Monthly Archives: November 2008

reflections on Lori Drew, bullying, and solutions to helping kids

The involvement of Lori Drew (an adult) in the suicide of Megan Meier has been an unavoidable topic. Last week, Drew was tried on three counts of accessing computers without authorization, a legal statute meant to stop hackers. She was acquitted of all felonies but convicted of three misdemeanors. The lawsuit itself was hugely problematic and clearly the result of prosecutors wanting to get her on anything. But in focusing on the technology, prosecutors reinforced the problematic view that technology has anything to do with this atrocity.

Let’s be clear. Megan Meier’s suicide is a tragedy. The fact that it was precipitated by bullying is horrific. And the fact that an adult was involved is downright heinous. But by centering the conversation around MySpace, people lose track of the core problems here.

Lori Drew is a quintessential “helicopter parent.” She believed that Meier was bullying her daughter. She also believed that her daughter was innocent of any wrong-doing. (While there is no way to prove or disprove that latter belief, it is uber important for parents to understand that most bullying is reciprocal. Teens bully back and the severity typically escalates over time.) Rather than teaching her daughter to take the high ground, Drew got involved. She worked with her daughter to bully back.

Flickr Photo by Steven FernandezBullying is a horrific practice, but it’s also a common response when people struggle to attain status. Backstabbing, rumor-mongering, and enticement aren’t unique to teenagers. Look in any corporate office or political campaign and you’ll see some pretty nasty bullying going on. The difference is that adults have upped the ante, learned how to manipulate and hide their tracks. In other words, adults are much better equipped to do dreadful damage in their bullying that children and teens. They have practice. And it’s not a good thing.

Lori Drew abused her power as a knowledgeable adult by leveraging her adult knowledge of psychology to humiliate and torment a teen girl. Put another way, Lori Drew engaged in psychological and emotional child abuse. Child abuse includes the psychological or emotional mistreatment of a child. Unfortunately, most legal statutes focus on sexual and physical abuse and neglect because emotional abuse is very hard to substantiate and prosecute. But realistically, she should’ve been tried with child abuse, not a computer crime.

The fact that technology was involved is of little matter. Sure, she couldn’t have said those things to Megan’s face, but she could’ve hired a boy to do so. (How many movies have been made of boys being roped into teen girls’ humiliation schemes?) The crime she should be convicted of should have nothing to do with technology. She should be tried (and convicted) of psychologically abusing a child.

Why do we focus on the technology? Is it because it is the thing that we don’t understand? Or is it because if we were actually forced to contend with the fact that Drew was abusing a minor to protect her own that we’d have to face our own bad habits in this regard? How many of you have done something problematic to protect your child? I suspect that, at the end of the day, many parents could step in Lori Drew’s shoes and imagine themselves getting carried away in an effort to protect their daughter from perceived injustices. Is that why we’re so centered on the technology?

Let’s also make one thing very clear. This case is NOT TYPICAL. Many are clamoring to make laws based on this case and one thing we know is that bad cases make bad case law. Most of the cases focus on the technology rather than the damage of psychological abuse and the misuse of adult power. Furthermore, most focus on adult to minor abuse and the abuse of minors by strangers even those the majority of bullying is between peers who know each other. And for those who think that bullying is mostly online, think again. The majority of teens believe that bullying is far worse in-person at school than online.

This is where technology comes into play. Bullying probably has not increased because of the Internet, but it’s visibility to adults definitely has. Kids have long been bullied by peers at school without adults ever knowing. Now adults can see it. Most adults think that this means that the Internet is the culprit, but this logic is flawed and dangerous. Stifling bullying online won’t make bullying go away; it’ll just send it back underground. The visibility gives us an advantage. If we see it, we can work with it to stop it.

Approaches Parents and Society Should Take to Help Children

Parents need to be looking out for signs of bullying by their kids and by their kids’ peers. Parents should be educating kids about bullying, about the damage that it does. Most bullying starts out small. If parents catch it early on, they can help give their kids tactics to minimize the escalation. The Internet makes small acts of bullying much more visible, making it easier for parents to help provide guidance. This is a digital advantage because, for the most part, parents only learned of bullying once it had escalated to unbearable levels.

