Sunday, April 19, 2009

Talking with the Gatekeepers

Today Henry Jenkins recommended reading "A new online safety: The means, not the end" by Ann Collier, which also has a great list of reference links at the end. In explaining why schools are making a mistake in cutting off access to almost all social media, Collier offers a summary of the risk to civil society as a whole created by too much Internet gatekeeping:

That puts "online safety" in danger of becoming a barrier rather than a support to young people's constructive, enriching use of social media and technologies. If that happens, it also becomes a barrier to their full participation in participatory culture and democracy.

Collier argues that a recent Pew Report about The Internet's Role in Campaign 2008 proves that the Internet has finally become a major factor in political participation, after years of online campaigning failing to live up to the hype. She insists that connectivity to social network sites and streaming media channels is important and that good netiquette is best taught through "training in citizenship, ethics, empathy, new media literacy" rather than walling off most of the web in schools and libraries.

I know that in my kids' own cases, in order to play games in the computer labs, they have actually exploited vulnerabilities in the school's computer security systems and sometimes have even helped their teachers deal with the YouTube ban that narrows their instructional options by showing them some of their computer circumvention techniques.

In my own Ten Principles for the Digital Family, which has been disseminated by some PTAs, I support the kind of pragmatism and rationality for which Collier advocates, but I all too often find what I call the "Virtual Global Taskforce" mentality at work that turns everything designed for a parents' meeting into a law enforcement problem, thus feeding predator panic or cyberbullying hysteria.

Ironically, in many ways Collier is more conservative about safety than many of the most hyper-vigilant school computer monitors, because she includes a category for "reputational safety" along with "physical safety" and "psychological safety."

This brings me to my current "do I say anything" dilemma.

Last month, I received a "Dear Parent" letter from UCLA, which asked for my permission for my younger child to participate in the "UCLA Teen Online Survey." The project was led by Jaana Juvonen and seemed to be related to an earlier 2008 study on cyberbullying that was done with an anonymous web-based survey. The letter described the aims of the study as follows:

Our goal is to learn about youth's use of the internet and their experiences communicating with one another online (e.g., using IM, email, social networking sites). Specifically, we are interesting in negative and mean comments and actions that youth can encounter while interacting with peers online and in school.

Of course, what I was immediately struck by was the absence of any inquiry into positive online experiences and how online social bonding might function in more complex ways than simple exclusion and persecution.

But I do Internet research myself, and I have to deal with IRB reviews, and I know the challenges of maintaining a decent pool size of human subjects in the face of incomplete surveys and project drop-outs. So I signed the paperwork, despite my initial reservations.

In participating in the Juvonen survey, my twelve-year-old was baffled by many of the researchers' questions, which he felt were addressed to more social network-friendly older kids, but he was at least able to answer some of the questions, based on his experiences playing MMOs with live chat.

(My kids in general are very cooperative research subjects, because they know what I do for a living and are cognizant of the fact that there is a magical substance called "grant money" that sometimes means an extra week of camp or faster purchase of equipment they've been asking for. So, when other kids were filling out a separate drug survey disingenuously with humorous answers that indicated that they sniffed glue every hour and shot heroin for breakfast, my younger boy told them -- untruthfully -- that the bar code on the bottom was tied to their names, and they would get in trouble with school authorities for their lies in order to get them to not be bad actors in the research study.)

Based on my son's experiences with Juvonen's cyberbullying team, it sounds like many kids might similarly feel that they are missing out on something they should know about, and that their cautionary UCLA study may actually encourage more online experimentation with genres perceived as more "grown up" than the ones that they normally used.

A few weeks later I received another letter from the school that began as follows:

We have recently seen an increase in three disturbing behaviors athat are occurring among students at ______ Middle School: cyberbullying, promoting fights between two students involving gambling on the expected outcome and the possession of illegal substances.

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that uses technology, email, text messages, chat rooms, mobile phones and phone cameras to post messages that harass or intimidate another student. A student who wouldn't normally say hurtful things to others may be empowered by the anonymity and the fact that they can't see the impact on the victim.

Fight promoting involves a student organizer who targets two potential combatants. The targeted students are encouraged or intimidated by the student organizer to fight while other students watch and bet money on the fight outcome. If the target refuses to engage in the fight, he/she is expected to repay the bystanders the amount of their initial bets. Sometimes the student organizer posts the fight on the Internet.

Posession of illegal substances, such as marijuana, is not only illegal for minors but for the general public as well. We do not advocate or tolerate possession, use or sales of any controlled substances on our campus.

We are extremely concerned because cyberbullying, fight promotion and drug possession are physically and psychologically dangerous, creating an unsafe school environment. They violate the Education Code, which could lead to suspension or expulsion, and the California Penal Code, involving students in the Juvenile Justice System.

I couldn't help but notice that the behavior involving new technology, cyberbullying, got top billing over and over, despite the gravity of the other crimes on the list. More astonishing, when I turned the page, there was a full page of bullet-pointed items on "The Challenge of Cyberbullying," "Signs of Being Cyberbullied," and "Signs of Participation in Cyberbullying." Nowhere were there tips for parents about fighting or drug use. Besides, I actually know some of the children involved. Because of privacy concerns, I don't want to give any specifics, but key factors were all about the RL environments not virtual ones: offsite parents, a walkable physical geography, stashed contraband, adolescent growth spurts, and the absence of appealing afterschool programs (partly because of moronic computer bans).

So now I am in a quandary. Do I bother saying that cyberbullying is dominating too much of the cultural conversation at my kid's school? Do I go out of my way to make Collier's argument that we need more Internet access not less?

As gatekeepers, I'm not sure how much good talking to them will do. These are school officials afraid of liability and invested in their status as authority figures. Moreover, I find that when I do my "fellow educator" routine, it often makes teachers and administrators defensive, because they feel that their expertise in K-12 is being disrespected by someone from a research university.

Maybe I'll start with the parents. But I live in an affluent community, where most kids have at least one computer. (My kids have two a piece.) They might not see the school's policies as having any effect on their children's behavior, because they are on the right side of the digital divide.

Or maybe with only a month and a half left in the school year, I'll just keep my head down and lecture to others about online creativity without ever seriously making the case on my own home turf.

We'll see what my conscience says on Monday.

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