Keeping Teens ‘Private’ on Facebook Won’t Protect Them

(Originally written for TIME Magazine)

We’re afraid of and afraid for teenagers. And nothing brings out this dualism more than discussions of how and when teens should be allowed to participate in public life.

Last week, Facebook made changes to teens’ content-sharing options. They introduced the opportunity for those ages 13 to 17 to share their updates and images with everyone and not just with their friends. Until this change, teens could not post their content publicly even though adults could. When minors select to make their content public, they are given a notice and a reminder in order to make it very clear to them that this material will be shared publicly. “Public” is never the default for teens; they must choose to make their content public, and they must affirm that this is what they intended at the point in which they choose to publish.

Representatives of parenting organizations have responded to this change negatively, arguing that this puts children more at risk. And even though the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that teens are quite attentive to their privacy, and many other popular sites allow teens to post publicly (e.g. Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr), privacy advocates are arguing that Facebook’s decision to give teens choices suggests that the company is undermining teens’ privacy.

But why should youth not be allowed to participate in public life? Do paternalistic, age-specific technology barriers really protect or benefit teens?

One of the most crucial aspects of coming of age is learning how to navigate public life. The teenage years are precisely when people transition from being a child to being an adult. There is no magic serum that teens can drink on their 18th birthday to immediately mature and understand the world around them. Instead, adolescents must be exposed to — and allowed to participate in — public life while surrounded by adults who can help them navigate complex situations with grace. They must learn to be a part of society, and to do so, they must be allowed to participate.

Most teens no longer see Facebook as a private place. They befriend anyone they’ve ever met, from summer-camp pals to coaches at universities they wish to attend. Yet because Facebook doesn’t allow youth to contribute to public discourse through the site, there’s an assumption that the site is more private than it is. Facebook’s decision to allow teens to participate in public isn’t about suddenly exposing youth; it’s about giving them an option to treat the site as being as public as it often is in practice.

Rather than trying to protect teens from all fears and risks that we can imagine, let’s instead imagine ways of integrating them constructively into public life. The key to doing so is not to create technologies that reinforce limitations but to provide teens and parents with the mechanisms and information needed to make healthy decisions. Some young people may be ready to start navigating broad audiences at 13; others are not ready until they are much older. But it should not be up to technology companies to determine when teens are old enough to have their voices heard publicly. Parents should be allowed to work with their children to help them navigate public spaces as they see fit. And all of us should be working hard to inform our younger citizens about the responsibilities and challenges of being a part of public life. I commend Facebook for giving teens the option and working hard to inform them of the significance of their choices.

(Originally written for TIME Magazine)

Addressing Human Trafficking: Guidelines for Technological Interventions

Two years ago, when I started working on issues related to human trafficking and technology, I was frustrated by how few people recognized the potential of technology to help address the commercial sexual exploitation of children. With the help of a few colleagues at Microsoft Research, I crafted a framework document to think through the intersection of technology and trafficking. After talking with Mark Latonero at USC (who has been writing brilliant reports on technology and human trafficking), I teamed up with folks at MSR Connections and Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit to help fund research in this space. Over the last year, I’ve been delighted to watch a rich scholarly community emerge that takes seriously the importance of data for understanding and intervening in human trafficking issues that involve technology.

Meanwhile, to my delight, technologists have started to recognize that they can develop innovative systems to help address human trafficking. NGOs have started working with computer scientists, companies have started working with law enforcement, and the White House has started bringing together technologists, domain experts, and policy makers to imagine how technology can be used to combat human trafficking. The potential of these initiatives tickles me pink.

Watching this unfold, one thing that I struggle with is that there’s often a disconnect between what researchers are learning and what the public thinks is happening vis-a-vis the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). On too many occasions, I’ve watched well-intentioned technologists approach the space with a naiveté that comes from only knowing about human trafficking through media portrayals. While the portraits that receive widespread attention are important for motivating people to act, understanding the nuance and pitfalls of the space are critical for building interventions that will actually make a difference.

