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May 20 2011


Children and Facebook: The Promise and Pitfalls for Social Media

With more than 500 million Facebook users across the world, it's hard to refute that the social networking site has profoundly changed the way we communicate and share information. But what's the Facebook effect on kids? When it comes to navigating the social networking world -- whether it's Facebook or fan fiction sites -- the terrain becomes even murkier.

Parents worry about what's age-appropriate, what should be kept private, and exposure to cyberbullying, among many other issues. And it's true -- there's a lot to navigate, even for adults. But Facebook and social networks aren't going away anytime soon, and the better parents understand this, the more they'll be able to help their kids comprehend the medium.

Rather than block all access to the Internet, parents can see that for every pitfall, there's a potential promise.

"Parents can and should moderate sites, but they have to give kids the opportunities to figure out what it means to be digital citizens, and allow kids to be empowered," said Carrie James, who's conducting a qualitative survey of kids and social networks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "They need prompts and supports to develop guidelines together."


For better or for worse, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and their ilk provide ways for kids to connect with each other and express themselves.

This level of unchecked expression, some argue, is too much for young children who can't handle the complexities of social networking sites. "The amount of angst has increased in my school in the past few years," said Anthony Orsini, principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J. With three suicides (including Tyler Clementi) in the past year, he said, "it's been a fearful time in our town for our parents."

The irony is that the fear doesn't come from the traditional so-called stranger danger but from how kids behave toward each other online. "Stranger danger is unbelievably minute compared to the social and emotional damage they receive from each other everyday," Orsini said. And the matter becomes much more complicated when you consider that strict anti-bullying laws render schools responsible for kids' online behavior, he said.

But for administrators like Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, N.J., privacy and cyberbullying issues are a red herring. "What if a kid swears in the hallway? It's the same thing. People want to hide behind the legal issues, but it's the same as swearing on Facebook," he said.

girl with tablet.jpg

Either way, kids will have to learn that their digital footprint is born from the moment they start posting on each other's walls and create their first online avatar. They'll have to figure out that every YouTube video they upload will be a reflection of themselves as the public sees them. With guidance from parents and educators, they can figure out what the world knows about them.

But at the moment, it's not a high priority at most schools, Sheninger said. "Schools aren't teaching kids to be digitally responsible," he said. "We can't fault kids for doing something wrong on Facebook or Twitter because we're not teaching them. We need to have digital citizenship curriculum in schools."

It's important to note that Orisini is the principal of a middle school, while Sheninger is the principal of a high school, and the age difference can be a factor in how kids behave online.


Chances are, anytime the computer is on near a kid (and let's face it, even adults), some kind of social networking is happening. Whether it's Facebook or instant messaging, or watching or uploading videos to share, the distractions are endless. As we all know, one link can easily lead to another, until suddenly an hour and a half has passed and we've lost track of the task at hand.

Last year's comprehensive study by Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids age 8 to 18 actually manage to pack in almost 11 hours worth of media content into 7½ hours of using media.

So is there any time left for learning? Researchers like Henry Jenkins would argue that the best kind of learning -- engaged and collaborative -- is happening on social network sites.

Jenkins, who is a professor at the University of Southern California, talks about "deeply meaningful forms of learning...taking place through engagement with affinity groups and social networks online" such as the Harry Potter Alliance, which has mobilized more than 100,000 people against the Darfur genocide and labor rights at Wal-Mart.

But because of privacy laws like the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, most schools shut off access to social networking sites -- with a few exceptions. To principal Sheninger, "if you're not on Facebook, you can't really communicate with us. Our new hub of real-time information is Facebook. I post things about what the kids are doing, and when they comment or parents comment, as a principal, I'm proud," he said.


Facebook's changing privacy settings and its tendency to default to more open information is a source of constant annoyance for many of its users. We have to keep close tabs on those changes, especially when it comes to kids.

But young children are not the primary target user for Facebook, which officially does not allow kids under 13 to sign up for an account. Parents must decide whether they'll allow their children to become a part of the vast Facebook network, or to harness the social networking world into smaller, more contained sites like Togetherville or Club Penguin.

