Monthly Archives: December 2007

Pew on teen social media practices (with interesting bits on class)

While I was off struggling with Leopard and pants, Pew put out another great report: Teens and Social Media. This report fleshes out what I noticed earlier – teens are much more protective of the content they post online than adults are. Yet, this report is sooo much more than that. Here are some of the new findings to whet your appetite:

  • Digital images – stills and videos – have a big role in teen life. Posting them often starts a virtual conversation. Most teens receive some feedback on the content they post online.
  • Email continues to lose its luster among teens as texting, instant messaging, and social networking sites facilitate more frequent contact with friends.
  • More older girls than boys create and contribute to websites.
  • Girls have fueled the growth of the teen blogosphere.
  • Teens from lower-income and single-parent households are more likely to blog.
  • Teens who are most active online, including bloggers, are also highly active offline.
  • Most teens restrict access to their posted photos – at least some of the time. Girls are more restrictive photo posters.
  • Content creators are not devoting their lives exclusively to virtual participation. They are just as likely as other teens to engage in most offline activities and more likely to have jobs.
  • African American teens are more likely to look for college information online.
  • Girls are more likely than boys to look up health, dieting, or fitness information on the Web.
  • The number of teens who report instant message use has dropped since 2004.
  • Visiting a chatroom has declined significantly in popularity since 2000.
  • Fewer teens are buying products online.
  • Wealthy teens are more likely to engage in multimedia Web activities.

Note: The bits on social network sites in the report are using data collected in late 2005/early 2006. Much of those findings were reported in an earlier Pew Report. I strongly believe that SNS use is up since then and that 55% is extremely low.

The whole report is extremely interesting (and I strongly encourage you to read it), but I want to take a moment to talk about the two statements that I bolded in the list above. What Pew’s data shows is that online participation correlates with offline participation. They are not able to show causality (and they do not try to claim that they can), but such a correlation still contradicts the ever-present myth that online activities cause a decline in offline activities. Of course, don’t misread this correlation in the opposite direction either. In other words, you cannot say that if you get a group of teens involved online, they will also get involved offline. Meshing these findings with my own qualitative observations, I have a sneaking suspicion that what Pew’s data is pointing to is that the hyper-motivated and/or overly scheduled teens from middle/upper class communities are extremely engaged offline and use online technologies to socialize with their friends in the interstitial times and that this cohort’s content creation is primarily to support friendships rather than create for creation sake. This also makes sense because teens who have more free time tend to have less restrictions and tend to prefer offline encounters with friends to online ones.

I wasn’t surprised by most of their findings, but one of them did make me raise my eyebrows: Teens from lower-income are more likely to blog. Because of how Pew collects data, it cannot answer the question “why?” when it finds such correlations, but I figured that my qualitative data might provide some insight and so I went back through my data. When asked about blogging, most of my MySpace-dominant users would immediately talk about the blogs that they kept on MySpace while my Facebook-dominant teens would talk about how Xanga was “so middle school” and that “everyone stopped” because “it just felt really weird writing about my day to people that I didn’t even care about.” And then it clicked. As I pointed out last summer and Eszter saw in her survey, the MySpace/Facebook split is correlated with socio-economic status. Because MySpace supports blogging and Facebook does not and because many of the teens who were once on Xanga are now using one of the SNSs, it makes sense that teens from lower-income households are more likely to blog now. They are blogging on MySpace. Now, that outta be interesting when these kids hit college where blogging is used as an educational tool.

All I need is a pair of pants.

Dear Clothing Designers,

I am disappointed in your lack of understanding of the diversity of women’s bodies. I traipsed down Broadway, into Soho, and out to the malls in search of a pair of pants that fit. I was willing to spend a decent amount of money on said pants so I visited everything from high end designers to department and chain stores. I tried on over 150 pairs and came up empty handed. I tried on pants ranging from sizes 6-12, petites, regulars, and “short.” I was even willing to get the bottoms hemmed if only I could find a pair that fit up top. I even tried on the ugly pants.

The relationship between my waist, hips, ass, and thighs appears to be completely alien to you, for none of you seem to make a pair of pants that fit all of these dimensions (let alone length). Why? Am I _that_ different? Or would you simply prefer that I conform to your body aesthetics? Like many other women, I do not belong on a hanger. I am not shaped like a model nor do I have any interest in resorting to anorexia to try to fit into your skinny clothes. I am curvy and I like my curves.

