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

Over the past six months, I have been closely following the debates regarding the Deleting Online Predators Act. danah boyd and I issued a collective statement at the beginning of the summer based on our research on social networks and participatory culture. I also ran a post here describing some of the ways that banning youth from accessing MySpace and other social network sites in schools and public library might slow the potential use of blogging and other network software for pedagogical purposes. Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part series focused on NetFamilyNews and its editor, Anne Collier. Collier's site has helped parents address their fears about MySpace and has kept all of us on top of the latest developments regarding governmental policies that might restrict young people's access to online space. These policies, and the fears that motivate them, play an important role in today's installment.

Many parents express an anxiety that they can not realistically control the flow of media into their homes, let alone know what their young people are doing when they are outside of their supervision. How would you respond to that concern?

I understand that concern and the frustration many parents have about diminishing control over what their children are exposed to. It isn't just parents who are experiencing diminishing control. Schools, corporations, and governments at all levels of society worldwide are too. This is an unnerving, fascinating shift we're experiencing, and I think it's calling upon all of us to think it through together out loud, bringing a whole lot of skill sets into the discussion. Because the situation seems to be requiring us to figure it out together as we go along. Problems in a participatory medium like Web 2.0 are calling for participatory solution development.

At the family level, as I suggested above, the life and tech skills of parents and kids are both needed to find solutions to Net-related problems. In schools, challenges involving defamation or cyberbullying in blogs or social sites need the best thinking of a bunch of people - students, administrators, counselors, network administrators, school-safety experts, teachers, and sometimes First Amendment legal advisers and law enforcement people. In a way, that's really exciting. It used to be that school-safety people, techies, and counselors, for example, had their spheres and hardly ever talked, much less hammered out solutions together. Now the pooling of those areas of expertise is being demanded, and I can't imagine that there won't be some creative and very positive outcomes because of it. Think, for example, about what we're all going to be learning about free-speech rights. Maybe not since the Constitutional Convention has the First Amendment been such a prominent topic in American schools!

Then I look at what's happening in other parts of the world where people are using the participatory Web. I just blogged about a report in The Guardian that, even though the Iranian government "remains a staunch opponent of Internet freedoms ... Farsi has made it into the top 10 languages on the Net." There are 70,000-100,000 active blogs in Iran, The Guardian article said. Then there's the social site ChinaKids with 800,000 registered preteen users and sponsored by the youth wing of the Chinese Communist Party. The Wall Street Journal reported that the site encourages kids to speak

out, "sometimes against authority"! The question of how to control the flow of media into homes, schools, cybercafes, and kids' mobile phones is being eclipsed by what to do about the media that flows out from those places and devices!

You have readers from around the world. What similarities and differences do you see in the concerns raised by parents in different parts of the world?

I do have readers in more than 50 countries, but I don't get email from many readers outside North America, interestingly - only some in the UK. So I mostly rely on English-language news-media coverage of technology in other countries to know what the general concerns are. It does appear that parents' concerns are fairly universal, but there are degrees of differences. For example, European parents seem to be less concerned than American parents about blocking nudity and more concerned about hate speech on the Web. But cyberbullying is a big issue everywhere. In the UK, Europe and Asia, so far it has been happening more on mobile phones than in IM and social Web sites, as we're seeing here. People are being impersonated and defamed in social sites everywhere. I did hear from a colleague in Portugal about harassment in a US-based social site popular there, one case involving a co-worker and another a teenager whose dad contacted him for help. Someone who said he was a teenager in India emailed me recently about his concern that he was accessing porn too much online, that it would hurt his future prospects. I've seen and linked to news reports of "videogame addiction" in South Korea and counseling centers established to help addicted players. Just a few examples.

One thing's for sure: Social networking sites and all the good and bad happening in them are certainly international. India has nearly a dozen social-networking sites and 1.2 million bloggers (compared to China's 19.9m, Japan's 10m, and the US's 50m), India's Economic Times reports; Japan's Mixi recently had a $1.8 billion IPO; Cyworld has saturated the teen and 20-something market in South Korea and its diaspora, so it launched a US version this past summer; LunarStorm reached the saturation point in Sweden (reportedly 90% of Swedish h.s. students) and launched a UK version - and on and on. So all the stuff that's causing worries here in the US, from bullying to piracy to PC security, is causing similar ones in other countries.

You've written a book specifically addressing adult concerns about MySpace. Why do you think social network sites like MySpace have sparked such anxiety? How real are the dangers that are being claimed?

