"The Family's CTO": An Interview with Net Family News's Anne Collier (Part One)

I've spent a fair amount of time in this blog talking about the challenges of educating the next generation of youth so that they acquire the social skills and cultural competencies needed to become a full participant in the emerging media culture. Much of this discussion inevitably centers around what happens in school-based or after-school media literacy programs. But, as I wrote in Technology Review some years ago, media literacy begins in the home. Parents have an essential role to play in helping their young people make sense of the new media landscape and giving them the ethical foundations they need to make meaningful decisions when they go on line. Unfortunately, we offer parents very little guidance on how to perform those roles. Indeed, most of the advice literature can be reduced to a simple message: the less media your kids consume, the better off they are. I don't think this is very good advice for a number of reasons: it reduces media consumption to a social problem rather than recognizing the pedagogical benefits of actively participating in media culture. Such advice, which often talks about media in terms of "screen time," produces enormous anxieties, anxieties which in turn get fed by sensationalistic news reports, shoddy research, and culture war rhetoric from political leaders, until parents are left terrified of this online world that they often know little about and totally uncertain where to turn for thoughtful advice. I often speak to groups of MIT alum as I travel around the country and inevitably, no matter what the topic of my talk is, the questions circle around the anxieties these highly educated and thoughtful adults feel about their children's relaitons to mass and digital media. In many cases, even a little bit of information will calm their fears and offer them another way of thinking about these issues. One of the best places for parents to turn for information about the world young people are encountering and creating for themselves online is a site called NetFamilyNews.com. Here's how the site describes its beat:

* Online safety and privacy news and tools

* New technologies and Web resources for kids

* Research about the impact of digital media on kids

* Legislation affecting children's online experience

* School and library Net-use policy

* How Web-literate kids, parents, and teachers are using the Internet.

Today and tomorrow, I am going to be sharing an interview with Anne Collier, who identifies herself as a journalist and children's advocate. Collier offers a sensible middle ground perspective on the issues which concern contemporary parents: she recognizes both the risks and potentials of these new media, helping parents to see past the sensationalism and focus on the matters they need to really be concerned about. Collier also recently published a significant book dealing specifically with social network sites and young people, MySpace Unraveled: What It Is and How to Use it Safely, and so many of my questions here are designed to draw her out about the specific issues surrounding children's involvement with Web 2.0.

I am excited to call this important online resource to the attention of this blog's readers. I hope you enjoy her down to earth perspective on youth and media as refreshing as I do.

What led you to create Net Family News? What needs do you think it fills for your readers?

A couple of colleagues actually thought of the idea of a monthly email newsletter for parents in mid-'97 and asked me to write it but lost interest in the project after a while and moved on. I felt strongly it needed to continue because it was the only "community newspaper" I knew of serving an increasingly important interest community, so I renamed the newsletter NetFamilyNews, made it a weekly, and incorporated it as a nonprofit organization in '99. Later I added a daily blog and RSS feed to increase accessibility. But it was really just a blog before there were blogs - annotated links to news of tech-parenting relevance.

As for needs being filled: NFN is a news filter for busy parents, educators, children's advocates, etc. I feel it's helpful for people working directly with tech-literate kids to know what's going on "out there," have a sense of context and maybe solidarity. It's almost a cliché now that young people are more tech-literate than their parents. That's true in many cases, but it's also true, and apparently less obvious, that adults and young people use the same technologies differently, and adult Net users make incorrect assumptions about teen Net use. IM at the office is a different experience than IM among middle schoolers. So all these teen tech "anthropology" stories in newspapers and magazines around the world about how teenagers are using Lunarstorm, Bebo, MySpace, Cyworld, IM, mobiles, There.com, and World of Warcraft are, I hope, frequent reminders of and insights into a perspective that can help adults intelligently negotiate this part of parenting and policymaking.

In cases where parents are intimidated by child tech literacy, information is empowering. When I started doing this I saw parents as a "silent majority" in a vital public discussion. I don't think that has changed much, actually. They're still a silent majority, and people are writing laws that would affect their children, the implications of which I think neither the legislators nor the constituents fully understand. So, I figured, people need information before they can have a voice and become active participants, and parents are essential parties to this particular discussion. So "community news" was a start. The next step was our forum, at the moment called BlogSafety.com (we're working on a more enduring name), where people could talk about all this publicly at their convenience. I wrote the mission statement for it back in 1998 but couldn't find funding until social-networking sites saw too that parents needed a place to air their concerns and get answers other than their customer- service departments.