I am a confident woman, but shopping demoralizes me. Your industry sells a standard of beauty, demanding women to conform and ostracizing them when they do not. I know that I am not alone in not fitting into your clothing. Have you ever considered the impact that you have on young women’s sense of self? How hard would it be to diversify your clothing dimensions?

I long for the day when I can submit my dimensions and order personalized clothes. I know it’s coming, but I desperately want it NOW. Particularly since the only thing that is “in” seems to be tight and tighter. Why oh why can’t we personalize our clothes yet?

In the meantime, dear clothing designers, please bring back phat pants. I don’t care if they’re not “in style” but at least they fit. I desperately need new clothes for all of the ones that I bought when phat pants and flowy yoga pants were the in thing are falling apart. I have upcoming engagements and I desperately need pants. Please, I beg you, do something.

Thank you.

PS: For all of you men who think that my flowy clothing is my “style,” please realize that it is simply because nothing else ever fits. Welcome to the hell of women’s shopping.

do NOT upgrade to Leopard (why I’m offline)

I foolishly decided to upgrade to Leopard five days ago, at the beginning of my trip east for the holidays. This was the worst idea ever so for everyone waiting for me to respond to anything, please be patient… I won’t really be online until I can get back to LA and wipe my machine and start over.

For the geeks, here’s what’s going on with Leopard:

  • I cannot seem to run more than 3 major apps (Word, Mail, Firefox) simultaneously or else one freezes and the entire machine halts to a stop, requiring a restart.
  • No major app seems to be able to quit without requiring a “Force Quit” to get it to stop. Restarting seems to freeze midway through and require a hard reboot.
  • Opening a folder in Finder seems to take a good 20-30s and results in a freezing of applications, making multitasking impossible.
  • And then there’s Mail… When I open Mail with no other apps open (on network or off), it’s a disaster – trying to open each message results in a beachball. The activity monitor doesn’t seem to indicate anything strange – no hanging or anything, just regular opening of mailbox, moving and saving to mailboxes, syncing, etc. But it’s impossible to open messages because they hang for 30s before they’ll open. I don’t have the patience to wade through my thousands of message with this level of hanging. I went through all of the Apple Support notices, updated my DNS servers, and am at a complete loss.

Anyhow, if anyone has any clue, I’d be happy to provide more details and try whatever. But I can’t balance this and family and holiday shopping and hotels and keeping sane, so I’m just going offline until I get home. Plus, I need to do a proper backup before I can feel comfortable turning this thing over to anyone else. Le sigh.

Update: Thanks everyone for your comments! I ended up re-installing my machine and it’s a much happier camper. I realized that I’ve been through 7 machines and 4 OSes without ever cleaning anything out – all I do is firewire to the next one. So far, so good. But damn is email overflow daunting.
PS: Sorry about my blog… apparently the spam killed my quota and thus caused a hiccup in the comment section. Ironic, eh?

adults’ views on privacy (new PEW report)

PEW has a new report out on adults and privacy: Digital Footprints. It’s a solid report on the state of adults’ perception of privacy wrt the internet. Of course, what amuses me is that adults are saying one thing and doing another.

Adults are more likely than teens to have public profiles on SNSs. 60% of adults are not worried about how much information is available about them online. (Of course, young adults are more likely than older adults to believe it would be “very difficult” for someone to locate or contact them.) 61% of adults do not bother to limit the amount of information that can be found about them (including many who are purportedly worried).

In other words, adults (and presumably there are parents in this group) are telling teens to be careful online and restrict what information they put up there while they themselves are doing little to protect their own data.

This reminds me of adults who tell their kids never to meet strangers online under any circumstances and then proceed to use online dating sites and, rather than meet in public places, choose to go to the stranger’s private residence. Adults need to think about safety too – it’s not a story of binaries. The safe and practical approach is somewhere between abstinence and uber risky behavior.

Both adults and children need to learn how to negotiate safety and privacy in a meaningful and nuanced way. Adults need to socialize young people into conscientious participation online, both wrt to privacy and safety. You cannot simply wait until teens are 18 and then flip the switch and say GO! This has dreadful and dangerous consequences.

