Parents and Experts About Cyberbullying from Fox9-Twin Cities

Cyberbullying Highlighted at Augsburg Event from KARE11


Klobuchar, panel address changing face of harassment online
from The Minnesota Daily

And if you're interested, here are my basic remarks. I went a little bit off the cuff and edited out a few things that had already been said before it was my turn to talk, but this is the gist.

Notes for Cyberbully Panel with Sen. Klobuchar

In a national survey conducted with about 3000 teens over a three-year time period, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 93 percent of adolescents age 12-17 surveyed go online, and 63 percent of those go online at least once daily – most of them from home, though a large number are also able to access the internet from their mobile phone, and at school or a library.

32 percent of adolescents report that they have been the victim of online harassment – from having an embarrassing photo posted of them on a social networking site without their consent, forwarding an email or text or instant message without their consent, or had a rumor spread about them online. In my own research, young teens reported instances of just being shut out completely by their peers – from being de-friended on a massive scale on Facebook to being deleted from a friend list on Instant Messaging, which is almost as devastating for many of them.

So, over a third of our adolescents have reported behavior like this, which is a huge number, but let’s face it. Even 1 percent is too high a number of kids reporting being victimized by bullies online. Although we hear about some very extreme instances of cyber-aggression from the mass media, it must be noted that less extreme instances happen all the time to all kinds of different kids and young adults, and we need to pay attention.

You sometimes hear people say, “People have been bullied since the beginning of time,” and that’s true. However, this type of bullying is different from the type of bullying that takes place on the schoolyard because when you go home at the end of the day and retreat to your room – a zone that is supposedly safe – the bullying continues. There is little escape.

Social networking sites make it even more difficult for victims because they make it so easy for the bullies to instantly post something mean or embarrassing about them to hundreds and potentially thousands of peers. The impact is immediate because the “attack” can be accomplished at the click of a mouse. There is little defense against this type of practice. Unlike when your parent teaches you to fight for yourself on the playground, if you stick up for yourself online, you risk even more ridicule and aggression.

Research shows that people often say things online that they would not have said in person, and the computer screen can have a de-humanizing, de-sensitizing effect on behavior. This is one factor that drives adolescents who might otherwise not engage in bullying or harassment.
I think we all have to agree, too, that to share a bully’s post or comment on it truly makes you complicit in the bullying process. A lot of people don’t think about it that way, but social networks allow for a real piling on effect that even previous types of cyberaggression did not.

What can be done? First of all, discussions like this one go a long way in educating the public about the problem and moving us beyond the sensational media stories to actually thinking about what we can do about the problem. We need to acknowledge as a culture, that cyberbullying is prevalent and a serious issue that has to be addressed.

There is a true lack of new media literacy among a lot of adults that makes this a tough issue to tackle because they literally have no understanding of how online technology works in the first place. That’s a real problem. More adults, especially parents and teachers but also people with no connections to young people, need to become educated on how this works – open a Facebook account yourself and use it. Get acquainted with the technology so you understand how it works and what can be done using it, and then you’ll better understand the issues and what’s at stake here (legally, culturally, and so on).

The other really important part of the equation is that parents and educators need to agree that we should be teaching our kids civility – both online and offline – at a very young age. We need to teach them the consequences of online bullying – tell them stories about real-life instances of cyber-aggression and how it truly affected a person’s life.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cyberbullying in the Age of Social Media: My Take

Every now and then, a post from my other, far more active blog, "Girls and Media," is also appropriate for this blog. Actually, it occurs to me that this happens pretty often, but I have been very lax about remembering to post to both. Not only does this post serve to remind me that I ought to be double-dipping, but I'd like to use it to recommit to writing this blog it the first place. This is subject matter that I am passionate about, and I know I have something to contribute to the conversation about new media and youth.

Here is a link to my take on cyberbullying in the era of social networking sites. The following is reprinted from the University of Minnesota News Service and includes a video clip where I discuss the topic.

Cyberbullying has many facets

The start of the new school year this fall has brought with it anational focus on and concern with cyberbullying. What is this form of bullying and how can it be addressed? A University of Minnesota expert who can comment on the current cyberbullying crisis is:

Shayla Thiel-Stern, assistant professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, College of Liberal Arts

Thiel-Stern says the issue of cyberbullying is far too complicated to blame on only one factor. “There is not just one root to this problem,” she says. “However, we can have a productive conversation about cyberbullying if we acknowledge the many facets of the issue.”

