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Talking Past Kids to Ourselves


Date posted: December 13, 2011

Very interesting discussion today at the Kids, Privacy, and Online Drama event, part of @Microsoft: Conversations on Online Safety, cohosted by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), and held at Microsoft’s Innovation & Policy Center in Washington, DC.

Researcher danah boyd said something that particularly struck a nerve with me. She and her colleague Alice Marwick found that while adults talk about ‘“bullying,” teens are more likely to refer to the resultant skirmishes and their digital traces as “drama.”’ There’s more to it than that, of course, (and their paper, The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics, makes fascinating reading), but the point danah made today was that, too often, adults look at problems like cyberbullying, sexting, and other internet safety issues as adults, using the language of adults, proposing adult solutions. That leads to a group of concerned adults talking past kids to other adults, a new kind of generation gap.

Working with Amanda Lenhart and her colleagues at the Pew Internet and American Life Project and FOSI on Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites, we also found the term bullying to be problematic, and wound up using words like “mean” and “cruel” to describe behaviors in ways that would resonate with teens.

boyd, in particular, is making a career out of talking to and understanding teens and their digital lives. She’s found that teens have a very different understanding of many digital issues, like cyberbullying or privacy. The vocabulary that adults use doesn’t resonate with them. Kids don’t use terms like cyberbullying. They talk about drama, not bullying. To them, privacy is more about audience management than about keeping data hidden. When adults design lessons and curricula using adult language and advocating adult solutions, the kids don’t necessarily know what we’re talking about and don’t get the relevance of what we’re asking them to do. It’s just not connected to their lives. There is no shared or common understanding. It is as if the adults are talking about something in a parallel dimension.

In education, we know we have to meet the kids where they are. We have to build on their current knowledge and understandings, provide support and scaffolding to help them learn new concepts by connecting the new to what they already know. But, in the rush to “protect” kids from perceived digital dangers (some of which turn out to be fairly uncommon or benign) we sometimes forget to take into account where kids are, what they know, and how they think.

That’s one reason why the work of boyd, Marwick, Lenhart and others is so important. Having an understanding of where kids are can help adults design more effective learning materials to help kids become not just safe, but also effective, productive, ethical digital citizens.

Microsoft’s Innovation & Policy Center’s Facebook page.

Photo: Amanda Lenhart, danah boyd, & Alice Marwick.