How well do you think the mainstream media covers the issues which concern parents about Web 2.0? What do you gain by addressing these issues through the web?

I think the mainstream media, particularly the big names and mostly print (but also some broadcast) - the New York Times, the Associated Press, USATODAY, the Boston Globe, Business Week, WSJ, NPR, the BBC, etc. - have been doing a great job of covering Web 2.0 developments but not so much Web 2.0 where youth is concerned. I try to alert parents to the implications for kids and families of what tech journalists cover. For example, the Wall Street Journal's Jason Fry recently took a thoughtful look at virtual communities as another kind of "third place," or hang out, as first considered by Prof. Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. Jason wasn't writing about what these places mean to teenagers, but I thought parents might be interested in a piece about how important they have long been to people of all ages (online hanging out is really not a big leap), so I linked to it. That's just one example. There are zillions of topics - recent ones include reports and press releases all over the Web about new social-networking sites and "niches"; a New York Times report on how police are incorporating social sites into their investigative work; coming state and federal about barring sex offenders from social sites; the BBC on how a third of 8-to-13-year-olds in the UK already swap tunes on their phones ; and MTV's "The N," mobile social site Mbuzzy.com, and a market research firm teaming up to turn teen users into "a panel of 10,000 young people for immediate feedback about their lifestyles as well as network programming, advertising, events and other information."

As for what I gain from this project: I'm basically a beat reporter, given (or choosing) an interesting assignment and getting increasingly interested and invested in it as time goes on. Youth and the Internet is the assignment of a lifetime. I got my MA in East Asian studies, focusing on China, and did some TV and print reporting from Asia - which would've been a fascinating, beat right now - but in the early '90s the story that I found truly compelling was the Web. It seemed clear to me it was going to be a story about every part of life - "human interest," education, law, media, business, politics.... I wanted to follow this story for the long term in a way that might be useful to other people too.

Much of the existing advice literature for parents implies that the best advice is to minimize the amount of media children and youth consume and to keep screen technologies out of their bedrooms. What do you see as the limits of this approach?

That second basic bit of advice isn't all bad. My own common sense as a parent suggests to me that keeping screen technologies in high- traffic parts of the house is a good idea if it helps parents to be more aware of and engaged in their children's online experiences. I doubt anybody disagrees that awareness and involvement are good things, where kids' social lives are concerned, online and offline.

General safety tips - like keeping connected computers out of kids' bedrooms - have their place and usefulness (because of the simplicity they suggest, and adults need to know parenting online kids is not rocket science!), but I think anything that suggests parents can completely control their children's media exposure or Internet access is getting less realistic or practical. As the number of access points, devices providing access, and kids' workarounds multiply, we probably need to think more in terms of communication and guidance. "Just say no" and kids can simply go into stealth mode (e.g., set up a new, harder-to-find account from a friend's house or at some drive- by wireless hot spot in the neighborhood), which is increasingly easy for them as access points proliferate; delete an account and six more profiles or blogs can appear in its place in the same or any of hundreds of other social sites.

Another limitation of rules and tips is that they really only reach those who want to comply with them. It has gotten very easy to be noncompliant. I mentioned workarounds above, and there are all kinds - from proxy services that allow kids to visit sites blocked by filters to friends' houses with different Internet rules or absent parents to accessing the Web from anywhere on Web-enabled cell phones. So more thought needs to be given to how to protect kids not reached by safety tips and rules - how to educate them to protect themselves.

What kinds of things worry parents the most about web 2.0? How legitimate are those concerns?

My guess is that, if they aren't talking with their kids about their Net activity and are relying on local TV news or Oprah, they're worried about "predators" on the social networks. They're a factor to be aware of but way over-hyped, politicized, and reported out of context. I'm aware of no comparative research on this, but my close observer's take on the risks of online socializing is that cyberbullying or online harassment and negative self-exposure will affect a great many more young people than sexual predation.

About a year ago a youth officer and detective in Connecticut emailed me about a story that hadn't made it into the local paper, and he felt parents would want a heads-up. A 13-year-old girl in his community had emailed sexually explicit images of herself to a boyfriend. The boy soon became an ex-boyfriend who had shared his account password with a friend, who in turn proceeded to find and post those images on a Web page, then to share the URL with students at their school. The page was shut down, but not before "everyone" had seen it. It's that kind of age-old awful teenage "prank" that can now be so damagingly public in online digital media. Mild versions of that story - basically everyday middle and high school life, happening all over the Web - are being eclipsed by media like Dateline's endless Predator series, which isn't even about the Internet but is reflexively associated with misrepresentations of statistics like the "1 in 7 kids sexually solicited online" out of the University of New Hampshire (people who study that data say most of those solicitations are coming from peers, and none of the "1 in 5" of the original 2000 study on the subject resulted in sexual assaults).

