Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Facebook Just Changed The World

The lion of Egyptian revolution (Qasr al-Nil Bridge)
In the last few weeks, Holly and I have spent a lot of time talking to middle and high school students about their digital footprints. Much of what we discussed has already been blogged about here. But, we also tried to leave them with something important to ponder. Their generation will invent the next Twitter or Facebook, the next iPad or iPhone. We challenged them to consider the unintended consequences, both good and bad, of technological innovation. It made me wonder what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, the creators of Facebook and Twitter, think about the upheaval and change in Africa and the Middle East.

Don Tapscott, blogging for the Huffington Post, claims that, "If Twitter, Facebook and YouTube didn't exist, Hosni Mubarak would still be president of Egypt. The social media tools gave Mubarak's opponents unprecedented ability to share information and organize their activities, including the massive protests which riveted the world's attention." Some might counter that the revolution would have happened anyway and they might be right, but I think there is something else we should be focusing on here.

Most of the discussion about social media tends to focus on the negative; we're wasting too much time, kids are bullying each other, privacy is a thing of the past. But technology also has the ability to improve lives. Let's consider the current definition of the word "news." Not long ago, we primarily received the news of our nation and world through a couple of TV anchors and editors of newspapers and magazines. Today, 'news' is reported 24/7 by virtually anyone who wants to have a say. We can listen to the perspectives of experts and average citizens interchangeably. Though some may lament the loss of editorial control (and editing in general), the fact that the Internet has become a global town hall can't be disputed. What do we gain from this? For one, we benefit from the ability to hear the perspectives and voices of people who are very different from us. Not only can we hear from those who disagree with our perspectives, we can also listen to people who we would never have known existed just a few decades ago, save for global population statistics. Although the billions of voices tweeting, blogging, commenting and updating their Facebook status may at times blend into an indecipherable roar, one thing has surely changed: the premise that history is written by the winners.

My Library Website (ca. 2007) via the Wayback Machine
If it is true that anything published on the web will be there for eternity, in one form or another, then the voices of the losers, those in the minority, of young people and the very old, of the poor and the destitute may not fade away to be lost to everyone but the archeologists and historians of the future. Instead, we'll all be able to mine the accumulated data to help us remember what our past was like in the digital world, much like the Wayback Machine tries to do now.

Did Twitter and Facebook help cause a revolution? History will surely tell the tale, a history that will most likely be written in a very different manner than the way it's been done in the past. I hope that the young people we are raising and educating today will use their own experiences, both good and bad, in the digital world to contribute positively to our collective future. It's true that just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. On the flip side, there are probably some fabulously important things we should be doing with the technology available today. Let's encourage young people to be the ones to do it!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feelings, Actions, Consequences

For the last two weeks, I have been enrolled in a course entitled, "For Girls Only: A Heart to Heart Talk on Growing Up." This fabulous-wonderful-brilliant class is taught by a fabulous-wonderful-brilliant woman, Julie Metzger, RN, founder of Great Conversations, a program sponsored by Seattle Children's Hospital. Julie engages girls and their mothers with humor, wit, sincerity, and a very direct approach to topics about which parents often have a hard time communicating with their children, puberty and sexuality. Yikes. I'll quickly point out that there is a "great conversation" for boys and dads as well, led by Rob Lehman, MD. I highly recommend these classes, which are not limited to moms and dads but to any adult in a child's life. (see videos with Julie and Rob here for more info on their programs, which extend to older teens as well)

What does this have to do with ethics in a digital world?

Good question. :) Two things. Just about everything I read or hear or participate in lately, I experience through the lens of cyber-behavior. After a week learning all about the "hit parade of puberty", the second class with Julie began with a talk about feelings, actions, and consequences. I'll try to do her justice in this re-cap, but Julie explained to all the girls in the class that our feelings and emotions (which can seem quite extreme during puberty and adolescence) come from our brains, and we don't really choose our feelings. Our brain does that for us. What we do have the ability to choose, is how we act on those feelings. Consequences are the natural outcome of our actions, and so, we may choose to act based on the initial emotion or feeling (I'm angry at so-and-so, so I'm not going to invite her to the party), or sometimes we may choose to act based on a predicted outcome (If I don't invite so-and-so to the party, she might feel left out, which would make me feel bad, so I'm going to...), if we are able to see one.

The difference between kids and adults in this arena, is that most adult brains have been "wired up" to connect the feelings and actions. We have the ability to process our feelings more deeply before we make the choice to act (or not act) on them. For kids, all through their adolescence, this is what their brains are in the process of learning. They are "wiring up" their brains to learn how to manage their emotions, a process without which we would be ruled by them (our feelings, I mean, not our kids). As parents, and many times as teachers, we can help our children understand and work through this process when we give them the time and space to have, share and express their emotions. Simply acknowledging the feelings gives kids a better sense of how to deal with them, and by saying something like, "you clearly have strong feelings about this," or "I can see that you are feeling upset," we show our children that we hear them, we acknowledge them, and we begin the process of coaching them through the emotional ups and downs of adolescence. "Kids who [become] good decision makers," Julie shared with us, "can label their feelings...they can think through more than one consequence."

When kids engage in digital conversations, how many of them leap into something based purely on an emotional response? How many of them stop and think about what they're feeling before they act on it? In the real world, this is hard to do. Naturally, it is equally hard in the digital world, where a simple OMG or LOL can be interpreted many different ways. What raises the stakes even further, is that digital behavior doesn't go away. It leaves a more permanent trail. An argument between two kids on the playground or at the park ends, for all intents and purposes, when they leave that environment. An argument online sticks around, and can spread at lightning speed to involve lots of other people. Consequences seem to have greater weight in the digital world because the trace evidence can be found, duplicated, and shared with a wider audience. As adults, we know (sometimes) to wait for the emotional wave to subside before we take any drastic action. Kids don't always know how to put the brakes on, calm down, and process the feelings a little bit, whether they are positive or negative, before they respond to them. Online, via texts or email, or through comments posted on websites, you can't "take it back," so the skill of connecting emotions and actions is crucial.

Thing #2. I wrote this one down verbatim because it was said so simply and with such sincerity, I didn't want to forget it. Julie shared with us four important questions on pre-teen girls' minds, one question each from the physical, emotional, cognitive and social perspective. The big social question for girls (and boys) is, "How do I fit in?" In discussing the social needs of our kids, she stated:
"We all need to feel important and included."
What do kids do when they don't feel important and included? What kinds of behavior do they engage in to have those feelings of belonging? In the digital world, social networks allow us to be connected to others at all times. Combine the need to feel important and included with the just-developing ability to manage our emotions, and hopefully you can start to see where I'm going with this. Please don't misunderstand and think I'm saying that social networks are bad. I absolutely don't believe that. But do we turn kids (especially young ones) loose in an environment where the adults are absent? Where the people most able to coach them through the process of "wiring up" their brains don't have a presence? How do we help them navigate the digital world if we aren't in it with them?

Finally, I'll share with you the overarching message Julie shared with the girls in my class. While discussing the changes, both emotional and physical, that come with growing up she said this:
"The adults in your life want this to go well for you."