To bridge the gap between technologists and researchers, I worked with a group of phenomenal researchers to produce a simple 4-page fact sheet intended to provide a very basic primer on issues in human trafficking and CSEC that technologists need to know before they build interventions:

How to Responsibly Create Technological Interventions to Address the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Minors

Some of the issues we address include:

  1. Youth often do not self-identify themselves as victims.
  2. “Survival sex” is one aspect of CSEC.
  3. Previous sexual abuse, homelessness, family violence, and foster care may influence youth’s risk of exploitation.
  4. Arresting victims undermines efforts to combat CSEC.
  5. Technologies should help disrupt criminal networks.
  6. Post-identification support should be in place before identification interventions are implemented.
  7. Evaluation, assessment, and accountability are critical for any intervention.
  8. Efforts need to be evidence-based.
  9. The cleanliness of data matters.
  10. Civil liberties are important considerations.

This high-level overview is intended to shed light on some of the most salient misconceptions and provide some key insights that might be useful for those who want to make a difference. By no means does it cover everything that experts know, but it provides some key touchstones that may be useful. It is limited to the issues that are most important for technologists, but those who are working with technologists may also find it to be valuable.

As researchers dedicated to addressing human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children, we want to make sure that the passion that innovative technologists are bringing to the table is directed in the most helpful ways possible. We hope that what we know can be of use to those who are also looking to end exploitation.

(Flickr image by Martin Gommel)

Stop the Cycle of Bullying

[John Palfrey and I originally wrote this as an op-ed for the Huffington Post. See HuffPo for more comments.]

On 22 September 2010, the wallet of Tyler Clementi – a gay freshman at Rutgers University – was found on the George Washington Bridge; his body was found in the Hudson River the following week. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was charged with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with witnesses and evidence tampering. Ravi pleaded not guilty.

Ravi’s trial officially begins this week, but in the court of public opinion, he has already been convicted. This is a terrible irony, since the case itself is about bullying.

Wading through the news reports, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened in the hours leading up to Clementi’s suicide. Some facts are unknown. What seems apparent is that Clementi asked Ravi to have his dormroom to himself on two occasions – September 19 and 21 – so that he could have alone time with an older gay man. On the first occasion, Ravi appears to have jiggered his computer so that he could watch the encounter from a remote computer. Ravi announced that he did so on Twitter. When Clementi asked Ravi for a second night in the room, Ravi invited others to watch via Twitter. It appears as though Clementi read this and unplugged Ravi’s computer, thereby preventing Ravi from watching. What happened after this incident on September 21 is unclear. A day later, Clementi’s body was discovered.

The media-driven narrative quickly blamed Ravi and his friend Molly Wei, from whose room Ravi watched Clementi. Amidst a series of other highly publicized LGBT suicides, Clementi’s suicide was labeled as a tragic product of homophobic bullying. Ravi has been portrayed as a malicious young man, hellbent on making his roommate miserable. Technology was blamed for providing a new mechanism by which Ravi could spy on and torment his roommate. The overwhelming presumption: Ravi’s guilty for causing Clementi’s death. Ravi may well be guilty of these crimes, but we have trials for a reason.

As information has emerged from the legal discovery process, the story became more complicated. It appears as though Clementi turned to online forums and friends to get advice; his messages conveyed a desire for getting support, but they didn’t suggest a pending suicide attempt. In one document submitted to the court, Clementi appears to have written to a friend that he was not particularly upset by Ravi’s invasion. Older digital traces left by Clementi – specifically those produced after he came out to and was rejected by those close to him – exhibited terrible emotional pain. At Rutgers, Clementi appears to have been handling his frustrations with his roommate reasonably well. After the events of September 20 and 21, Clementi appears to have notified both his resident assistant and university officials and asked for a new room; the school appears to have responded properly and Clementi appeared pleased.

