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

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fear and Exaggeration Aren't Doing Us Any Favors

School's out, and summer "tech mode" has taken over from the educational pursuits I'm normally working on, but after reading this recent post by Nick Sauers, I wanted to get my thoughts down before too much time goes by. Nick eloquently writes:
The Sky is Falling!” com­plex...seems to be extremely preva­lent when it comes to tech­nol­ogy in edu­ca­tion.  We, and espe­cially the media, seem to con­stantly focus on all the neg­a­tive things hap­pen­ing with tech­nol­ogy.  Schools block YouTube because of videos like this.  Face­book is seen as evil at many schools because of the harass­ing that may occur, or because of inap­pro­pri­ate rela­tion­ships between stu­dents and teach­ers.  Social media in gen­eral is con­sid­ered a very dan­ger­ous place for students. 
We often don’t con­sider the pos­i­tive things hap­pen­ing with all of those tech­nolo­gies. 

Though I would love to devote an entire post to positive things happening with "all of those technologies," Nick's post triggered for me a deeper look at the fear and exaggeration that dominate headlines, and the unintended consequences of hyperbole.

Sam and I wrapped up the year with a very interesting discussion with our middle school students. We typically ask them to anonymously submit "tech ethical dilemmas" they have encountered at some point in the recent past, so when we do invite ourselves to their classrooms, we really address the things they want to talk about. This year we got a fair amount of submissions, ranging from keeping passwords private, to electronic file sharing and illegal downloads, to more personal "a friend is in trouble and I don't know how to help" situations. After sorting through their questions, we picked about 5 to discuss, using a strategy where we turn it around and ask the kids to provide "advice" to the anonymous person asking the question. It's a great way to get the discussion rolling.

One particular question that was asked was, "How many people are cyber bullied each year?"

So glad you asked.

We began by drawing a line on the board with 0% at one end and 100% at the other, then we asked kids to give us their best guess and we went around the room. I didn't take a picture of the board during each class (bummer...they were all very similar), so here is my horrid recreation:
Most were guessing in the 65-95% range. A few kids didn't want to guess without a clearer definition of cyber bullying (very shrewd), but almost all of them were shocked when we shared the statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project study on Teens, Kindness, and Cruelty on Social Network Sites. Eight percent.

Eight. Percent. Whaaaaaaaat?

"We hear about it all the time," they said. "It's everywhere," they said. "There are movies about it!" they said. That makes it a super-legit, consequential thing. Right?

Yes, it's a problem. Particularly if you're one of the 8% who has had to seriously deal with it. But is it a rampant epidemic? No, says Larry Magid, technology journalist and co-director of and founder of "It’s important to pay attention to this serious problem, but we need to keep it in perspective," he says. Our collective tendency to only report the horror stories, pay attention to the worst of the worst, or teach/parent/advise from a place of fear, is actually having an unintended side effect. Exaggerating bullying statistics can actually lead to an increase in bullying behavior. Sam and I saw this acceptance of "it happens all the time" in the kids' responses. The problem down the line, however, is that because they hear about it all the time, they start to accept it as normal behavior. And then when something bad really does happen to them, or they witness it, they pay less attention to it, ignore it, or have no idea how to handle it because they think it's no big deal.
To put it simply, overestimating bullying makes it seem like it's common. And, so the reasoning goes, if it's common, it must be normal and if it's normal, it must be OK. Well, it's not OK and, fortunately, it's not normal.  And that's exactly what anti-bullying programs need to emphasize.   Larry Magid, HuffPo 10/26/11
I have to admit, it felt so good to say out loud, "Bullying is NOT normal!" Sure, bad behavior happens, and most of us have been in a situation that was uncomfortable, or we've had our feelings hurt in some way. But is that always bullying? I am not trying to be flip.  We have written about this before, and recognize how much our language matters when it comes to these conversations. For the purposes of this particular discussion with our students, the statistical difference between their 80% guesses and the 8% reality allowed us to genuinely look at the definition of bullying as we perceive it and how the media defines it. How do you know what it is? Do you recognize it when you see it? What would you do if you witnessed it or were the victim of it? Do you have an adult in your life that could help you?

Furthermore, you may have noticed as my writing goes on, "cyber" isn't really a huge part of the general topic any more. This is about behavior, not the evils of technology. Bullying hurts and can cause serious damage, whether it's online or not (statistics show bullying in the "real world" still happens more frequently than the digital one). However, if we are constantly harping on all the negative stories and trying to scare people into not using technology because "bad things happen in cyberspace," we are truly and deeply missing the point. And by blaming the technology, we are certainly missing the opportunity to teach our kids about behavior and the human experience. Technology adds a new digital realm in which to deal with it all, but at the end of the day it is about our choices and actions.
Do fear and exaggeration increase risk?
View more PowerPoint from Larry Magid

Distressing Follow Up
The very same day we were having this great discussion with our 6th graders, this article was published in the Seattle Times about a "Facebook incident" at a local middle school. The author of the article misquoted the Pew Study, claiming that 90% of teenagers are bullied online. ACK!!!!! Sam and I both sent letters to him, but never heard back. :(

Sam's letter:
Dear Mr. Rosenthal,
I read just read your story about the fight that broke out at Whitman Middle School over an alleged Facebook argument.  In your article you state that, "A November study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center found that 90 percent of teenagers have been bullied online."  I've read that study (at least I believe it is the one you are referencing) and no where did the study find that 90% of students are cyberbullied. It is distressing to hear such inaccuracies in a trusted newspaper. Using hyperbole does not solve the problem and can actually create circumstances where young people feel that if it's happening to everyone it's not a big deal. Actual statistics on cyberbullying vary greatly, most of which can be attributed to the definition of bullying used by particular studies and/or how the questions are asked. I and my colleague Holly Lara spend a lot of time discussing digital ethics and related topics with students and just today had a lively discussion with a group of sixth graders about cyberbullying statistics. Most of the students believed that the vast majority (over 75%) of young people are cyberbullied. They have that belief because of media reports on horrific instances of suicide and abuse, but they also have that belief because they have heard or read inaccurate statistics. I hope you will print a correction to your story.  
My letter:
Mr. Rosenthal,
I will echo the sentiments of my colleague, Sam Harris, in expressing frustration at the misleading interpretation of the Pew Study in your recent article on the Whitman Middle School "melee." I am assuming that your statement...

A November study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center
found that 90 percent of teenagers have been bullied online.

Came from this part of the Pew study:

88% of social media-using teens have witnessed other people be mean or cruel
on social network sites.
I would guess close to 100% of all social media using people (teens and adults alike) have witnessed other people be mean or cruel on social network sites. But that is not the same thing as cyberbullying. The word "bully" has been used far and wide recently to describe all kinds of behavior, and we tend to gravitate toward negative statistics that make good headlines. But we are not doing our kids any favors by reporting inaccurately. That same Pew study actually said "8% say they have experienced some form of online bullying, such as through email, a social network site or instant messaging." Eight percent...not 90.
I am not suggesting that cyberbullying isn't a problem. It certainly is, especially if you're one of those 8%. But I would encourage you to read a few articles, by experts in the field, on the damage done to our kids when exaggerated statistics are reported. We do not want to inadvertently create a culture where this type of behavior gets normalized because "it happens to everyone." Here are a few of our favorites resources:

The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric - danah boyd and Alice Marwick
The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics - boyd and Marwick research paper
Exaggerating Bullying Could Increase Bullying - Larry Magid on the importance of accurate statistics
Kids Deserve the Truth About Cyberbullying - Anne Collier
Final thoughts: this is already way too long and I didn't even address my favorite part of Nick's blog post, "We often don’t con­sider the pos­i­tive things hap­pen­ing with all of those tech­nolo­gies."

That's my next post. :)