Anyhow, I’m not doing justice to the PEW report. Read it yourself. It’s quite interesting and there’s great data and it’s well situated.

valuing inefficiencies and unreliability

Two deeply embedded values in the world of technology development are efficiency and reliability. Companies pride themselves in maximizing efficiency and reliability and, for the most part, consumers agree. We like when our search engines produce results quickly and reliably. Yet, when it comes to social technologies, I suspect that efficiency and reliability are not the ideal metrics.

Let’s start with reliability. In some senses, we want our social technologies to be reliable – we want to know that our phones will work when we need them and that our email will get to us. While we want perfect reliability for our own needs, we also want there to be failures in the system so that we can blame technology when we don’t want to admit to our own weaknesses. In other words, we want plausible deniability. We want to be able to blame our spam filters when we failed to respond to an email that someone sent that we didn’t feel like answering. We want to blame cell phone reception when we’ve had enough of a conversation and “accidentally” hang up. The more reliable technology gets, the more we have to find new ways for blaming the technology so that we don’t have to do the socially rude thing. This is one of the reasons that LinkedIn is painful. Instead of blaming the technology, we have to blame our friends and colleagues when we don’t hear from the contacts we’re trying to reach. YUCK.

So, what about efficiency? Think about Facebook Causes. Think about how easy it is to efficiently spam everyone you know to join the Cause. Hell, the technology will spam your friends even when you don’t try. Does this actually build social capital or convince your friends to participate in that cause that you love? Probably not. Likewise, an evite is less inviting than a personalized email trying to convince you personally to come. This is also the case when it comes to trying to convince your Congresspeople of something. Thanks to email, you can efficiently spam your congresspeople with little effort. But that there is the problem – with little effort. The more efficient a means of communication is, the less it is valued. This is why politicians take personal letter (particularly written ones) more seriously than email or forms that people can quickly fill out. (Of course, if you *really* want to be taken seriously, try sending your Congresswoman a bouquet of flowers. Not only did that take effort, it actually cost something too.)

Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that I’ve found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful parents is that they’d give up many of the material goods in their world to actually get some time and attention from their overly scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.

When I talk with teens about MySpace bulletins versus comments, they consistently tell me that they value comments more than bulletins. Why? Because “it takes effort” to write a comment. Bulletins are seen as too easy and it’s not surprising that teens have employed this medium to beg their friends to spend time and write a comment on their page. Teens’ views on Facebook Apps reflect this same attitude. While they think they’re fun at first, they begin to loathe them after a while because they’re seen as spam that your friends send you. It’s simply too efficient to spam your friends, even if you can only send 10 a day.

In the physical world, architects and city planners often build inefficiencies into the system for a reason. I remember a talk by Manuel Castells where he spoke of forcing people to stand on line at regular intervals in public places, even when the activity could be made more efficient through technology. He viewed these kinds of inefficiencies as critical to the well-being of society because they provided a context for people to interact with strangers and, thus, build connections that glued the city together. This worked especially well when people could collectively complain about the people in charge – it provided a reason for social solidarity. (Think about the social solidarity built in NY when there’s a brownout or a transit strike.) Physical architects must constantly struggle with maximizing efficiency versus providing room for inefficiencies because of the social good that comes from them.

I have a sneaking suspicion that tech architects never even think about the possibility of creating inefficiencies to enhance social good, but I’m not sure. Since many of you mysterious readers are passionate about social technology, let me ask you. What examples of intentional (or unintentional) inefficiencies do you see in social tech? How do users respond to these?

MacArthur Series on Digital Media and Learning (it’s live!)

I am very very very pleased to announce that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning is now out in the world and ready for your affection. The purpose of the series is to “examine the effect of digital media tools on how people learn, network, communicate, and play, and how growing up with these tools may affect a person’s sense of self, how they express themselves, and their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.” The series is published by MIT Press and contains six books:

(Btw: I linked to the paperbacks. If you like hardcovers, go here.)

Each book has 8-10 peer-reviewed articles plus an intro and foreword. The articles are academic in nature, but written for a public audience and meant to be accessible and relevant to public discourse.

