July 16, 2024

On kids and social networking

Sunday’s New York Times has an article about cyber-bullying that’s currently #1 on their “most popular” list, so this is clearly a topic that many find close and interesting.

The NYT article focuses on schools’ central role in policing their students social behavior. While I’m all in favor of students being taught, particularly by older peer students, the importance of self-moderating their communications, schools face a fundamental quandary:

Nonetheless, administrators who decide they should help their cornered students often face daunting pragmatic and legal constraints.

“I have parents who thank me for getting involved,” said Mike Rafferty, the middle school principal in Old Saybrook, Conn., “and parents who say, ‘It didn’t happen on school property, stay out of my life.’ ”

Judges are flummoxed, too, as they wrestle with new questions about protections on student speech and school searches. Can a student be suspended for posting a video on YouTube that cruelly demeans another student? Can a principal search a cellphone, much like a locker or a backpack?

It’s unclear. These issues have begun their slow climb through state and federal courts, but so far, rulings have been contradictory, and much is still to be determined.

Here’s one example that really bothers me:

A few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children from bullies. But when the Beverly Vista School in Beverly Hills, Calif., disciplined Evan S. Cohen’s eighth-grade daughter for cyberbullying, he took on the school district.

After school one day in May 2008, Mr. Cohen’s daughter, known in court papers as J. C., videotaped friends at a cafe, egging them on as they laughed and made mean-spirited, sexual comments about another eighth-grade girl, C. C., calling her “ugly,” “spoiled,” a “brat” and a “slut.”

J. C. posted the video on YouTube. The next day, the school suspended her for two days.

“What incensed me,” said Mr. Cohen, a music industry lawyer in Los Angeles, “was that these people were going to suspend my daughter for something that happened outside of school.” On behalf of his daughter, he sued.

If schools don’t have the authority to discipline J. C., as the court apparently ruled, and her father is more interested in defending her than disciplining her for clearly inappropriate behavior, then can we find some other solution?

Of course, there’s nothing new about bullying among the early-teenage set. I will refrain from dredging such stories from my own pre-Internet pre-SMS childhood, but there’s no question that these kids are at an important stage of their lives, where they’re still learning important and essential concepts, like how to relate to their peers and the importance (or lack thereof) of their peers’ approval, much less understanding where to draw boundaries between their public self and their private feelings. It’s certainly important for us, the responsible adults of the world, to recognize that nothing we can say or do will change the fundamentally social awkwardness of this age. There will never be an ironclad solution that eliminates kids bullying, taunting, or otherwise hurting one other.

Given all that, the rise of electronic communications (whether SMS text messaging, Facebook, email, or whatever else) changes the game in one very important way. It increases the velocity of communications. Every kid now has a megaphone for reaching their peers, whether directly through a Facebook posting that can reach hundreds of friends at once or indirectly through the viral spread of embarrassing gossip from friend to friend, and that speed can cause salacious information to get around well before any traditional mechanisms (parental, school administrative, or otherwise) can clamp down and assert some measure of sanity. For possibly the ultimate example of this, see a possibly fictitious yet nonetheless illustrative girl’s written hookup list posted by her brother as a form of revenge against her ratting out his hidden stash of beer. Needless to say, in one fell swoop, this girl’s life got turned upside down with no obvious way to repair the social damage.

Alright, we invented this social networking mess. Can we fix it?

The only mechanism I feel is completely inappropriate is this:

But Deb Socia, the principal at Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, Mass., takes a no-nonsense approach. The school gives each student a laptop to work on. But the students’ expectation of privacy is greatly diminished.

“I regularly scan every computer in the building,” Ms. Socia said. “They know I’m watching. They’re using the cameras on their laptops to check their hair and I send them a message and say: ‘You look great! Now go back to work.’ It’s a powerful way to teach kids: ‘I’m paying attention, you need to do what’s right.’ ”

Not only do I object to the Big Brother aspect of this (do schools still have 1984 on their reading lists?), but turning every laptop into a surveillance device is a hugely tempting target for a variety of bad actors. Kids need and deserve some measure of privacy, at least to the extent that schools already give kids a measure of privacy against arbitrary and unjustified search and seizure.

Surveillance is widely considered to be more acceptable when it’s being done by parents, who might insist they have their kids’ passwords in order to monitor them. Of course, kids of this age will reasonably want or need to have privacy from their parents as well (e.g., we don’t want to create conditions where victims of child abuse can be easily locked down by their family).

We could try to invent technical means to slow down the velocity of kids’ communications, which could mean adding delays as a function of the fanout of a message, or even giving viewers of any given message a kill switch over it, that could reach back and nuke earlier, forwarded copies to other parties. Of course, such mechanisms could be easily abused. Furthermore, if Facebook were to voluntarily create such a mechanism, kids might well migrate to other services that lack the mechanism. If we legislate that children of a certain age must have technically-imposed communication limits across the board (e.g., limited numbers of SMS messages per day), then we could easily get into a world where a kid who hits a daily quota cannot communicate in an unexpectedly urgent situation (e.g., when stuck at an alcoholic party and needing a sober ride home).

Absent any reasonable technical solution, the proper answer is probably to restrict our kids’ access to social media until we think they’re mature enough to handle it, to make sure that we, the parents, educate them about the proper etiquette, and that we take responsibility for disciplining our kids when they misbehave.


  1. Anonymous says

    Dan Simon writes:

    Whatever happened to “sticks and stones”? Kids say awful things to each other all the time, in person, and learning the self-confidence to blow off such rudeness is a crucial part of growing up. Compared to real bullying–actual physical violence or intimidation, which I’m sure is still widespread and genuinely terrifying–“cyberbullying” is simply schoolyard taunting transferred to electronic media.

    There’s a crucial difference overlooked here: in-person verbal taunts are ephemeral and occur before a small audience. Online namecalling tends to be persistent and in front of a large audience. In fact, a written online attack post may be archived by Google Groups or web.archive.org and its potential audience is billions, if the target of the attack subsequently becomes famous enough for lots of ordinary people to google him or her.

    Now consider that employers, prospective lovers, and the like tend to do cursory background checks these days that include googling their candidates. There are “lots of fish in the sea”, in both cases, and all other things being equal the candidate that does not have scurrilous Internet rumors swirling around them will be seen as the lower risk, regardless of how low a credence is given to the rumors, so long as that credence is greater than zero.

    For instance, all it probably takes to get a hypothetical schoolteacher named Karkidou Zgzbbxy blackballed for life is to post “Karkidou Zgzbbxy is a pedophile” somewhere where Google can see it and link to it in a few places; unless Karkidou is world-famous that probably suffices to raise that hit into the top ten and probably make the accusation visible right on the SERP in the summary text.

    Libel, you say? Effectively unenforceable on the net. Host the libelous remark in Turkmenistan or wherever and Karkidou can’t do much about it from Zimbabwe or wherever it is he lives.

    (As you can see, I take this issue seriously enough I made sure to invent a name no human being is likely to have for the foreseeable future (owing mainly to the obviously-unpronounceable surname) so as not to actually screw up any real person’s life if my example is seen out of context.)

    In fact there is a fundamental problem here, a conflict between one strong ideal (online freedom of speech) and another (being able to maintain reputational integrity if one is not actually guilty of something worth being punished for with disrepute).

    I don’t know, as yet, how to solve that problem.

  2. Dan Simon says

    Whoops–sorry about the link in the subject line. I’m used to typing “name, email, Web page” with blog comments…

  3. Dan Simon says

    Whatever happened to “sticks and stones”? Kids say awful things to each other all the time, in person, and learning the self-confidence to blow off such rudeness is a crucial part of growing up. Compared to real bullying–actual physical violence or intimidation, which I’m sure is still widespread and genuinely terrifying–“cyberbullying” is simply schoolyard taunting transferred to electronic media. Parents can “protect” their kids from it simply by fostering a healthy, secure, loving and confidence-inspiring home and social environment, in which meanness and taunting lose their power to threaten.

  4. It’s not just velocity or durability but also reach that sets cyberbullying apart from the conventional kind: kids can now be bullied in their most protected spaces (eg. Bedrooms) with limited means of escape.

  5. John Forrister says

    You state that:

    “the rise of electronic communications (whether SMS text messaging, Facebook, email, or whatever else) changes the game in one very important way. It increases the velocity of communications”

    I’d like to suggest that there are actually two major game changers at work here: The first is velocity, as you stated. The second is durability. As I’m sure you’re aware, once information is published on the internet, it’s effectively impossible to remove it.

    Take for example the girl who’s hookup list was published online. Pre-Internet, it would be possible for her parents to move her to another school and no one would at the new school would be aware of it, unless she chose to tell people or the list was republished. This served as a sort of ‘reset button’ for kids and parents who had experienced negative situations at one school or another.

    Today, that list has, for all intents and purposes, been permanently attached to her name and will probably show up in search results for years to come. The ‘reset button’ I mentioned previously is effectively disabled by social media and search engines. You might be able to get around it by changing your name, but to a teenager looking up another teenager online, absence from social networking sites and search results will flag the searched teen for further follow up.

    Unfortunately, with the legal, technical, and social frameworks in place today, I’m at a loss as to how the durability problem can be addressed effectively.

    • dwallach says

      It’s true that durability is also a problem. For the sport of it, I’m willing to hypothesize the existence of a new mechanism that could reach out and destroy all copies of the sort of sensitive information we’re talking about. Yes, yes, it’s like the ultimate censorship machine, but I think that even the presence of such a mechanism would be insufficient to address the problem.

      (Consequently, I hope nobody tries to built the ultimate censorship machine…)

  6. I wouldn’t expect schools to go trolling the internet looking for cyberbullying by their students, just as I wouldn’t expect the government to go about randomly spying on citizens in search of putative crimes. It would be a waste of resources and invasive.

    However, if the school received a cyberbullying complaint about my kid, I’d expect them to do a little investigation and contact me. I don’t think they’d have the authority to discipline my kid for the incident any more than if the bullying had happened in person at a local diner (unless school computers were used to make the offensive posts). But I’d need to know about it to address the issue, myself.

    I think a lot of this is about judgment. Unfortunately, some school administrators are likely to interpret a comment like “That dress Mary was wearing was totally ugly” as cyberbullying. And that gray area is where stuff can get blown way out of proportion by either side.

  7. “…the proper answer is probably to restrict our kids’ access to social media until we think they’re mature enough to handle it”

    I don’t know…I think there are a lot of adults out there who aren’t mature enough to handle it. It’s pretty hard even for a security conscious adult to think out all the consequences of anything they may post. I, myself, am still struggling to figure out a friending/posting policy that I am comfortable with.

    The other thing to realize is that my restricting my kids’ access to social media does nothing to protect them from other parents’ looser policies. I can prevent my kid from cyberbullying, but I can’t prevent other kids from posting nasty stuff about my kid. That’s always the problem, isn’t it?

    • I agree that finding a good “friending” policy is tricky. My own policy is that I’m fairly permissive in who I’ll befriend, but I also refrain from saying anything that I’d be uncomfortable seeing in the front page of the newspaper.

      Other parents are definitely the problem. (I initially misread “looser” and “loser”, which isn’t all that far off in this case.) Wouldn’t it be interesting if schools invested as much energy in getting parents up to speed as they spend cracking down on the kids?

  8. Nick Johnson says

    While I agree that the issue you raised in your second quote is concerning, I think the court ruled correctly: schools have no right to discipline children for things that happen outside the remit of the school itself. It seems to be a worrying trend that schools essentially act as if they own their pupils when it comes to their actions that have nothing to do with the education process.

  9. Anonymous Coward says

    Are you two using “scan” to mean the same thing? Is Ms. Socia’s scan of desktops a mere glance of the eye, while Mr. Wallach takes it to mean inspection of hard drives?

  10. Deb Socia says

    Hi Dan,
    I think you were confused about my reference. The students used iMovie without permission or I would not have been able to see them on the screen. I can see only what is on their desktop. I was telling them that they should not be on iMovie as it was not related to their school work. Often, I check in with students and share positive comments about their work as well. We are entirely clear with students up front that we will be able to see their desktops. I have NEVER used any method to view the students themselves.
    I hope that clarifies your understanding of my comment.

    • dwallach says

      I appreciate you coming here to clarify how your surveillance of your students works. I otherwise completely stand by my opinion that your tight surveillance of your students’ computers is an overbearing violation of their privacy.

      • Preston L. Bannister says

        Dan, I am going to disagree with you on one point, slightly.

        If the school is monitoring usage of school-supplied laptops during school hours (when students are on campus), and that is a clear expectation when the laptops were given to students, then I do not see a problem. Schools are a heavily monitored environment, and there is not an expectation of privacy. Monitoring school-laptop usage is a small and not-inappropriate extension to that environment.

        This comes very near – but not too near – to a collection of activities I would NOT consider appropriate for a school. I do not approve of invasive monitoring or inspection of students property (cell phones, laptops, diaries). I do not approve of activating cameras on laptops when used off-campus and outside school hours. I do not approve of school monitoring of student behavior off-campus and outside school hours.

        To your earlier point: I do not believe it is the domain of the school to monitor or control student behavior outside of school. That should be the domain of the parents. There is some cross-over as behavior outside school can harm the school environment. For schools to inform parents of a problem seems entirely appropriate (as parents have limited insight into what happens at school, so a hint from the school can help).

        Not that all parents are good parents … but schools neither can or should substitute for parents. However … I do wonder if the schools should act as a communications channel to the community, and explicitly NOT keep misbehaviors private. No parent is going to be happy to see their child – in effect – actively attacked by the school. If instead the school routinely informs a parent council of any problems, then solving the problem falls to the community – which seems more appropriate, and could be a useful influence on parents.

        • dwallach says

          Here’s an analogy to the pre-computerized school world. Imagine we put a CCTV system in the school with a camera in the ceiling pointing down at every individual student’s desk. Hundreds of cameras! The principal or other agents of the school with access to the console could then scroll through all the students and see what they’re up to. Would you consider that invasive of students’ privacy? Would you be worried that third parties, getting access to that control room, might have other undesirable motives?

          This analogy is pretty close to what the school in question is doing, except the downside from security compromises is much larger than in the hypothetical.

    • Anonymous says

      Are the students forced to use these school-supplied laptops?