Parents can use the subject of privacy settings as an opportunity to teach kids about navigating the online world. They can talk about social media etiquette and what information they agree is acceptable to be shared with friends and the public at large. With guidance and support, and with parents setting examples of what they think is appropriate, kids can learn their place and responsibility as part of a worldwide community.

Photo of girl with an iPad by Alec Couros via Flickr.

Tina Barseghian is the editor of KQED's MindShift, an NPR website about the future of education. In the past, she's worked as the executive editor of Edutopia, a magazine published by the George Lucas Education Foundation, as well as an editor at O'Reilly Media and CMP Media. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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September 22 2010


The Challenge of Digital Media in the Classroom

This fall, over 70 million students headed back to school in America, of which 50 million are going to public elementary and secondary schools, and a record 19.1 million are enrolled in colleges and universities. These students are wired as never before -- in school, at home, and at every stop in between. It is now commonplace to see third-graders with their own cell phones, and even junior high schools expect students to work from a laptop with an Internet connection.

19cover-sfSpan.jpgBut at the same time digital technology is a hot topic in education, it's hotly debated in faculty lounges and parent-teacher conferences, and increasingly, in the broader culture. (The September 19 issue of the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to a dizzying array of articles on the subject.)

The educational benefits of the new technology are more than apparent. Today almost any school in America, however poor or remote, can possess the equivalent of the greatest library in the history of the world, simply by virtue of the Internet. Students can go online to pursue advanced study, and join collaborative communities to add to the world's store of knowledge. Creative platforms allow young artists and performers to publish and exchange their work.

But digital media also present some educational downsides, both in terms of personal behaviors and classroom dynamics. The formal research is still young, but anecdotes abound. Teachers and professors are in a quandary about student use of laptops in a wired classroom. Many students claim that their computers are necessary for note-taking, but they also sneak looks at Facebook updates and instant messages during the lesson. The problem can become even more acute at home, where students increasingly do their homework by computer. Students have the illusion of multi-tasking as they bounce from algebra to digital games to Facebook and back again.

Multi-Tasking Myth?

Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and aging at UCLA Medical School, is among many scientists who argue that digital multi-tasking is a myth, and holds particular dangers for the young. In one online interview, he explained, "Young people who multitask can complete the task more rapidly, but they make more errors, so we're becoming faster but sloppier when we multi-task."

In addition, he said, "There is another mental process related to multi-tasking that's often called partial continuous attention. Here we're not just doing two or three tasks at the same time, we're scanning the environment for new information at any point and this is a process that I think is becoming very popular now that we have all these new electronic communication gadgets, cell phones, PDAs, computers, the Internet."

Small believes that multi-tasking can contribute to a state of heightened mental stress, which may affect learning and recall.

The problem is by no means limited to America. Maria Mendel, an education professor and vice rector of Poland's University of Gdansk, believes that the misuse of computers may compromise the study of subjects that require prolonged concentration. Poland has a history of producing world-class mathematicians, but Mendel sees the impact particularly in math.

"Many students today have a harder time with complex mathematical formulae, because they're not used to linear thought patterns," she said. "They're used to one-click solutions, and want to intuit answers instead of working through the steps. That just doesn't work for higher mathematics."

Computers in the Classroom

3613743657_414a3ebfdf_m.jpgThe role of computers in the classroom is also under review. Many U.S. schools have invested heavily in technology for smart classrooms in recent years, and the devices are undeniably effective for many functions. But in too many cases, schools have installed the hardware without adequate consultation with the teachers. In some classrooms, the screen may cover the whiteboard, so the teacher can't project and write at the same time. In others, the orientation towards the screen may limit students' interaction with the teacher and each other.

Early generations of this technology approached the question from the perspective of "screen as instructor." But Web 2.0 culture is bending that perspective in the classroom as well, where online tools are promoting an increasingly collaborative environment. Fixed rows of seats facing a "Wizard of Oz" screen just aren't going to make it -- but instructors are going to need a lot more help from the classroom design side to adapt.