While I encourage everyone to purchase the books (they’re cheap!), individual articles are also available for download here thanks to MacArthur and MIT Press. My article “Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life” is part of the “Youth, Identity, and Digital Media” book. I’m super excited about this series and I hope you are too.

Also, for those who don’t know, MacArthur is doing unbelievable work in building a community for those invested in digital media and learning. To learn more, check out the website or the Spotlight blog. MIT Press is also launching The International Journal of Learning and Media to collect and publish research in this area.

Facebook’s “opt-out” precedent

I’ve been watching the public outcry over Facebook’s Beacon (social ads) program with great interest. For those who managed to miss this, Facebook introduced a new feature called Beacon. Whenever you visit one of their partners’ sites, some of your actions were automagically sent to Facebook and published on your News Feed. The list of actions is unknown, although through experimentation folks have learned that they include writing reviews on Yelp, renting movies from Blockbuster, and buying things on certain sites. Some partners were listed in the press release. When a Beacon-worthy action takes place, a pop-up appears in the bottom right, allowing you to opt-out. If you miss it, you auto-opt-in. There was no universal opt-out, although they’ve now implemented one (privacy – external websites – don’t allow any websites). Furthermore, even if you opt out of having that bit blasted to the News Feed, it didn’t stop sponsors from sending it to Facebook.

MoveOn started a petition, bloggers cried foul, and the media did a 180, going from calling Facebook the privacy savior to the privacy destroyer. Amidst the outrage, Facebook was also declared Grinch when unassuming users failed to opt-out and had their gifts broadcast to the recipients, thereby ruining Christmas. Privacy scholar Michael Zimmer also pointed out that the feature was peculiarly named because beacons give warning when danger is about to take place. Not surprisingly, the company was forced to adjust. Zuckerberg apologized and additional features were provided to let people manage Beacon. While this appeases some, not all are satiated. StopBadware argues that Facebook does not go far enough and New York Law School Professor James Grimmelmann argues that Beacon is illegal under the Video Privacy Protection Act.

For all of the repentance by Facebook, what really bugs me is that this is the third time that Facebook has violated people’s sense of privacy in a problematic way. I documented the first incident – the introduction of the News Feeds – in an essay called “Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck.” In this incident, there were no privacy adjustments until public outcry. The second incident went primarily unnoticed. Back in September, Facebook quietly began making public search listings available to search engines. This means that users’ primary photos are cached alongside their name and networks on Google. Once again, it was an opt-out structure, although finding the opt-out is tricky. Under privacy settings, under search, there is a question of “Which Facebook users can find me in search?” If you choose “everyone,” that includes search engines, not just Facebook users. The third incident is Beacon.

In each incident, Facebook pushed the boundaries of privacy a bit further and, when public outcry took place, retreated just a wee bit to make people feel more comfortable. In other words, this is “slippery slope” software development. Given what I’ve learned from interviewing teens and college students over the years, they have *no* idea that these changes are taking place (until an incident occurs). Most don’t even realize that adding the geographic network makes them visible to thousands if not millions. They don’t know how to navigate the privacy settings and they don’t understand the implications. In other words, defaults are EVERYTHING.

Like most companies, Facebook probably chose the “opt-out” path instead of the “opt-in” path because they knew that most users would not opt in. Even if they thought the feature was purrrfect, most wouldn’t opt-in because they would never know of the feature. Who reads the fine print of a website notice? This is exactly why opt-out approaches are dangerous. People don’t know what they’ve by default opted-in to. They trust companies and once they trust those companies, they are at their mercy.

Most lofty bloggers and technologists argue that if people are given the choice, that’s good enough. The argument is that people should inform themselves and suffer the consequences if they don’t. In other words, no sympathy for “dumb kids.” I object to this line of reasoning. Most people do not have the time or inclination to follow the fine print of every institution and website that they participate in, nor do I think that they should be required to. This is not simply a matter of contracts that they sign, but normative social infrastructure. Companies should be required to do their best to maintain the normative sense of privacy and require that users opt-in to changes that alter that normative sense. In other words, what is the reasonable expectation for privacy on the site and does this new feature change that? Of course, I also understand that this would piss companies off because they make lots of money by manipulating and altering everyday users’ naiveté and sense of norms. Still, I think that the default should be “opt-in” and “opt-out” should only be used in situations that would protect users (i.e., a feature that would limit users’ visibility).

