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Live From SXSW: Social Media and the Youth 'Culture of Fear'

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Cyberbullying's recent emergence in the public conversation has given way to deeper discussions about how youths interact with the Internet and each other. But according to Danah Boyd, a leading researcher on youths and social media, it's also brought many misconceptions about what the real risks to teens are online. The Internet doesn't increase bullying, Boyd says, but attitudes toward it increase the fear and misunderstanding about what teens are exposed to.

"The Internet has made bullying much more visible to adults, but they don't recognize the things outside their purview, the things not in front of them," Boyd said Saturday at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference, the massive gathering of innovative thinkers and technology enthusiasts going on in Austin, Texas, this week (I covered the SXSWedu conference earlier in the week).

Boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and holds a variety of positions in academia. Her SXSW talk, "The Power of Fear in Networked Publics," posited that the Internet is amplifying and confusing a "culture of fear" capitalized upon by marketers, politicians, and the media.

First, data show that students are still bullied the most in school, and the Internet hasn't increased bullying, Boyd said. But parents can't see what happens at school the way they can see what happens online. Because it's more visible to them, parents teach their kids to fear online culture as a way to control them, the same way media and marketers do, Boyd said.

Though not a subject of Boyd's talk, this control dynamic seems to be a greater concern on the school district level. This week, on behalf of a 12-year-old Minnesota girl, the American Civil Liberties Union and the girl's mother sued the Minnewaska Area Schools, alleging it disciplined the student after searching through her online messages.

And because it's proved effective, teens are using the same fear-mongering tactics to get ahead in the race for attention, another byproduct of the Internet era, Boyd argued. That's what causes most cruelty among teens, Boyd said (not the "strangers on the Internet" parents warn about).

"Fear begets more attention. Attention begets more fear," she said.

So what's the solution? Keeping with the theme of the conference, Boyd suggested designers and technologists need to take responsibility for creating the systems where fear-mongering and attention-getting rule and get to better know their users. Boyd has told Education Week Teacher (through the Teacher Leaders Network) in the past that a network like Facebook rewards participation so much that it limits expression and controls interactions among its teen users.

But she also said we shouldn't blame the Internet on all of youths' ills.

We're keeping an eye out for Boyd's next research piece on this subject, "The Social Lives of Networked Teens," which will be published by Yale University Press.

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