Modern field guide to security and privacy

What parents don't get about cyberbullying

In his new book about kids and digital safety, Nathan Fisk argues that efforts to thwart cyberbullying shouldn't stop young people from participating in online communities where they can figure out the right ways – and wrong ways – to communicate.  

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters

Cyberbullying is poised to get a lot more attention over the next four years. Future First Lady Melania Trump says she'll make combating internet bullies a priority during her husband's administration. As a result of that pledge, many of Donald Trump's critics have urged her to start at home, calling the president-elect one of the most high-profile offenders for his frequent Twitter rants against adversaries and reporters. 

At a moment when many parents and school administrators are trying to deter internet bullying, at least one digital security expert called Mr. Trump’s online outbursts "a negative role model for America's youth."

But as educators, experts, and law enforcement agencies rush to try and thwart internet bullying, Nathan Fisk, a professor at the University of South Florida who studies the internet and youth culture, worries that some approaches may go too far. In his new book, "Framing Internet Safety: The Governance of Youth Online," he argues that kids still need safe and unsupervised spaces on the internet to figure out the right and wrong ways to communicate – without the prying eyes of parents or school officials. 

I recently spoke with Fisk about cyberbullying, spying on kids, and what it means for kids to be safe on the web. Edited excerpts follow.

Selinger: What motivated you to write a book about internet safety and kids?

Fisk: The book comes from my perspective as a not-quite-millennial, as someone who can remember life before the internet, but "grew up" with it through my teen and college years, and as someone who spent a considerable amount of time doing internet safety research and outreach through my early academic years. It's an attempt to trace concepts of youth and online risk from a socio-technical perspective – how youth and technology became framed as problematic historically and how policy and educational efforts are made to keep youth safe function.

Selinger: How does your approach differ from others who have examined similar topics, such as danah boyd (who prefers her name written in all lowercase letters) in her book, "It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens"? 

Fisk: boyd’s truly excellent work places youth at the center of the analysis, where my book is more focused on the concepts of youth internet safety – where and how they emerge and are used by various groups. The driving question behind my book is more, "What kind of social life do concepts of youth internet safety produce?" As such, my work looks at the history of youth internet safety policies, the curricula provided to youth and adults, and the experiences of both responsible adults and kids themselves. Kids are only one part of the picture.

Much of my approach has been informed by boyd. But we do disagree on some points, like her views on "drama." When you talk to kids, they always speak about drama. So do parents, teachers, and school administrators. All of these groups tend to use the word more than cyberbullying, which is the main term used by policy professionals. boyd suggests kids speak about drama to deflect responsibility, effectively saying their actions don't harm other people. I disagree. I think kids emphasize drama because they have a narrow and specific understanding of what cyberbullying is. 

Selinger: Is there a gendered dimension to the drama discourse?

Fisk: I don’t think so. Nevertheless, parents, administrators, and teachers do see girls as the primary perpetrators of cyberbullying. 

Selinger: What are the most disturbing findings you uncovered while doing research for the text?

Fisk: If we’re going the traditional route, there was one middle-school student respondent who relayed a story about someone they encountered online who wanted to pay them for sex, and how badly that made them feel. From a more critical perspective, the more disturbing finding is how app developers capitalize on youth – who are already disempowered and constantly watched – by deliberately constructing platforms which lack the capacity for personally identifiable communication, but allow for data collection by marketers and law enforcement. 

Selinger: Are you suggesting that the folks who use them don’t know that their data can be shared with marketers and law enforcement? And why is that a problem?

Fisk: We missed the boat as adults. We want social media to be a place where surveillance happens, but kids don’t want to be surveilled. They don’t like the idea of adults in their spaces who are there for no other reason than to watch them.

In the time periods I was researching, we saw law enforcement and teachers telling parents to move into spaces like Facebook to watch what kids are doing. To avoid this happening, the younger generations tried to go where parents wouldn’t be – to spaces like ASKfm that were more obscure. As the years went on, they moved on to new communication tools. The problem is that these sites make extra-legal agreements with law enforcement to quickly give over data. It’s the only way they can avoid regulatory action.

Selinger: What do you mean by extra-legal agreements?

Fisk: These companies are self-interested, and this means they want to keep things smooth for law enforcement and advertisers. At the same time, parents are trying to keep their children's problems out of the legal system and remedied by school disciplinary systems.

Selinger: But I still don’t understand why you believe app companies are breaking the law.