I kinda suspect that Facebook loses very little when there is public outrage. They gain a lot of free press and by taking a step back after taking 10 steps forward, they end up looking like the good guy, even when nine steps forward is still a dreadful end result. This is how “slippery slopes” work and why they are so effective in political circles. Most people will never realize how much of their data has been exposed to so many different companies and people. They will still believe that Facebook is far more private than other social network sites (even though this is patently untrue). And, unless there is a large lawsuit or new legislation introduced, I suspect that Facebook will continue to push the edges when it comes to user privacy.

Lots of companies are looking at Facebook’s success and trying to figure out how to duplicate it. Bigger companies are watching to see what they can get away with so that they too can take that path. Issues of privacy are going to get ickier and ickier, especially once we’re talking about mobile phones and location-based information. As Alison wrote in her previous post on respecting digital privacy, users are likely to act incautiously by default. Thus, what does it mean that we’re solidifying the precedent that “opt-out” is AOK?

giving back

As those who have followed this blog for a long time know, December is the month where I contribute 10% of my salary to worthwhile charities and encourage you to do the same. This is my modification of the traditional tithing practice, but I prefer to give to the charities of my choice instead of to the church. This year, I chose to give to a wide variety of organizations based on advice from my friends, but I would like to highlight a few that mean something to me personally in case you’re looking for a good cause to support. My personal emphasis this year is on women’s issues and education.

V-Day. Most known for their productions of The Vagina Monologues, V-Day works to end violence against women and girls worldwide, addressing issues like rape, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, and rape as a systematic tactic of war. This is V-Day’s 10th anniversary and I’ve had the honor of volunteering and working for V-Day since 1998. I’ve always been super proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.
Planned Parenthood. Much to my horror, 2007 has involved numerous judicial and legislative setbacks to women’s rights, particularly around their right to choose. The upholding of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act doesn’t even allow women to choose an abortion if they’ve been raped or are likely to die if they carry the baby to term. Aside from the amazing work that they do on the ground, helping young women get sex ed information (in a culture of abstinence education), PP also is one of the few lobbying organizations that has the power to push back at both federal and local levels. We’re going to desperately need them in the upcoming years, regardless of who is elected.
Wikimedia Foundation. As the foundation behind Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation helps make information broadly accessible to the public. My favorite aspect of Wikipedia is that it is completely transparent. You can learn who created what information, understand their biases, and challenge what content they produce. For me, this project is essential to the future of education; it is the cornerstone of media literacy. We need to help educate people to think critically about how content is produced, regardless of medium. In the meantime, we have to help Wikipedia grow.
Goma Student Fund. Started by one of my friends, Goma Student Fund is dedicated to providing quality education to children who are growing up in wartorn Congo. Personally, I think that education is the path to stopping war and I think that it is dangerous to not educate children who are growing up in wartorn environments. I love this modest but doable project as a result.
Central Asia Institute. A slightly bigger project, the Central Asia Institute focuses on community based education for girls throughout Central Asia (think Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other areas ripe for education-based corruption). This is the project that is documented in Three Cups of Tea.

In addition to these great women’s rights and education organizations, don’t forget EFF, Creative Commons, and ACLU – three worthy groups trying to project our freedoms online and off.

Finally, if you are like me, you detest receiving snail mail from organizations after you’ve donated. For this reason, I’m a big fan of donating anonymously through Network for Good – it’s a good way to make certain you never receive mail of any kind while still giving you the tax credit.

hiking in LA (and The Golden Compass)

Having not left the house or gotten out of my PJs all week (except for one short scavenging of food a few blocks away), G decided that I needed a change of scenery before embarking on another week of head-down data analysis. After breakfast on the beach, we went up to Topanga for a nice hike. One of my favorite things about LA is that there is so much hiking really close by. At the same time, I kinda suspect that I don’t know all of the good spots. What are other good trails in LA and the neighboring counties?

Oh, and post-hike, we decided to go see The Golden Compass which was surprisingly good. (I was terrified of the potential for a dreadful adaptation.) I wanted to make sure that I saw it opening weekend since the Catholic church is urging people to boycott it. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Pullman’s Dark Materials series. I love the fact that the protagonist is a young girl and I love that the whole series questions the relationship between science in religion (which is, of course, the reason that the Catholic church hates it). Having grown up on loads of super-Christian texts (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Wrinkle In Time, etc.), I’m stoked to see young reader’s texts that have a more critical view of religion.