She says cyberbullying differs from traditional notions of bullying. “Some people note that bullying has always been around and that the current crisis is overblown,” Thiel-Stern says. “Children, teenagers and, yes, even adults, bully and have been bullied throughout human history, but it used to be that these instances were confined to a small space in ones life. You could usually escape a bully by going home at the end of the day, for example. The Internet makes this impossible.”

In addition, social media further complicates cyberbullying. “It is now so easy to ‘share’ media with the world that can negatively affect another person – whether it’s a complaint about another individual written as a Facebook status update, an out-of-context online conversation that someone has cut and paste or an embarrassing photo or video sent out to everyone on a friend list,” she says.

“Sadly, the victim has little recourse in this process. Once something about them is posted, it's out there. It is difficult for him or her to remove or refute the post before it continues to be shared.”

Thiel-Stern’s research interests focus on the intersections of new media, youth and gender as well as critical and cultural aspects of online journalism. Her first book, “Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging,” was published by Peter Lang Publishing in March 2007.

To interview Thiel-Stern, contact Jeff Falk, University News Service, or (612) 626-1720.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Law Enforcement Using Social Media to Investigate Youth

The issue of whether law enforcement officials should use social media tools to find clues about teens' lives is kind of a no-brainer. If it's out there, then why not, right? I am always a little bit confounded when students are upset that they can be held accountable for what they say or post on social networking sites; after all, even when privacy settings are working their hardest, this is still a public space.

The other day, I was interviewed by one of our local TV news outlets about law enforcement retrieving information from Facebook and text messages to piece together the story an incredibly sad case of a teen suicide/homicide. Yes, I actually said "no-brainer" in the interview. Here's the story:

Murder-Suicide Suspected in Lakeland Case

I'll weigh in again on this later. I have a fantastic story to relate about a speaking engagement I did with the Center for Child Protection in Austin, Texas, earlier this year.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Youth and New Media

For the past two years, I've contemplated starting a blog about children and teens' use of new media in their lives, and the task has literally been so overwhelming that I did not know where to start. (In fact, I recently started another blog about girls and media that looks at the media representation of girls as well as how girls represent themselves through media, and I still let this blog essentially gather dust.) Why so overwhelming? Frankly, there are so many angles and so many things to discuss. Every day, a story runs in the news media that relates to kids and the Internet or gaming or cell phones, and in general, these aren't particularly interesting or truthful pieces, in my opinion. You have the stories about "Gee whiz! What will the kids start doing next?", the ones about sexual predators tracking them down through whatever social networking site is hot at the moment or before MySpace and Facebook were hot topics of discussion, through chatrooms and IM. You get tons of stories about personal disclosure -- from sending friends naked photos of themselves on their cell phones to posting pictures of themselves drinking beer on their Facebook pages to unwittingly (is this possible?) giving their address to a stranger ... We don't really hear about young people using new media communication technology for good very often, and there is probably something wrong with that. Is it really all bad?

Let me start off with giving you my perspective here, though, because it will obviously color and shape any discussion on this blog: I am a college journalism professor who studies how youth use new media and analyzes how the media cover youth and communication technology. In most cases, I focus specifically on how gender comes in to play in this, and I pay specific attention to girls not only because I'm a feminist but because I believe they have not been fairly represented or studied (again, though, that's the subject of my other blog). As you can tell from the previous paragraph, I believe the media files so many ridiculous stories that prey on their audience's fears about new technology, very literally to pander to paranoid (mostly) parents who don't necessarily understand the Internet, cell phones and video games well enough to critically evaluate whether the story has merit. And I used to be a journalist myself, so I also have that perspective. I'm not sure that reporters intentionally mislead audiences about youth and technology, but I do believe that they aren't given the physical space in a newspaper or the air time during a newscast to tell complete stories that give the full nuances of what is going on.

There are some good stories out there about youth and new media, though, and one that aired this year that told a number of fairly complete stories about youth and technology was "Frontline: Growing Up Online." Watch it if you haven't. It touches on all the sort of hot button issues about kids, teens and new media, and does so in a way that shows the kids as active producers of media rather than passive receptacles of it -- or at least in most of the examples, not as victims of it.

I view this blog as a space to showcase the good and the bad, however, and I'll throw in my own two cents fairly often. I would also be interested in hearing from you, even if you fully disagree with my perspective. Let the discussion begin, I guess.