It’s important to note that bullying is best curbed in childhood when children learn that saying something mean gives them power. As a parent, you should be vigilant about never saying mean things about others in front of your child. Even about politicians whom you despise. You should also make it very clear that mean words are intolerable. Set that frame early on and reinforce. If you see mean comments online, call them out, even if they’re nothing more than “your dress is ugly.”

Unfortunately, not all parents are very involved in their kids’ lives and bullying is heavily correlated with problems at home. Bullying is also sometimes prompted by kids’ desire to get attention which creates a vicious cycle. This is why we need solutions that go beyond parents and kids.

The most important thing that we need are digital street workers. When I was in college, college students volunteered as street workers to help teens who were on the street find resources and help. They directed them to psychologists, doctors, and social workers. We need a program like this for the digital streets. We need college-aged young adults to troll the digital world looking out for teens who are in trouble and helping them seek help. We need online counselors who can work with minors to address their behavioral issues without forcing the minor to contend with parents or bureaucracy. We need online social workers that can connect with kids and help them understand their options.

The Internet brings the public into our homes. This terrifies most adults and it means that adults aren’t thinking about how to use this to their advantage. Rather than solely focusing on disturbed adults reaching out to children, let’s build systems to get trained adults to reach out to disturbed children. We need social and governmental infrastructure to build this, but it’s important. The teens who are hurting online are also hurting offline. We can silence their online cries by locking down the Internet, but it doesn’t do a damn thing to help address the core problem. We have the tools to do something about this. We just need the will and the want.

I wish we could turn back the clock and protect Megan Meier from the torment of Drew and her daughter. We can’t. And I’m not sure that any legal or technical measures would do one drop of good in preventing a similar case. (But I would be very happy to see more laws around psychological abuse of minors by adults put on the books… not to prevent but to prosecute.) What we can do is put structures in play to help children who are at-risk. Many of them are invisible. Their plight doesn’t get the broad media coverage that Megan Meier got. But there are far too many of them and their stories have none of the glitz.

They are the kids who are being beaten at home and blog about it. They are the kids who publicly humiliate other kids to get attention. They are the kids who seek sex with strangers as a form of validation. They are the kids who are lonely, suicidal, and self-destructive. They are online. They are calling out for help. Why aren’t we listening? And why are we blaming the technology instead?

Living and Learning with New Media: Findings from a 3-year Ethnographic Study of Digital Youth

For the last three years, I’ve been a part of a team of researchers at Berkeley and USC focused on digital youth practices. This project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, brought together 28 different researchers (led by Mimi Ito and my now deceased advisor Peter Lyman) to examine different aspects of American youth life. As many of you know, I focused on normative teen practices and the ways in which teens engaged in networked publics. We are now prepared to share our findings:

Already, write-ups of our research have hit the press:

Needless to say, we’re excited by our research and uber excited by the coverage that we’re getting. For years, we’ve been finding that youth do amazingly positive things with the technology that they use. Yet, during that time, we’ve watched as parents and news media continue to focus solely on what is negative. We’re hoping that this report will help adults get a decent sense of what’s going on.

For those who are only familiar with my research, I strongly encourage you to check out the report to get a better sense of the context in which I’ve been working. I focus primarily on “friendship-driven practices” but the “interest-driven practices” that motivate creative production, gaming, and all sorts of user generated content are tremendously important. I focus primarily on what happens when teens “hang out” but there’s also amazing learning moments when they mess around and geek out with one another.

The book is currently available only in draft form but an updated print version will be available in the future. In the meantime, enjoy, and feel free to ask questions!!

Draft Version of the ISTTF Literature Review concerning Children’s Online Safety

“Online Threats to Youth: Solicitation, Harassment, and Problematic Content” is a draft of the Literature Review that Andrew Schrock and I prepared for the Internet Safety Technical Task Force with the help of members of the Research Advisory Board.

The Internet Safety Technical Task Force was formed to consider the extent to which technologies can play a role in enhancing youth safety in online spaces. The Task Force was collaborative effort among a wide array of Internet service providers, social network sites, academics, educators, and technology vendors. It was created in accordance with the Joint Statement on Key Principles of Social Networking Safety announced by the Attorneys General Multi-State Working Group on Social Network Sites and MySpace in January 2008. For more information on the ISTTF, see:

The Task Force asked a Research Advisory Board, comprised of scholars and researchers whose research addresses children’s online safety, to conduct a comprehensive Literature Review of relevant work. This is an early draft of that Literature Review. It was primarily written by Andrew Schrock and danah boyd. Members of the RAB provided valuable feedback and insights, critiques and suggestions. Members of the RAB were selected based on their longstanding, ongoing, and original contributions to this field of research. All members of the RAB are U.S.-based and do research with U.S. populations. This Literature Review – and the scope of the Task Force – is intentionally U.S.-centric.