The process of discovery in a lawsuit is an essential fact-finding exercise. The presumption of innocence is an essential American legal principle. Unfortunately, in highly publicized cases, this doesn’t stop people from jumping to conclusions based on snippets of information. Media speculation and hype surrounding Clementi’s suicide has been damning for Ravi, but the incident has also prompted all sorts of other outcomes. Public policy wheels have turned, prompting calls for new state and federal cyberbullying prevention laws. Well-meaning advocates have called for bullying to be declared a hate crime.

As researchers, we know that bullying is a serious, urgent issue. We favor aggressive and meaningful intervention programs to address it and to prevent young people from taking their lives. These programs should especially support LGBT youth, themselves more likely to be the targets of bullying. Yet, it’s also critical that we pay attention to the messages that researchers have been trying to communicate for years. “Bullies” are often themselves victims of other forms of cruelty and pressure. Zero-tolerance approaches to bullying don’t work; they often increase bullying. Focusing on punishment alone does little to address the underlying issues. Addressing bullying requires a serious social, economic, and time-based commitment to educating both young people and adults. Research shows that curricula and outreach programs can work. We are badly underfunding youth empowerment programs that could help enormously. Legislative moves that focus on punishment instead of education only make the situation worse.

Not only are most young people often ill-equipped to recognize how their meanness, cruelty, and pranking might cause pain, but most adults are themselves are ill-equipped to help young people in a productive way. Worse, many adults are themselves perpetuating the idea that being cruel is socially acceptable. Not only has cruelty and deception become status quo on TV talk shows; it plays a central role in televised entertainment and political debates. In contemporary culture, it has become acceptable to be outright cruel to any public figure, whether they’re a celebrity, reality TV contestant, or teenager awaiting trial.

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a tragedy. We should all be horrified that a teenager felt the need to take his life in our society. But in our frustration, we must not prosecute Dharun Ravi before he has had his day in court. We must not be bullies ourselves. Ravi’s life has already been destroyed by what he may or may not have done. The way we, the public, have treated him, even before his trial, has only made things worse.

To combat bullying, we need to stop the cycle of violence. We need to take the high road; we must refrain from acting like a mob, in Clementi’s name or otherwise. Every day, there are young people who are being tormented by their peers and by adults in their lives. If we want to make this stop, we need to get to the root of the problem. We should start by looking to ourselves.

danah boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a research assistant professor at New York University. John Palfrey is a professor of law at Harvard Law School.

How Parents Normalized Teen Password Sharing

In 2005, I started asking teenagers about their password habits. My original set of questions focused on teens’ attitudes about giving their password to their parents, but I quickly became enamored with teens’ stories of sharing passwords with friends and significant others. So I was ecstatic when Pew Internet & American Life Project decided to survey teens about their password sharing habits. Pew found that one third of online 12-17 year olds share their password with a friend or significant other and that almost half of those 14-17 do. I love when data gets reinforced.

Last week, Matt Richtel at the New York Times did a fantastic job of covering one aspect of why teens share passwords: as a show of affection. Indeed, I have lots of fun data that supports Richtel’s narrative — and complicates it. Consider Meixing’s explanation for why she shares her password with her boyfriend:

Meixing, 17, TN: It made me feel safer just because someone was there to help me out and stuff. It made me feel more connected and less lonely. Because I feel like Facebook sometimes it kind of like a lonely sport, I feel, because you’re kind of sitting there and you’re looking at people by yourself. But if someone else knows your password and stuff it just feels better.

For Meixing, sharing her password with her boyfriend is a way of being connected. But it’s precisely these kinds of narratives that have prompted all sorts of horror by adults over the last week since that NYTimes article came out. I can’t count the number of people who have gasped “How could they!?!” at me. For this reason, I feel the need to pick up on an issue that the NYTimes let out.

The idea of teens sharing passwords didn’t come out of thin air. In fact, it was normalized by adults. And not just any adult. This practice is the product of parental online safety norms. In most households, it’s quite common for young children to give their parents their passwords. With elementary and middle school youth, this is often a practical matter: children lose their passwords pretty quickly. Furthermore, most parents reasonably believe that young children should be supervised online. As tweens turn into teens, the narrative shifts. Some parents continue to require passwords be forked over, using explanations like “because I’m your mother.” But many parents use the language of “trust” to explain why teens should share their passwords with them.