Fisk: Many of these companies have policies which allow them to speedily provide requested information to law enforcement without a subpoena. Certainly law enforcement can have good reasons to get that information and they can always apply for a warrant. But, on the back end, there's less privacy protection for kids who are using these applications than meets the eye.

Selinger: Are you suggesting that these companies believe the only way to stay viable is to avoid vocal blowback from the communities that can sway the court of public opinion?

Fisk: The moment that an app pushes back against the desires of law enforcement, I would imagine that is also the moment at which negative media coverage arises and has a souring effect that ultimately will lead to regulators taking action.   

Selinger: What are the most powerful policy arguments you advance in the book? And what obstacles stand in their way?

Fisk: There is no separating online communication from offline context – something that kids today know very well. As such, discussions of "cyberbullying" and "internet safety" distract us from the social conditions that produce violence and abuse among kids, and make well-intentioned adults appear out of touch. We should not be surprised as youth, who have increasingly lost their mobility and autonomy, engage in often harmful power struggles with one another, or otherwise seek out individuals and spaces who offer them something which looks like empowerment.

Selinger: Can you be more specific about which policies you’d like to see enacted and the difficulties of getting such laws passed?

Fisk: A lot of the issues that get framed as being about internet safety are not about the internet at all. They’re more about the ways we bound off a generation’s disempowered childhood and how these decisions give rise to internet safety problems.

For example, if I was to talk to someone concerned about the persistence of cyberbullying I would ask: Have you looked into how schools operate and try, or fail to try, to come up with ways to reduce surveillance and give kids spaces that are free from adult supervision? As you can imagine, it’s difficult to translate this idea into the policy space. At this time, people don’t want to hear the message that kids need more freedom, more autonomy, and more mobility.

Selinger: But can you say something more specific about a distinctive policy failure?

Fisk: Most internet safety policies have either further restricted youth from online spaces, or have required forms of internet safety education – which frequently fail to address the complex, interconnected problems that kids face. The real policy action here is strong education reform, focusing on new educational systems that provide kids with a measure of agency in their education and everyday lives. Kids are made vulnerable to what appear as "internet safety" problems when they feel disempowered or are otherwise facing other forms of social pressures or abuse. 

Selinger: Why doesn’t the responsibility fall on users to maintain online presences that employers won't object to? 

Fisk: There’s no separating online and offline lives. This means if you’re policing one, you’re policing the other. Placing the burden of curating identities upon children isn't about asking them to only project certain digital images of themselves. It's fundamentally about policing practices of socialization. Sure, it can be scary, but we have to face the fact that kids do things that adults find inappropriate.

Selinger: Most people know what surveillance is. But you discuss a form of it that most of us don’t think about. What do you mean by "pedagogies of surveillance?"

Fisk: Pedagogies of surveillance are techniques and methods for teaching individuals to become surveillors, providing a particular orientation towards the collection and processing of surveillance information that produces institutionally legitimate information. In the case of internet safety, I argue that the curricula provided to parents attempts to undermine their existing, local knowledge of their children, and moves to reconfigure relationships between parents and children as one of surveillance – primarily using law enforcement methods and concepts. 

Selinger: What specific kinds of activities you see as falling into this category?

Fisk: After going to a lot of internet safety presentations in New York State that aimed at giving useful information to parents about their children's online activities, I noticed that the dispensed materials given by law enforcement and district attorneys usually, but not always, tries to emphasize open parent-child conversations, but quickly dispense with that message and focuses, instead, on convincing parents they should be frightened about what their kids are doing online.

Rather than being taught that they should use social networks as a means by which to connect with their children, adults have been more frequently taught that they should use social networks as a tool of surveillance – although this has changed somewhat in recent years with the turn to digital citizenship. 

SelingerRecent surveys suggest youth of various ages do more to protect their privacy than they are usually given credit for. What do you think of these findings? 

Fisk: Social media activity is not simply "sharing" – it's part of the ways in which kids socially bond. While we constrict the spaces in which they are allowed to be on their own, we shouldn’t be surprised when they turn to visible online spaces to socialize.

The real concern here is not that kids are being inappropriate online – most kids do things adults would consider inappropriate, and kids typically try to hide those things from adults. It's that they are now doing them in publicly visible spaces, and that we have simply assumed that we should police them, rather than letting them have some space to be kids.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow him on Twitter @EvanSelinger.

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