Four Difficult Questions Regarding Bullying and Youth Suicide

Over the last couple of years, I’ve laid awake at night asking myself uncomfortable questions about bullying and teen suicide. I don’t have answers to most of the questions that I have, but I’m choosing to voice my questions, fears, and doubts because I’m not confident that our war on bullying is taking us down the right path. I’m worried about the unintended consequences of our public discourse and I’m worried about the implications that our decisions have on youth, particularly in this high-stakes arena. So I’m asking these four tough questions in the hopes that we can collectively step back and think critically about how we’re addressing bullying as a public issue.

1. What if the stranger danger / sexual predator moral panic increased LGBT suicide?

When I was growing up online, talking to strangers allowed me to getting different perspectives on the world. As a queer teen, the internet allowed me to connect with people who helped me grapple with hard questions around sexuality. I very much thank the internet for playing a crucial role in helping me survive high school. In 2001/2, I visited the online forums that I grew up in, only to find that they were filled with hateful messages directed at LGBT youth by religious ideologues who, quite simply, told these kids they were going to hell. I learned that LGBT networks had gone underground.

As the sexual predator moral panic kicked in in 2005, youth started telling me about how all internet strangers were dangerous. They swallowed the message they’d been told, hook, line, and sinker. What really startled me were all of the LGBT youth I met who told me that they had no one to talk with… I’d ask them if they connected with other LGBT folks online and they’d look at me with horror before talking about how scary/sketchy/bad strangers were.

By many accounts, the early internet seems to be correlated with a decline in suicide among LGBT youth, perhaps because of its ability to connect LGBT to information and support structures. What if the stranger danger rhetoric undermines that? Who do LGBT youth turn to when they’re feeling isolated? Is it possible that the culture of fear we’ve created has increased suicide rates? If so, who’s responsible?

2. What if “It Gets Better” increases emotional devastation for some LGBT youth?

Most LGBT-identified teens who have committed suicide since the “It Gets Better” campaign have been involved in the campaign in some way. Jamey Rodemeyer notoriously made a video before he killed himself. Countless adults (and youth) have celebrated “It Gets Better” as a powerful message filled with hope. But “It Gets Better” isn’t the same as “I can make it better.” Abstraction and patience don’t help when you’re in pain Right Now.

When you’re 14 and coming to terms with your sexuality, six months feels like a decade and 4 years feels like eternity. Along comes a message of hope and it’s really exciting and you get pumped up, like the way you feel when a new song comes on the radio that you feel really speaks to you. You dive in, you create your story, you make your own video. And then what? The humdrums at school continue on and you continue to get teased, only worse this time because you publicly pronounced your story. You felt like you were part of a movement but no one reached out to you, no one helped you make it better. No community was made, no support group was developed. You’re still alone. No one seems to care. You crash and burn.

Getting “high” on a movement can be devastating for youth if there’s no support structure there when they fall. The Trevor Project did a great job of providing some of the needed support infrastructure, but communities themselves often aren’t prepared to support youth. Social services are underfunded. Schools are strapped for cash and getting rid of guidance structures. Parents are stressed out. Community groups are not always tolerant of questioning youth. Is it possible that hopeful messages like “It Gets Better” result in more devastating crashes, particularly for youth in not-so-supportive communities? Does the positive narrative outweigh the possible existential break that can come with being disappointed that things don’t get better?

3. What if the media spotlight around bullying causes harm to youth?

In January 2010, a Massachusetts-based girl named Phoebe Prince killed herself. The highly publicized story suggested that she was an innocent victim who was cruelly tormented by her peers. The story was told in such a cut-and-dry manner that it should’ve raised suspicions in anyone’s mind, but people glommed onto the narrative. Shortly later, the local District Attorney charged six students with various crimes in the case. But did they do what they were accused of doing or was this a witchhunt cloaked as justice? Those kids’ lives have been wrecked by the investigation, publicity, and charges. If they are the devils incarnate that the press want them to be, arguable they deserve it. But what if they didn’t? (If you want to read phenomenal coverage of this, check out Emily Bazelon’s 2010 feature series.)