There are different ways that parents address the password issue, but they almost always build on the narrative of trust. (Tangent: My favorite strategy is when parents ask children to put passwords into a piggy bank that must be broken for the paper with the password to be retrieved. Such parents often explain that they don’t want to access their teens’ accounts, but they want to have the ability to do so “in case of emergency.” A piggy bank allows a social contract to take a physical form.)

When teens share their passwords with friends or significant others, they regularly employ the language of trust, as Richtel noted in his story. Teens are drawing on experiences they’ve had in the home and shifting them into their peer groups in order to understand how their relationships make sense in a broader context. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because this is all-too-common for teen practices. Household norms shape peer norms.

There’s another thread here that’s important. Think back to the days in which you had a locker. If you were anything like me and my friends, you gave out your locker combination to your friends and significant others. There were varied reasons for doing so. You wanted your friends to pick up a book for you when you left early because you were sick. You were involved in a club or team where locker decorating was common. You were hoping that your significant other would leave something special for you. Or – to be completely and inappropriately honest – you left alcohol in your locker and your friends stopped by for a swig. (One of my close friends was expelled for that one.) We shared our locker combinations because they served all sorts of social purposes, from the practical to the risqué.

How are Facebook passwords significantly different than locker combos? Truth be told, for most teenagers, they’re not. Teens share their passwords so that their friends can check their messages for them when they can’t get access to a computer. They share their passwords so their friends can post the cute photos. And they share their passwords because it’s a way of signaling an intimate relationship. Just like with locker combos.

Can password sharing be abused? Of course. I’ve heard countless stories of friends “punking” one another by leveraging password access. And I’ve witnessed all sorts of teen relationship violence where mandatory password sharing is a form of surveillance and abuse. But, for most teens, password sharing is as risky as locker combo sharing. This is why, even though 1/3 of all teens share their passwords, we only hear of scattered horror stories.

I know that this practice strikes adults as seriously peculiar, but it irks me when adults get all judgmental on this teen practice, as though it’s “proof” that teens can’t properly judge how trustworthy a relationship is. First, it’s through these kinds of situations where they learn. Second, adults are dreadful at judging their own relationships (see: divorce rate) so I don’t have a lot of patience for the high and mighty approach. Third, I’m much happier with teens sharing passwords as a form of intimacy than sharing many other things.

There’s no reason to be aghast at teen password sharing. Richtel’s story is dead-on. It’s pretty darn pervasive. But it also makes complete sense given how notions of trust have been constructed for many teens.

(Image Credit: Darwin Bell)

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

Why Parents Help Children Violate Facebook’s 13+ Rule

Announcing new journal article: “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act'” by danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey, First Monday.

“At what age should I let my child join Facebook?” This is a question that countless parents have asked my collaborators and me. Often, it’s followed by the following: “I know that 13 is the minimum age to join Facebook, but is it really so bad that my 12-year-old is on the site?”

While parents are struggling to determine what social media sites are appropriate for their children, government tries to help parents by regulating what data internet companies can collect about children without parental permission. Yet, as has been the case for the last decade, this often backfires. Many general-purpose communication platforms and social media sites restrict access to only those 13+ in response to a law meant to empower parents: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). This forces parents to make a difficult choice: help uphold the minimum age requirements and limit their children’s access to services that let kids connect with family and friends OR help their children lie about their age to circumvent the age-based restrictions and eschew the protections that COPPA is meant to provide.