For grownups, MySpace kind of came out of nowhere. It wasn't just for teenagers, of course (only around 20% of its users were teens), but to any parent who knew about it, it was a teenage thing, and my guess is teenagers weren't inclined to tell their parents about this new hangout if they didn't have to. So I don't think it was really on the radar for parents until it was all over the news media as a dangerous place where "predators" could contact their kids. An AP story out of Connecticut last February reported that "at least seven" girls 12-16 had been "sexually assaulted by men they met through the popular Web site MySpace." As far as I could tell following the news coverage closely, parents were hearing nothing about MySpace or social networking that wasn't at least negative, and some of it was really scary. It was that combination of a totally new thing adults knew virtually nothing about and very negative news coverage that sparked such anxiety, I

think. Then, too, there was the '06 election; politicians stood to benefit from saying they would act on those fears. It was, you might say, a "perfect storm" of parental-concern creation. By May, when our publisher, Peachpit Press, asked us to write the book ( My Space Unraveled ), there simply was no balance to the public discussion. We wanted to offer some balance - share the views of teens, researchers, children's advocates, and law enforcement people who understood social networking; encourage parents to check MySpace out themselves with simple step-by-step instructions; and explain the actual risks and the research.

How real are the dangers? There are dangers in social sites for out- there, risk-seeking people just as there are for them in "real life." As Janis Wolak, one of the authors of both of UNH's studies about child online victimization, told me last spring, "Basically, what puts kids at risk is when they talk about sex with people they meet online, and the vast majority of them don't get involved in that kind of situation." The first study was the widely misrepresented one about "one in five children" being sexually solicited online that, when actually read, said that "none of the solicitations led to an actual sexual contact or assault" and many of those solicitations came from other teens. The second study found the number of solicitations had gone down, to one in seven, but - though published this past summer - the survey was conducted before social networking took off. So even the second study from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at UNH wasn't about social networking. What these researchers have found in other studies, though - as Janis indicated - is that it's the young people responding to and seeking out sexual contacts with strangers who are at risk.

Most of the research we have so far - or the most publicized research - is about exploitation of online kids by adults. That's important research to have, but it's only part of the picture. We know almost nothing yet about child and teen behavior on social sites, good and bad, or about the impact of online socializing, media-sharing, social-producing, or creative networking. In our book I call it "collective self-expression," this social aspect of all the mashing-up and remixing that's going on with digital media, and I think it's fascinating. I think it's kind of in its infancy, and we have so much to learn about and from it. In any case, a much more complete picture is needed before any conclusions can possibly be drawn, I feel.

But I digress. ;-) There are other "dangers," depending on a person's definition. Certainly some parents would define exposure to nudity or sexually suggestive content as a danger, and there is definitely greater risk of that than sexual predation in social sites. MySpace says it's deleting x-rated content as it finds it, and it has both scanning technology and staff dedicated to finding and deleting it, but users are posting and finding it. The general Web itself, though, is known to have much more hard-core content than anything I've seen on MySpace, if kids are seeking it out.

The risks that I suspect will affect most young social networkers, though, fall under the very large category of bullying, or social cruelty, which parents and kids have probably always dealt with and always will. Since school social life has moved online, so have bullying, gossip, harassment, etc., and they can be particularly insidious online because the behavior can go on 24x7 and be anonymous. Kids and teens often don't think about the implications of their actions because that part of the adolescent brain, the prefrontal cortex, is still in development, so they can impulsively post text and other media about themselves and others and not be able to control the outcome (see my comment above about the teenage girl emailing sexually explicit photos of herself to a boyfriend). Digital media, parents too need to know, can be cut and pasted into Web pages, attached to IMs and emails, and shared on file-sharing networks - they usually can't be taken back. This, to me, is a real risk that I've been telling parents about in NetFamilyNews for years.

Your site monitors legislation designed to "protect" youth from various perceived dangers of the new media landscape. What do you see as the most pressing trends in this area as we enter 2007?

Better-written laws that reflect understanding of the Internet and its users! Most disturbing to me was the now-defunct Delete Online Predators Act, written before hardly any research had been done on the impact of the social Web on the people it was purportedly written to protect.

The metaphor that occurred to me as I was writing a chapter of our book was Penn Station in New York. A tourist walks into that giant, confusing, fast-paced, populated space at rush hour and feels a sudden urge to look for the nearest exit. That's most adults' first experience of MySpace. But like a MySpace user going straight to his or her page, a commuter just heads to his usual platform, gets on the train and goes home. He doesn't remotely see what the tourist finds so daunting. This is changing now, I think, but when we were working on the book last summer, the tourists were in charge of the entire public discussion; legislation was being written by the tourists! For a balanced picture and sound solution development, we've got to have the commuters' perspective too, I think.