Overprotective parenting and bullying: Who is to blame for the suicide of Megan Meier?

Many people have asked me why I have not addressed the Megan Meier story that broke over the last month. I admit that I’ve been extremely bothered by the stories and the implications of an adult bullying a child through mediating technology. That said, I suspected that the press wasn’t telling the full story. Like all coverage of horrible events, the press focused on what made the story juicy rather than trying to paint a complicated picture of what led to the event. I grew up in a town where a teen murder captured everyone’s attention (and turned into a made-for-TV movie). It took years and uncountable appeals before we had a decent picture of what actually happened and, during that time, the stories on the street were far different from what the press was covering. Thus, I wanted to wait until I knew more.

For those who are not familiar with the Megan Meier story, let me create a brief overview of what has been commonly covered in the press. Megan (13, St. Louis) had a MySpace profile when a cute boy “Josh” (16) begins courting her. All is well until Josh breaks up with her online by sending cruel messages about how she hurts her friends, is fat and a slut, and “the world would be a better place without you.” Shortly after reading this, Megan commits suicide. Josh turns out to be a fake profile created by Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan’s former friends. Police investigate, no charges are filed.

Because the story taps into every parent’s worst fear and the paranoia over the internet, the press have been saying all sorts of things. Yet, never was there a response from the woman who admitted to creating Josh, most likely because she was forbidden from speaking out as police work out whether charges are to be filed. Then, this morning, I learned that someone who identifies as Lori Drew posted an explanation on a blog called “megan had it coming”. Given the title of the blog, I had serious doubts that this was legitimate but upon reading the post, I think it actually might be.

(Update: Lori Drew’s lawyers have said that Drew is not the writer of the blog. Thus, what follows is an interpretation of what an unknown person purporting to be Lori Drew said and should be taken with a grain of salt. The broader discussion of parenting today is still relevant.)

What we learn is that Lori viewed her acts as protective of her child who she believed was the victim of Megan’s dark side. She thought she was teaching Megan a lesson and never imagined the consequences of her efforts to give Megan a taste of her own medicine. Because of earlier incidents involving her daughter, she had no love for Megan and no respect for Megan’s parents who she felt were unable to see the dark side of their daughter. Step into this mother’s shoes and it’s easy to understand her logic and why, from her POV, she took the steps that she did. At the same time, her perspective signals some absolute failures in American society, our ability to rationally communicate, and Lori’s inability to imagine potential costs of her decisions.

Much to my dismay, parenting today seems to require absolute belief that you’re child is the best child ever. Many parents think that their child can do no wrong and, thus, are unable to hear critiques of their own children. In some ways, it’s not surprising… people have fewer kids (who are mostly wanted thanks to birth control), inhabit single family homes, and live in a nurture-centric world where their children reflect on them at every level. Doubting one’s child means doubting oneself.

The result of our child obsession is that parents are overprotective. They want to cushion their children from every scratch and get involved in every incident that makes their children feel emotional or physical pain. This is precisely what causes parents to call schools when their child gets a B or ring up other parents when something mean is said on the schoolyard or other symptoms of “helicopter parenting.” Children are not encouraged to struggle through the feelings of pain and hurt and find a solution; instead, parents are expected to get involved and fix it and most enter the ring voluntarily. In these environments, there’s no social solidarity amongst parents and parents are unable to hear criticism about their child. Instead, such critiques are viewed as attacks and are used as weapons when parents want others to control their children their way.

Reading between the lines, I get the sense that Megan was emotionally all over the place (for whatever reasons – an actual issue or just plain puberty). She was struggling to negotiate friendships and she had a mean streak when she was depressed. She wasn’t the cool kid and she was struggling to fit in and made poor judgments about how to handle friendships. She wanted someone to love her and make her feel cool and important. Frankly, it seems like pretty normal middle school tumultuousness, but we live in a culture that can’t accept rough edges. Maybe meds would’ve stabilized her, maybe her self esteem would’ve improved without the braces, or maybe and most importantly, it was just a matter of time. But as anyone who was not that cool in school can tell you, middle school sucked. It’s ground zero for learning how to negotiate social interactions and many mistakes are made. This is when bullying and boy/girl-dynamics and other dramas really come to the forefront. It’s awful, it’s hell. Yet, the responsibility of a parent of a tween is not to try to fix all painful situations, but to teach their child how to negotiate them responsibly. This is much harder than fixing things and it’s challenging for Type A parents who desperately want their kids to turn out OK. But no good comes of kids not learning coping mechanisms and relying on parents to fix every social issue.