In January, the Task Force will publish a report documenting its findings. This Literature Review will be an Appendix of that report. We are making a draft of this Literature Review available to the public early because we are seeking public feedback, especially from other scholars whose work is connected to this field. We are currently looking for feedback concerning the breadth, depth, and accuracy of this Literature Review. If you know of original research that we are missing concerning U.S. populations, please let us know immediately. A finalized version of this document will be available in January.

If you have comments or feedback, please email me directly, although you are also welcome to leave comments here.

post-Prop 8: seek an education-based reversal, not a legal challenge

I am proud to be an American, but utterly ashamed to be a Californian. Although I knew that Proposition 8 would be close, I still can’t accept that Californians voted to cement discrimination into the state constitution. We have a long history of discrimination in this country. As Anil points out, it wasn’t that long ago when people from different racial backgrounds were forbidden to marry. I realize that in a decade or two, we will look back with horror at the time when Americans thought it was right to treat people differently based on who they loved. I have to smile when I think of Jon Stewart’s coverage of “traditional marriage” in the middle ages. What is the idyllic model that people have in their heads wrt marriage? The Hollywood produced romantic comedy? Are all relationships that don’t live up to that dream invalid?

At this point, I’m struggling with what to do about Prop 8. Anyone who has seen my claustrophobia in crowds understands why protesting isn’t functional for me. I signed (and encourage you to sign) the petition to re-open Prop 8. But that’s not that satisfying.

I’m also struggling because I don’t believe that legal action is the best recourse. When I was in college studying Roe v. Wade, I reached the conclusion that the Supreme Court did a huge disservice to women. Let me explain. At that time, each state was slowly working to legalize abortion. People were coming around to the idea, one at a time. The liberal states went first, but it was gaining momentum. And then the Supreme Court stepped in and declared it legal. The result was hugely divisive. Those who hadn’t come around to it began to reject the Court. Others decided that they should build up anti-choice lawyers to invade the court. Rather than happening naturally and with the support of the masses, the Court’s involvement created a dangerous socio-political divide that we live with today.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Prop 8 is pure discrimination and should be declared unconstitutional. That said, I worry that a legal fight stemming from California will create another Roe v. Wade situation. I was hoping that California would be a leader in this, just like Massachusetts. But it’s going to be ground zero for the fight. I just think that we need to fight it on cultural grounds, not on legal grounds.

I think that we need to spend the next year convincing those around us that this is discrimination. I think that everyone – gay and straight – needs to start conversations about what it means to be in a same-sex loving relationship. I’m not interested in trying to convince people that their churches should accept same-sex marriage. I’m interested in helping people understand that church marriages are not the same as state marriages. And that when it comes to the state, it’s of utmost importance that there’s no discrimination. The Catholic Church is more than welcome to discriminate wrt marriage. They already do. You can’t get married in a Catholic church if you’re not Catholic. But the state should not be discriminatory, especially when so many rights and freedoms and economic benefits are afforded to married couples.

I still loathe marriage as an institution. I’m still resentful over the baked-in, state-supported misogyny that I witnessed as a child. That said, I recognize (and benefit from) the privileges it affords and I strongly believe that it should be available to everyone everywhere who is in a loving relationship and wants to make that lifelong commitment.

So what’s the right move? How do we create an education movement and not a protest or legal movement? How do we turn hearts and minds? I have to admit… I *loved* the anti-discrimination ads that came out of the No on 8 campaign. How do we continue to fund information-based advertisements and get them in front of those who are in favor of denying freedoms to some? In other words, no more ads on Comedy Central, but a lot more on Fox and the channels that those who favored 8 are most likely to watch. How do you create a movement to change the hearts and minds of Californians? Let’s reintroduce the ballot measure next year, but in the meantime, work to convince people that this was the wrong decision. If we take this route – and not the legal route – I think that we will be able to do far more good in the long run.