Even the most obvious advantage of online media, the retrieval of information, has its issues. It's no secret that readers of all ages prefer to read shorter material online. With longer texts, the reader tends to take in less of the sentences and paragraphs, with compromised retention, and attention that flags after the initial screen. This generalization is supported by various pockets of research, such as Jakob Nielsen's eye-tracking studies -- though far more research is needed.

Serious students who want to read a long online text carefully usually print it out for best comprehension. (This is more than borne out by my own informal experiments with three years of 75 graduate students, who report that they retain far more of long, complex articles on the page than online.) The readers themselves are uncertain why this is so. Is it:

a) Because type displayed on a backlit screen is less crisp than the printed page's? (This issue could be ameliorated in the next generation of e-readers.)
b) The distraction of hyperlinks and online advertising?

c) The practice of switching between screens and losing one's place more easily than in the linear experience of a print-out?

d) All of the above?

Some enthusiasts claim that learning will move away from the text and towards the moving image. They point to the iPad's emphasis on images as indicative of the path ahead. Nonetheless, linear text is bound to be with us far into the future, especially for intellectual and professional pursuits (such as the law) that require its mental discipline.
These questions must be seriously addressed if we want these cognitive abilities to contribute to our culture.

Distance Learning Coming of Age?

Modes of online learning are also under discussion, as explored by a Columbia student research team. There are bright spots on the horizon. One exciting new study from the Center for Global Development explores the ways mobile phone applications are advancing literacy in Niger. Voice recognition software, such as that used by the wildly popular Rosetta Stone language lessons products, has transformed the process of learning a language, and multiplied the number of languages commonly available for study. But education is also littered with computer-based learning programs that are little more than multiple-choice drills. These may be helpful for rote learning tasks such as typing and addition, but don't offer much in the way of critical thinking.

In recent years, online learning has been joined at the hip to a discussion of distance learning (once the purview of televised lectures and the "correspondence courses"). A number of for-profit institutions have sprung up that have made particular inroads in "teaching to the test." The courses hold a special attraction for students who need to pass qualifying examinations for licenses for anything from massage therapy to real estate, but they also enroll legions of students in more traditional academic fields.

The Federal government recently launched an investigation of America's largest online universities, including Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix, which enrolls 500,000 students on its "eCampus." These for-profit institutions have been accused of deceptive practices, including misleading applicants with inflated claims about their programs, their accreditation, and job placement rates for their graduates.

Brick-and-mortar universities have put new energy into online distance learning as an additional means to weather the recession, but many of the pedagogical techniques are still under experimentation. Some institutions may pause at the memory of a Columbia-led consortium that launched an online experiment called Fathom.com in 2000. It assembled an impressive roster of educators, but closed in 2003 after it failed to identify a workable business model.

On the other hand, Great Britain's Open University, established in 1969, has achieved a reputation for excellence, while Australia has led the way in primary and secondary-level distance learning in service of its far-flung students -- both emphasizing their online components in recent years.

In the U.S., MIT has led the way in presenting free online lectures by star faculty to enhance its brand, while a number of universities are building out campuses on Second Life. Britain's Open University has pioneered the integration of Second Life and other virtual reality platforms into its curriculum, and has launched special initiatives to serve housebound and disabled populations.

Educators are seeking criteria to discern which applications most benefit which kinds of learning. Tools for evaluation are scarce on the ground, and the literature is scattered. It's also clear that more research is urgently needed on the effects of digital media on cognition and the personal interactions that lie at the heart of education.

In January 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study reporting that American children aged 8 to 18 spent an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day on electronic devices -- virtually every waking hour outside of sleeping and school. As William Powers points out in his recent book, "Hamlet's Blackberry," this digital time comes at the expense of face time with family and friends, physical exercise, and the experience of the natural world.

Our society's all-encompassing digital wallpaper constitutes an education in itself. We need to know far more about how it shapes the mind and prompts the appetites if we hope to use it wisely.

Photo of students working at computers by vancouverfilmschool via Flickr

Anne Nelson teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and consults for a number of foundations on media issues. She's on Twitter as anelsona. She was a 2005 Guggenheim fellow for her recent book, ""Red Orchestra: the Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler."":http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/books/review/Herzog-t.html

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