While I understand Lori’s desire to protect her child and her feeling of helplessness for not being able to do anything, it’s not clear to me from her story that she focused on giving her daughter much agency. Instead, she felt as though she was responsible for fixing it. Here is where I think she made a mistake.

Deceiving children is problematic to begin with, but doing so by tapping into their emotional weaknesses is outright deadly. At a gut level, Lori knew that she could capture Megan’s attention by creating a male character that showed interest. In other words, Lori knew how to manipulate Megan’s attention and emotions. She capitalized on that knowledge, self-justifying it as responsible parenting. She knew how to have the “perfect” relationship with Megan, to gain her trust. This is knowledge that adults have because we’ve had our mistakes and learned how to negotiate social interactions. The reason that Megan’s relationships were so fraught was probably not because she was evil but because she and her peers were struggling with how to appropriately interact with one another. It’s clear from Megan’s reaction to Josh that she was fully capable of positive interactions in a social context not strife with miscommunication and the confusion of school status. If she were truly as messed up as Lori assumed her to be, she would not be capable of this.

In my opinion, by choosing to “teach her a lesson,” Lori acted in a manner that was both ethically and morally inappropriate. Revenge is foolish in every context, but adults should never take revenge on children, regardless of how much those children upset them. This is an abuse of power. Furthermore, it signals to Lori’s daughter that revenge is an OK response to being hurt. Whatever happened to “turn the other cheek”? For a Christian society, we don’t do a good job of upholding basic Christian values.

While Lori believes that her act of verbal maliciousness is equivalent to Megan’s meanness to other kids, she’s wrong. Kids can definitely be cruel and it definitely hurts, but it’s embedded in a larger context about the struggles for status and popularity, the social context of the broader peer group, and, generally, reciprocal bad treatment. As much as parents want to believe that other kids are mean to their child but their child is innocent, this is rarely the case. There is usually build up and a lot of back and forth before an incident that we’d call “bullying” takes place. Bullying rarely happens out of the blue – it’s situated in a larger context of social drama and hurt. By pretending to be a love interest when sexuality is burgeoning and having a significant other is a valued status marker, Lori was not simply operating as another peer. Furthermore, by building her trust, Lori consciously made Megan vulnerable. Even if she did not realize it, the trust built in such a context far exceeds the trust between most peers at that stage, and thus made Megan more vulnerable to Josh than Lori’s daughter was to Megan. Capitalizing on that trust and swiftly and cruelly rupturing that bond was a truly horrible act of abuse.

I’m glad that Lori is sharing her perspective and I hope that parents read it because I imagine that many can see themselves in her shoes. Yet, I hope that parents can also see why Lori’s decisions are flawed and dangerous. The critical lesson here is not about the internet, it’s about parents responsibilities in raising their children. As tempting as it is to get involved and as easily as it is to do so online through deception, parents usually need to stay out of such situations. They need to advise their children, teach them how to cope, and support them through the tumultuous times. Of course, there are examples when things go too far over the line and parents need to get involved, but it seems as though that line has been erased. Helicopter parenting is dangerous and, frankly, I don’t think that we’re going to see the full damage of it for another 10 years as this cohort enters the workforce (although Twenge argues that the narcissism part is already affecting the workplace). The biggest problem is that this needs to be done en masse. It doesn’t help to have some parents disengage while the majority of a peer group’s parents are calling the school and demanding fairness and getting involved in every childhood squabble. Parenting is hard, seeing your child hurting is hard, thinking you can fix it and choosing not to is hard, wanting your child to get every opportunity possible and yet choosing not to manipulate the system is hard. I totally understand why parents want to get involved and fix it, but such engagement can be harmful to children long-term and result in a more problematic culture more broadly.