Some parents argue that when in doubt, they should simply prohibit social networking sites. What's wrong with this approach? What do you see as positive about social networking sites?

I don't think prohibition is possible, at least it'd be even harder now and with the Internet than when it was given a serious try in the 1920s and '30s. I talk about this above - it's too easy for kids to "go underground" online, with all the free accounts available to them in sites parents have never heard of, proliferating wired and wireless access points, and new Net-enabled products constantly arriving on store shelves.

We're only just beginning to see the positives, with research like that funded by the MacArthur Foundation. But I think we'll discover many positive developments involving digital media and socializing online. I think of how the Rock for Darfur profile got started on MySpace (see this on "Powerful Change Agents ); of a woman I just met in an airport whose teenage granddaughter first started publishing her poetry on MySpace and has since won a prize for her work; of the ski videos my son shoots, edits, and posts at Newschoolers.com and YouTube.com; of the html and other software code kids are learning while embellishing their pages in social sites; of the youth social activism being fostered at YouthNoise.com; of all the future professional writers who got their start vying for and trying to hold their peers' attention in their daily blogging; of the garage bands that wouldn't otherwise be finding fans and signing record deals.

I often receive letters expressing concern about addiction to digital media. Is this a realistic concern and if so, what steps should parents take if they fear that their teen may be addicted to games, social networks, or other digital media?

I'm not really qualified to answer that, but the question of whether there is such a thing as Internet addiction is getting more and more attention in the medical field (and coverage in the news media). In November the Washington Post took an in-depth look at the subject , reporting that an international neuropsychiatric medicine journal published a study that "claimed to be the first large-scale look at excessive Internet use," and "the American Psychiatric Association may consider listing Internet addiction in the next edition of its diagnostic manual." I just talked with a 16-year-old in New York State who loves playing World of Warcraft (a massively multiplayer online role-playing game) and says he spends 3 hours a night on school nights and 5 a day on weekends playing it, but - from communicating with both him and his librarian mom (who sounds like a great mom) - it doesn't sound like he's addicted. His mother says she's not thrilled by the amount of time he spends in WoW and his grades have gone down a bit, so there will probably be some repercussions, but there are things about his experience with the game that she likes too.

"Game addiction" is coming up more and more. South Korea opened its first game-addiction treatment center in 2002, and the Washington Post reported last June that the country had just launched a game addiction hotline. Europe's first game addiction clinic reportedly opened last summer in Amsterdam (here's an item I ran on it last June last June ).

How much should parents know about the online lives of their youth? Is there a point where adult supervision becomes intrusive?

I do think parents need to know enough about the online part of their children's lives to feel assured that it's safe and reasonably constructive. The best gauge is probably how much parents feel they need to know about their kids' offline social lives. The online part is just as individual. And it changes as young people mature, right? The responsibility for staying safe and assessing risk increasingly shifts from parent to child as the latter grows; that's no different in their online lives, I'd say.

I think there can be a point where adult supervision becomes intrusive, but it's different for every child. Some parents seem to want to remove all risk from their teenagers' lives. So - having heard from a couple of researchers that risk assessment is one of the primary tasks of adolescence and having quoted them in our book - I later asked a prominent pediatrician what he thought about this risk- removal tendency, and he very definitely said we're doing our children a disservice if we don't let them do that assessment work that helps develop their brains.

Much of the legislation that seeks to "protect" youth gets argued on the basis of protecting childhood innocence and yet gets applied to regulating the conduct of adolescents. What role should an understanding of child development play in developing meaningful response to the online lives of our offspring?

My co-author Larry Magid recently quipped that the Delete Online Predators Act was more like the Delete Online Kids Act - in the sense that it would've done nothing to "delete" predators but rather focused on banning kids from social sites in schools and libraries. The legislation that Sens. McCain and Schumer just announced they would be introducing this year is clearly aimed at keeping out predators, because it would require sex offenders to register email addresses and other online contact information in addition to offline data such as phone numbers. This makes sense if it succeeds in extending existing child-protection law into cyberspace. It seems based on what is already known and understood, but I still think more child-development expertise needs to be folded into the public discussion and lawmaking. These have been dominated so far by law enforcement and research on criminal behavior online. There are some wonderful cops out there doing fine child-protection and online-crime-prevention work, but we do badly need to broaden and balance the discussion. For example, state attorneys general have called for age verification of minors in social-networking sites, but they haven't seemed inclined to entertain a full discussion about the implications for children's privacy, and the subject of social networking became so negative and associated with predators late last year that social-networking companies were reluctant to take any position on best practices that might counter-balance politically based regulatory efforts.