In order to understand how parents were approaching this dilemma, my collaborators — Eszter Hargittai (Northwestern University), Jason Schultz (University of California, Berkeley), John Palfrey (Harvard University) — and I decided to survey parents. In many ways, we were responding to a flurry of studies (e.g. Pew’s) that revealed that millions of U.S. children have violated Facebook’s Terms of Service and joined the site underage. These findings prompted outrage back in May as politicians blamed Facebook for failing to curb underage usage. Embedded in this furor was an assumption that by not strictly guarding its doors and keeping children out, Facebook was undermining parental authority and thumbing its nose at the law. Facebook responded by defending its practices — and highlighting how it regularly ejects children from its site. More controversially, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg openly questioned the value of COPPA in the first place.

While Facebook has often sparked anger over its cavalier attitudes towards user privacy, Zuckerberg’s challenge with regard to COPPA has merit. It’s imperative that we question the assumptions embedded in this policy. All too often, the public takes COPPA at face-value and politicians angle to build new laws based on it without examining its efficacy.

Eszter, Jason, John, and I decided to focus on one core question: Does COPPA actually empower parents? In order to do so, we surveyed parents about their household practices with respect to social media and their attitudes towards age restrictions online. We are proud to release our findings today, in a new paper published at First Monday called “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’.” From a national sample of 1,007 U.S. parents who have children living with them between the ages of 10-14 conducted July 5-14, 2011, we found:

  • Although Facebook’s minimum age is 13, parents of 13- and 14-year-olds report that, on average, their child joined Facebook at age 12.
  • Half (55%) of parents of 12-year-olds report their child has a Facebook account, and most (82%) of these parents knew when their child signed up. Most (76%) also assisted their 12-year old in creating the account.
  • A third (36%) of all parents surveyed reported that their child joined Facebook before the age of 13, and two-thirds of them (68%) helped their child create the account.
  • Half (53%) of parents surveyed think Facebook has a minimum age and a third (35%) of these parents think that this is a recommendation and not a requirement.
  • Most (78%) parents think it is acceptable for their child to violate minimum age restrictions on online services.

The status quo is not working if large numbers of parents are helping their children lie to get access to online services. Parents do appear to be having conversations with their children, as COPPA intended. Yet, what does it mean if they’re doing so in order to violate the restrictions that COPPA engendered?

One reaction to our data might be that companies should not be allowed to restrict access to children on their sites. Unfortunately, getting the parental permission required by COPPA is technologically difficult, financially costly, and ethically problematic. Sites that target children take on this challenge, but often by excluding children whose parents lack resources to pay for the service, those who lack credit cards, and those who refuse to provide extra data about their children in order to offer permission. The situation is even more complicated for children who are in abusive households, have absentee parents, or regularly experience shifts in guardianship. General-purpose sites, including communication platforms like Gmail and Skype and social media services like Facebook and Twitter, generally prefer to avoid the social, technical, economic, and free speech complications involved.

While there is merit to thinking about how to strengthen parent permission structures, focusing on this obscures the issues that COPPA is intended to address: data privacy and online safety. COPPA predates the rise of social media. Its architects never imagined a world where people would share massive quantities of data as a central part of participation. It no longer makes sense to focus on how data are collected; we must instead question how those data are used. Furthermore, while children may be an especially vulnerable population, they are not the only vulnerable population. Most adults have little sense of how their data are being stored, shared, and sold.

COPPA is a well-intentioned piece of legislation with unintended consequences for parents, educators, and the public writ large. It has stifled innovation for sites focused on children and its implementations have made parenting more challenging. Our data clearly show that parents are concerned about privacy and online safety. Many want the government to help, but they don’t want solutions that unintentionally restrict their children’s access. Instead, they want guidance and recommendations to help them make informed decisions. Parents often want their children to learn how to be responsible digital citizens. Allowing them access is often the first step.

Educators face a different set of issues. Those who want to help youth navigate commercial tools often encounter the complexities of age restrictions. Consider the 7th grade teacher whose students are heavy Facebook users. Should she admonish her students for being on Facebook underage? Or should she make sure that they understand how privacy settings work? Where does digital literacy fit in when what children are doing is in violation of websites’ Terms of Service?