Another risk that has gotten almost no reporting but I think will be getting more attention is what I'd call negative online reinforcement of risky offline behavior, such as eating disorders, self-mutilation, and substance abuse - young people finding support on the social Web for their harmful behaviors. We increasingly need to fold a great deal of offline expertise into the "online safety" discussion - adults who work with youth who have expertise in these behaviors. Actually, the term "online safety" will probably soon go away, as the online/offline distinction collapses. Also, our children the digital natives will be parents before long, right? So they will naturally be thinking more holistically about safety and privacy than we adults are right now.

One other thought: We really don't know how much of the (to parents) disturbing teenage behavior we're seeing on the social Web is really new and how much of it has always been a reality but is just more public all of a sudden. This exposure is probably mostly good. Parents, researchers, psychologists, and child-development experts have a lot more material to work with and learn from; suddenly they can be flies on the wall like never before (for a while, anyway - some teens are aware of this and using privacy tools more, others don't really care). Some school crises reportedly are being prevented because of threats found online. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline told us last June that, since it established its profile in MySpace, that site's users have become the hotline's largest source of calls - lives are being saved because of its presence in MySpace.

All this exposure itself probably also affects individual and social behavior in some ways, maybe a little along the lines of the Heisenberg theory with all those observers out there affecting the "experiment," and it'll be very interesting to see what coming research tells us about that.

Are there some general principles parents should apply in making decisions about their youth's relations to new media?

Really just the one about how the line between online and offline is blurring for young people, so it makes great sense to apply a family's ethics and values and what one has always known about plain old parenting to the online part of children's lives. The same goes for academic ethics and citizenship. For example, discussions about plagiarism and respecting copyrights (as we watch copyright law evolve!) need to embrace online media use. We want our children to use good judgment about who they socialize with on Friday night; the same goes for who they spend time with online, who's on their friends or buddy lists, right? We ask them questions like who's driving them home, or whether there will be hundreds of people at that party; we can ask them things like whether they know all 375 people on their friends lists, if they're careful about what they click on in IMs, emails, and Web pages, if they use privacy features, and what music they use in the videos they upload to media-sharing sites.

It's getting harder to generalize. Sites like MySpace on Web 2.0, the participatory Web, the user-driven Web - whatever people want to call it - are really whatever any user wants or creates them to be. The profile is a reflection of its owner, is his/her online "self," as is each user's experience in virtual worlds such as Second Life or There, I've learned from researchers such as danah boyd at Cal Berkeley and David Huffaker at Northwestern. So family rules and school policies more tailored to the individual or, at most, to the community are more effective than general rules or federal laws, I think.

In talks, I tell parents that this is about life, not technology. Of course there are some general principles that make all of life better (in fact, they're probably even more important in the more anonymous environment the Net represents), such as the ethic of reciprocity in virtually all the world's faith traditions, or the Golden Rule, as Christians call it. We're all talking about the First Amendment and intellectual property a lot now, which I think is great; maybe Web 2.0 is also presenting us - all the Web's participants - with a prime opportunity to be talking about behavioral ethics and citizenship.

Many parents worry that their children know more about new media than they do. What advice might you have for such parents?

Not just about new media! A friend and educator in the L.A. Unified School District said recently that kids know so much more about just about everything than we did as kids that teachers' jobs are changing. As much as giving students information, they're helping them figure out what to make of it. He said it better than I can, but I think he was simply stating the new reality. Adults have street smarts or life literacy, youth has tech smarts or literacy - one could see these as complementary skills, presenting an opportunity to strengthen parent-child communication and mutual respect. Ask them what they know, turn them into the family CTO, set the preferences in IM software together, ask questions that aren't about confrontation and control but are instead aimed at understanding their online experience and helping them use good judgment online in it.

It's also important to tell our children our concerns and why we have them - not constantly, but clearly and effectively (calmly). I understand if that sounds ingenuous to parents who have uncommunicative teenagers - that has always been a challenge - but I don't think parents can afford to view teenage tech competency as purely negative. If they do, there is a risk of marginalizing themselves even more, from a teen's perspective.