In the summer of 1999, I was at a rave in a field in Colorado. I was in my tent, writing in my journal, when a group of kids asked me if they could come in. We got to talking and I learned that they had all been students at Columbine on that fateful day when the sanctity of their school was destroyed. I asked them about what it was like to be there and they said that it sucked, but nothing sucked more than the aftermath. They started telling me about how the press hounded them, how they couldn’t hang out with friends, how they had no place to go anymore because the press would sit on their lawns and beg them for more details. Paparazzi at its worst. The kids in my tent had all dropped out of school because of the press. WTF?

On one hand, it’s great that there’s public attention being given to bullying, suicide, and the hardships that youth face. On the other, I can’t help but wonder if the spotlight does additional damage. Does the spotlight help us find effective interventions or just force people to create bandaids? Does it increase justice or result in more kids’ lives being destroyed? Does it showcase the challenges that youth face or obscure them in caricatured forms that lose their nuance? In an effort to tell the story, do we create angels and demons that destroy any hope of creating change?

4. What if us adults are part of the problem?

I spend countless hours talking to youth, thinking about youth, and speaking out on behalf of youth. Nothing makes my heart ache more than seeing youth suffer. I can also still vividly remember my own experiences as a “weird” teen growing up in Pennsylvania who was regularly ostracized and teased. I remember what it was like to feel powerless and to reach that precarious state of anomie. I don’t want anyone to have to go through that which is why I’m so deeply committed to this struggle.

That said, I think that it’s outright dangerous to get so lost in our mission to combat bullying that we stop looking into the mirror. What are the norms that we set for young people when we talk poorly about our friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues at the dinner table? When we engage in road rage while driving? Why is it that we accept – if not encourage – meanness in our political sparring? Or on our TV talk shows? Why do marketers put their money behind reality TV shows that propagate the value of relationship drama as entertainment? Look around at the society we’ve created and it’s filled with harshness. To top it off, look at how much we pressure our youth, particularly middle class youth. Hyper-competition starts early and is non-stop. And look at how increased economic pressure in this country creates new tensions, particularly for working class youth. Then add in the fact that puberty is where all sorts of mental health issues start to appear. Where are the support structures for youth that go beyond the family? We’ve defunded social services left right and center.

In short, we’re creating a societal recipe for disaster even while we publicly pronounce our crusades to end bullying. We don’t need more pundits and journalists and politicians telling us we need to end bullying. We know that. We need to start building out the infrastructure to make it happen. And to realize that it’s a systems-level problem that is not easy to solve. There’s no silver bullet, no magical solution. It can’t be instantly stopped at the school door. It requires collective action, with an eye towards making the world a better place. It requires all-hands-on and a commitment from everyone – and I do mean everyone – to take responsibility for their own actions, values, and attitudes within society. Bullying doesn’t stop by blaming others. It doesn’t stop by creating new regulations. Or inventing new demons. Or scaring people shitless. It stops by collectively agreeing to engage in acts of tolerance, love, bravery, and respect. And that’s far harder to do than passing laws, prosecuting teens, or writing fear-mongering stories.

Image Credit: Ashley Rose

Save Scholarly Ideas, Not the Publishing Industry (a rant)

The scholarly publishing industry used to offer a service. It used to be about making sure that knowledge was shared as broadly as possible to those who would find it valuable using the available means of distribution: packaged paper objects shipped through mail to libraries and individuals. It made a profit off of serving an audience. These days, the scholarly publishing industry operates as a gatekeeper, driven more by profits than by the desire to share information as widely as possible. It stopped innovating and started resting on its laurels. And the worst part about it? Scholars have bent over and let that industry continuously violate them and the university libraries that support them.