At first blush, the issues surrounding COPPA may seem to only apply to technology companies and the government, but their implications extend much further. COPPA affects parenting, education, and issues surrounding youth rights. It affects those who care about free speech and those who are concerned about how violence shapes home life. It’s important that all who care about youth pay attention to these issues. They’re complex and messy, full of good intention and unintended consequences. But rather than reinforcing or extending a legal regime that produces age-based restrictions which parents actively circumvent, we need to step back and rethink the underlying goals behind COPPA and develop new ways of achieving them. This begins with a public conversation.

We are excited to release our new study in the hopes that it will contribute to that conversation. To read our complete findings and learn more about their implications for policy makers, see “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act'” by danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey, published in First Monday.

To learn more about the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), make sure to check out the Federal Trade Commission’s website.

(Versions of this post were originally written for the Huffington Post and for the Digital Media and Learning Blog.)

Image Credit: Tim Roe

The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric

We all know that teen bullying – both online and offline – has devastating consequences. Jamey Rodemeyer’s suicide is a tragedy. He was tormented for being gay. He knew he was being bullied and he regularly talked about the fact that he was being bullied. Online, he even wrote: “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” The fact that he could admit that he was being tormented coupled with the fact that he asked for help and folks didn’t help him should be a big wake-up call. We have a problem. And that problem is that most of us adults don’t have the foggiest clue how to help youth address bullying.

It doesn’t take a tragedy to know that we need to find a way to combat bullying. Countless regulators and educators are desperate to do something – anything – to put an end to the victimization. But in their desperation to find a solution, they often turn a blind’s eye to both research and the voices of youth.

The canonical research definition of bullying was written by Olweus and it has three components:

  • Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
  • Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
  • Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

What Rodemeyer faced was clearly bullying, but a lot of the reciprocal relational aggression that teens experience online is not actually bullying. Still, in the public eye, these concepts are blurred and so when parents and teachers and regulators talk about wanting to stop bullying, they talk about wanting to stop all forms of relational aggression too. The problem is that many teens do not – and, for good reasons, cannot – identify a lot of what they experience as bullying. Thus, all of the new fangled programs to stop bullying are often missing the mark entirely. In a new paper that Alice Marwick and I co-authored – called “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics” – we analyzed the language of youth and realized that their use the language of “drama” serves many purposes, not the least of which is to distance themselves from the perpetrator / victim rhetoric of bullying in order to save face and maintain agency.

For most teenagers, the language of bullying does not resonate. When teachers come in and give anti-bullying messages, it has little effect on most teens. Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive. They aren’t willing to go there. And when they are, they need support immediately. Yet, few teens have the support structures necessary to make their lives better. Rodemeyer is a case in point. Few schools have the resources to provide youth with the necessary psychological counseling to work through these issues. But if we want to help youth who are bullied, we need there to be infrastructure to help young people when they are willing to recognize themselves as victimized.

To complicate matters more, although school after school is scrambling to implement anti-bullying programs, no one is assessing the effectiveness of these programs. This is not to say that we don’t need education – we do. But we need the interventions to be tested. And my educated hunch is that we need to be focusing more on positive frames that use the language of youth rather than focusing on the negative.

I want to change the frame of our conversation because we need to change the frame if we’re going to help youth. I’ve spent the last seven years talking to youth about bullying and drama and it nearly killed me when I realized that all of the effort that adults are putting into anti-bullying campaigns are falling on deaf ears and doing little to actually address what youth are experiencing. Even hugely moving narratives like “It Gets Better” aren’t enough when a teen can make a video for other teens and then kill himself because he’s unable to make it better in his own community.

In an effort to ground the bullying conversation, Alice Marwick and I just released a draft of our new paper: “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics.” We also co-authored a New York Times Op-Ed in the hopes of reaching a wider audience: “Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark.” Please read these and send us feedback or criticism. We are in this to help the youth that we spend so much time with and we’re both deeply worried that adult rhetoric is going in the wrong direction and failing to realize why it’s counterproductive.

Image from Flickr by Brandon Christopher Warren
Continue reading “The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric”