November 17, 2018

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.

Gymnastics Scores and Grade Inflation

The gymnastics scoring in this year’s Olympics has generated some controversy, as usual. Some of the controversy feel manufactured: NBC tried to create a hubbub over Nastia Liukin losing the uneven bars gold medal on the Nth tiebreaker; but top-level sporting events whose rules do not admit ties must sometimes decide contests by tiny margins.

A more interesting discussion relates to a change in the scoring system, moving from the old 0.0 to 10.0 scale, to a new scale that adds together an “A score” measuring the difficulty of the athlete’s moves and a “B score” measuring how well the moves were performed. The B score is on the old 0-10 scale, but the A score is on an open-ended scale with fixed scores for each constituent move and bonuses for continuously connecting a series of moves.

One consequence of the new system is that there is no predetermined maximum score. The old system had a maximum score, the legendary “perfect 10”, whose demise is mourned old-school gymnastics gurus like Bela Karolyi. But of course the perfect 10 wasn’t really perfect, at least not in the sense that a 10.0 performance was unsurpassable. No matter how flawless a gymnast’s performance, it is always possible, at least in principle, to do better, by performing just as flawlessly while adding one more flip or twist to one of the moves. The perfect 10 was in some sense a myth.

What killed the perfect 10, as Jordan Ellenberg explained in Slate, was a steady improvement in gymnastic performance that led to a kind of grade inflation in which the system lost its ability to reward innovators for doing the latest, greatest moves. If a very difficult routine, performed flawlessly, rates 10.0, how can you reward an astonishingly difficult routine, performed just as flawlessly? You have to change the scale somehow. The gymnastics authorities decided to remove the fixed 10.0 limit by creating an open-ended difficulty scale.

There’s an interesting analogy to the “grade inflation” debate in universities. Students’ grades and GPAs have increased slowly over time, and though this is not universally accepted, there is plausible evidence that today’s students are doing better work than past students did. (At the very least, today’s student bodies at top universities are drawn from a much larger pool of applicants than before.) If you want a 3.8 GPA to denote the same absolute level of performance that it denoted in the past, and if you also want to reward the unprecendented performance of today’s very best students, then you have to expand the scale at the top somehow.

But maybe the analogy from gymnastics scores to grades is imperfect. The only purpose of gymnastics scores is to compare athletes, to choose a winner. Grades have other purposes, such as motivating students to pay attention in class, or rewarding students for working hard. Not all of these purposes require consistency in grading over time, or even consistency within a single class. Which grading policy is best depends on which goals we have in mind.

One thing is clear: any discussion of gymnastics scoring or university grading will inevitably be colored by nostalgic attachment to the artists or students of the past.

Live Webcast: Future of News, May 14-15

We’re going to do a live webcast of our workshop on “The Future of News“, which will be held tomorrow and Thursday (May 14-15) in Princeton. Attending the workshop (free registration) gives you access to the speakers and other attendees over lunch and between sessions, but if that isn’t practical, the webcast is available.

Here are the links you need:

  • Live video streaming
  • Live chat facility for remote participants
  • To ask the speaker a question, email

Sessions are scheduled for 10:45-noon and 1:30-5:00 on Wed., May 14; and 9:30-12:30 and 1:30-3:15 on Thur., May 15.