In the last few decades, a new tool for information distribution has emerged: the internet. People can share over long distances with unprecedented speed. And the cost for sharing 1,000 copies of something isn’t any greater than sharing 1. Some scholarly publishing institutions have embraced this and started experimenting with new ways to leverage existing tools to maintain their mission of informing broad audiences. But many more have resented this development bitterly, working hard to tighten their reins and maintain their turf. They’ve become the perennial Scrooge, munching on scholars’ ideas to turn Christmas into a pile of coal.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that the scholarly publishing industry is in the midst of complete turmoil. Its business model is getting turned upside down and some of these organizations are going to die. So I get why their lawyers are trying to grab any profit by any means necessary, letting go of the values and purpose that drove their creation. And I admit that I don’t have a lot of patience for industries who aren’t willing to go back to their mission and innovate. But what pisses me off to no end is that the same Marxist academics who pooh-pooh corporations justify their own commitment to this blood-sucking process with one word: tenure. Not like that is the end of the self-justifications. Even once scholars get tenure, they continue down the same path – even when not publishing with students – by telling themselves it’s for promotion or because grants require it or because of any other status-seeking process.

WTF? How did academia become so risk-adverse? The whole point of tenure was to protect radical thinking. But where is the radicalism in academia? I get that there are more important things to protest in the world than scholarly publishing, but why the hell aren’t academics working together to resist the corporatization and manipulation of the knowledge that they produce? Why aren’t they collectively teaming up to challenge the status quo? Journal articles aren’t nothing… they’re the very product of our knowledge production process.

Ironically, of course, it’s the government who is trying to push back against the scholarly publishing’s stranglehold on scholarly knowledge. The Science and Technology Policy Office has a current Request for Information” out (due January 2!) about providing public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications that result from federally-funded research. They get the hypocrisy of funding research so that corporations can lock it down. Why don’t most scholars? This is, of course, only one part of the puzzle because only a small fraction of what we produce as scholars is funded by federal agencies.

But what I want to know is this:

  1. What are *you* doing to resist the corporate stranglehold over scholarly knowledge in order to make your knowledge broadly accessible?
  2. What are the five things that you think that other scholars should do to help challenge the status quo?

Please, I beg you, regardless of whether or not we can save a dying industry, let’s collectively figure out how to save the value that prompted its creation: making scholarly knowledge widely accessible.

Opportunities not to miss…

Over the last six weeks, I’ve posted various opportunities for students, academics, and other scholars that I’m co-directing/hosting, many of which have deadlines looming. I want to summarize them in one post for those who either missed them or wanted some synthesis:

Microsoft Research Postdocs.

  • Who: Newly minted/about-to-be-minted PhD students working on social media topics from a social science perspective
  • Deadline: December 12, 2011
  • More Information

Special issue of JOBEM on Socially-Mediated Publicness.

  • Who: Scholars who want to publish their work on socially-mediated publicness in a fantastic journal experimenting with open-access
  • Deadline: December 12, 2011 for brief abstracts; January 6, 2012 for complete articles
  • More Information

Digital Media & Learning Summer Institute.

  • Who: Graduate students/young postdocs doing work touching on policy and innovation around digital media & learning
  • Deadline: January 9, 2012
  • Application & More Info

Microsoft Research PhD Internships.

  • Who: Current PhD students working on social media topics from a social science perspective
  • Deadline: January 10, 2012
  • More Information

Human Trafficking & Technology Research Grants.

  • Who: Scholars who can research the role of tech in different facets of human trafficking
  • Deadline: February 17, 2012
  • Request for Proposals

Please check out this opportunities and make sure that the right people you know hear about them.

Given how many amazing opportunities I had as a graduate student and young scholar, I’m really excited to be able to give back to others. Thanks to all of my collaborators and the institutions that support us in being able to create exciting spaces for scholars to flourish.

What is the Role of Technology in Human Trafficking?

Networked technologies – including the internet, mobile phones, and social media – alter how information flows and how people communicate. There is little doubt that technology is increasingly playing a role in the practices and processes surrounding human trafficking: the illegal trade of people for commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and other forms of modern-day slavery. Yet, little is known about costs and benefits of technology’s role. We do not know if there are more human trafficking victims as a result of technology, nor do we know if law enforcement can identify perpetrators better as a result of the traces that they leave. One thing that we do know is that technology makes many aspects of human trafficking more visible and more traceable, for better and for worse. Focusing on whether technology is good or bad misses the point; it is here to stay and it is imperative that we understand the role that it is playing. More importantly, we need to develop innovative ways of using technology to address the horrors of human trafficking.

To date, as researchers at USC have highlighted, there is little empirical research into the role that technology plays in human trafficking, let alone the commercial sexual exploitation of children. As a result, new interventions and policies are being driven by intuition, speculation, and extrapolation from highly publicized incidents. There’s no doubt that all forms human trafficking and modern day slavery are horrible, but if we actually want to help those that are victimized, we need to recognize that this is a complex issue and work to understand how the puzzle pieces fits together. My team at Microsoft Research is trying to untangle technology’s role in different facets of the human trafficking ecosystem, fully recognizing how complicated and messy it is. This is why we need your help.

Thanks to the generous support of the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Microsoft Research, I’m proud to announce a pool of grant money for researchers who can help us understand critical elements of the puzzle. Please forward this far and wide because we’re hoping to find scholars with the skills, domain knowledge, and passion to really help us interrogate how technology is used in human trafficking. We need anthropologists, communications scholars, computer scientists, criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, etc.

In order to help contextualize our RFP, we have prepared a framework document meant to map out one slice of the human trafficking ecosystem: “Human Trafficking and Technology: A framework for understanding the role of technology in the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S.” This document is meant to articulate some of the complex issues and hard questions that we face in trying to understand technology’s role in one aspect of human trafficking. If you’re interested in this space, please be critical and challenge our thinking.

We are also looking to identify scholars who are working in this space, including graduate students and postdocs and researchers whose work is not yet published. Even if you’re not looking for grant money, please drop us a line if you’re grappling with technology’s role in human trafficking.

On a more personal note, I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to work for an organization that is willing to sponsor this line of inquiry. It’s amazing to work with colleagues who are all deeply passionate about really understanding this horrible practice in order to do what’s right. We’re all deeply committed to the importance of research and grounding our decisions in research. And we’re all deeply grateful to all of those out there who are determined to end the violence and oppression that comes with commercial sexual exploitation and modern day slavery.

Thank you! And we look forward to hearing from you!

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Image Source: Brandon Christopher Warren, Flickr

Bandwidth Hogs Don’t Exist

(or, A Decade into “Always-On” Internet.)

[This is a cross-post from my blog multicast. –CS]

We’re in a paradoxical situation. broadband Internet networks keep getting better, but service provider limits on them keep getting worse.

As of this fall AT&T U-Verse has joined my cable Internet provider, Comcast, in imposing bandwidth caps of 250 GB per month on broadband Internet customers. Cox, Time Warner, Charter, and many more ISPs are now capping. Wireless or wired (and even on new fiber), the North American broadband landscape is now one where broadband internet means limits on usage.

The caps often come with additional fees. AT&T, for example, charges $10 per 50 GB as an overage charge in addition to the cap. Comcast simply threatens to permanently drop customers who go over the cap. As many commentators have pointed out, the ISPs seem to hate their customers, particularly when the customers like to use the product the ISPs are selling.

The alleged reason for the paradox of faster networks = more use restrictions is that the carriers claim the fat pipes have birthed a mythic beast, the “bandwidth hog.” A small number of “hogs” are taking up the whole Internet, and it just isn’t fair to you, say the carriers. The networks wouldn’t need such restrictions if only people would use the Internet “responsibly.” As the former satire news service Wallstrip put it, apparently the Internet isn’t big enough for everyone. Some of you have to leave.

We know from the research literature that there is a major psychological difference between metered and unmetered service. The initial rapid growth of Internet use in the US back in the days of the dial-up modem has been attributed to our historical preference for flat-fee local telephone service: calls to modem banks in the 1990s largely unmetered, and this left people free to play and experiment.

I was a research assistant for the authors of a key paper in the area eleven years ago.  The paper analyzed the consequences of an “always-on” unmetered broadband Internet–then a new idea. It pointed out that the ways people use unmetered always-on Internet are drastically different from those of metered use. Here’s the cite:

François Bar, Stephen Cohen, Peter Cowhey, Brad Delong, Michael Kleeman, John Zysman. (2000). Access and Innovation Policy for the Third-Generation Internet. Telecommunications Policy 24: 489-518. (Link to full text.)

It’s a decade later and things are going backwards. The new caps and metering are the opposite of our hopes for the Internet eleven years ago. Instead of “always-on” we’re now at “watch your meter” — if you can even find out how to check it.

Now, reporters say that a new study by consultancy Diffraction Analysis using actual ISP user data has found that bandwidth caps don’t work to improve congestion problems and that the mythical “bandwidth hogs” don’t actually exist. (See the excellent coverage at DSLReports.)

A quote from a reader of the DSLReports piece puts the facts in terms of the highway metaphor:

1% of vehicle drivers on the road travel a disproportionate amount of miles compared to the average driver. But they are on the road all the time. Most of the time they are on the road there is no rush hour congestion.The heavy drivers are likely to be involved in rush hour traffic jams, but only represent a small, not terribly relevant, fraction of total drivers in the traffic jam. Limiting the amount of miles a driver can drive does nothing to widen the roads and little to keep people off the roads during traffic jams, thus does not help with congestion.

In other words, given the weak correlation between a person’s bandwidth usage right now and a person’s total bits downloaded in a month, metering obviously targets the wrong thing and is not an effective tool for managing congestion.

To refine the highway metaphor a little bit, I would explain why bandwidth caps don’t work by saying:

Commuters cause traffic jams at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. even if they only drive twice a day. Restricting the career travel of long-haul truckers won’t help.

Why do ISPs do it then? One answer is possibly incompetence. A variety of broadband carriers appear to struggle with the accurate tracking of consumer usage. They advocate metering but when they implement it they are unable to correctly measure how much data their customers use. They just don’t seem to have a grasp of what is going on inside their own networks.

However, surely many ISPs are aware of their own customer’s usage patterns. They know that “bandwidth hogs” don’t exist.  What, then, are they up to?

A much better motive for metering and caps in the case of triple-play operators (those who provide Internet and also provide pay television) is to protect their lucrative market for video from encroachment by Internet video competition.

In other words, Comcast has monopoly power in cable television in many markets. It has set its 250 GB/month cap so that it is impossible to buy television over its Internet service (take that, Netflix!) or to use free Internet video services in lieu of cable TV (take that, YouTube!), thus maintaining its monopoly in video. By the way, that is the definition of a violation of antitrust law. Hello, Justice Department?

The caps often don’t seem to have any connection to bandwidth anyway–at Comcast they were set at 250GB three years ago and have never been raised, despite drastic increases in Comcast service capacity with the adoption of newer DOCSIS 3.0 service and higher speed tiers. They also use the same caps across all of their service areas, which makes no sense if they are related to network capacity (which varies according to their adoption of DOCSIS 3.0, and other things).

It isn’t as though customers haven’t noticed this situation. Did you know that media companies–particularly carriers and networks–are almost all the most hated companies in national surveys of customer satisfaction? In one 2011 study, Internet service providers as a sector almost tied for last place (with newspapers), with Comcast dead last among its competitors at 59% satisfied.

It’s time to call out this farce of the “bandwidth hog” and the irresponsible user. Instead, let’s get some policies in place to control money hogs–the carriers that are exploiting monopoly power at our expense.

 

[This post was cross-posted to the social media collective. –CS]