Kenny Shults discusses the problems social media is causing for today’s teens—from accidental bullying to ‘digital aprosodia’—and looks to new forms of media to solve them.
Cyber-bullying, sexting, social media over-sharing – these are all now an every day part of teen’s lives and formative experiences. This makes school-based disciplinary issues more and more difficult to manage, correct, and prevent. And without the right way to understand these infractions, and the right people to develop policy and programming to address them, schools will continue to struggle to be a relevant part of the solution. Unlike smoking in the gazebo, skipping school, or bringing tarot cards to school – the few things I got disciplined for in high school – punishment doesn’t adequately change digital behaviors. What’s more, it does little to mitigate the long-term impact to the victims or perpetrators. Students suffer unprecedented humiliation and embarrassment, irreparable exposure, and dramatically impact their futures as a result of these kinds of new media-based mishaps. Suspension from school is not a contemporary answer. Programming that allows young people to reflect on and develop healthier new-media behaviors, norms and etiquette is.
A while back I was talking with the husband of an old friend, a vice principal of a Brooklyn public school, about the teen & new media conundrum so many schools are facing these days. With the seeming overnight advent of smart phones that record everything, give teens access to any kind of information they desire, and provide students with a myriad digital places to connect, share and socialize without the prying eyes of parents and teachers, there are now a whole new host of behavioral issues to which schools are woefully ill-equipped to respond; new media disasters like the one about which this vice principal was chomping at the bit to tell me. With a prurient, laser–like focus, and an enormous grin on his face, he told me the story of a consensual sexual experience between two teens in the bathroom of a Brooklyn high school. Evidently a teen girl was performing oral sex on a boy who filmed the girl as he climaxed and the video went viral around the school. “Let me email Tom and see if he can send it to me – you have to see this,” he insisted – an assertion that both troubled me and underscored just how messy this new landscape can get.
That same vice principal scoffed when I mentioned something about connecting with him on Facebook (undoubtedly in an attempt to escape ever having to see him again in person). In that arrogant, patronizing tone vice-principals are apparently born exuding, he condescended to me: “I’m a public school administrator – do you think I have Facebook page!?” I guess not, I thought, since you actually need at least some friends for that. I have another friend – a comic – who is terrified that the school she works for will find her Facebook page and fire her immediately. This is apparently a very real fear as the solution that schools have devised to avoid potential social media pitfalls is to restrict faculty from using it. At all. While I sort of get it, this is unrealistic and really doesn’t solve many problems other than limiting the school’s liability. And in a way, it only further alienates students from school administrators and teachers as teens live more and more of their lives online.
I work with teens quite a bit in my field, as well as with the adults who are funded to engage them in their programming – and I use Facebook to liaise with both of them daily. My company specializes in helping adolescent service providers implement programming that engages with (young) people in effective and culturally competent ways. That is, I work with non-profits and service organizations that receive funding to help improve adolescent health and well-being such as health organizations, HIV/AIDS & STD prevention programs, drop-in-shelters for homeless youth, teen advocacy centers, etc. You know, agencies with loads of cash! ; ) A few years ago I created a new-media marketing product called MyMediaLife – a short, intense workshop series that culminates in a participant-produced short film that can be used for outreach, education, community-level change, agency marketing, branding, etc.. The film the participants make is a social marketing campaign – a campaign that markets attitudes and behaviors, also known as public service announcements (PSAs). But unlike the PSAs of my youth such as the “this is your brain on drugs” campaign, or my favorite, “I learned it from watching you OK!? – PSAs remembered not for their efficacy at reducing teen drug use, but rather for how fun they were to reference while high – the PSAs made in MyMediaLife are produced from the perspective of the youth who produce them, incorporate behavioral science theories, and are targeted to the other teens. What’s more, the teens that make the video change as a result of their work to create the campaign.
I initially created MyMediaLife as a way to use new media to examine and problem solve common issues that result from careless or irresponsible use of those same new media. I thought it could be used in schools. I later realized that the process could work the exact same way around any social issue that can be impacted by behavior change – the participants’ and/or the consumers’ of the campaigns they create. Because the MyMediaLife process involves a thorough examination of a social issue through a series of carefully designed, psycho-educational activities (activities that promote low-risk, non-judgmental sharing and participation), participants’ attitudes and behaviors – as they relate to the chosen campaign topic – change. That is, if they make a film about the issue of sexting, they are much less likely to sext. If they make a video about cyber-bullying, they are less likely to participate in online activities that could put them in such a position. Because they have reasoned though it with peers. The PSA they create can then be used to promote similar behavior change in those who view it. The fact that the piece is produced by young people for young people increases the likelihood that it will simply because social learning (learning from peers) is more lasting and constructive.
One of the first things we do in MML is give the teen participants a better understanding of what new media is – because it’s not new to them! To them cell phones, the Internet, and Facebook are water to a fish. Through one activity we designed to give participants some much-needed context, teens have indicated that they thought the Huffington Post was established in the 1890’s, the web was introduced in the 60s, and have no idea what a pager is (was). I have seen a lot of light bulbs go off when teens finally, truly contemplate the fact that this ability they possess to spread pictures, videos, thoughts and ideas – irreversibly – around the world in seconds is only about 10 years old. And I have seen a lot of light bulbs go off when adults finally, truly realize that they were thirty when this occurred while their kids were just five. New media to us, not to them. (In Brazil a Brazil Nut is just a nut).
Later in the program we take the issue the youth choose to make the center of their campaign and run it through a number of activities that allow participants to examine the issue, and its many sides, with their peers. The group setting is key as social learning and subjective norms are very powerful. They’re what drive most adolescent behavior, in fact. This is why adults and other non-peers aren’t very successful at motivating behavior change in young people without threats of punishment or sanctions on allowance or car privileges (and even then it’s not effective at promoting thoughtful decision-making). When peers sit in the same space and hear one another’s perspectives and opinions on an issue, something magical happens. They listen carefully. Even when they try to look like they aren’t. I’ll never forget a moment that exemplifies the value of this.
A group of young boys and girls were sitting in one of my first MyMediaLife workshops and participating in a decisional balancing activity (i.e. listing the pros and cons of a particular behavior). Decisional balancing activities teach the fundamentals of assessing and determining the best course of action – the basics of problem solving. The behavior we were balancing was sexting, and the participants were being encouraged to call out the pros other teensassociate with it. (This way the teens are free to share because they are not necessarily sharing their thoughts and opinions, but are sharing under the guise of what they think other teens think and feel. Invariably they share their own.) “It’s fun; it’s intimacy; gets you closer; you share a bond; it’s sexy; you’re expressing trust” were some of the responses. These are elucidating responses, and I saw in the adults’ faces a first-time understanding of the value youth placed in this risky behavior. And then one of the boys said: “you can use it as leverage.” And another boy said: “they’re like trophies, to collect.” And I saw one young girl’s too-cool-for-school, apathetic affect turn to shock, and then rage. And then a different girl shouted, “that goes both ways” as a few of the boys laughed and writhed in realization. And then I saw in the teens’ faces as they considered for the first time that their personal expression of intimacy and trust – a picture of their genitals – could be abused and broadcasted for the amusement of another. Here’s a PSA that encourages viewers to consider this possibility for themselves. Think What’s Next features a young man being asked by a coy love interest to strip over SKYPE, as a group of other off-camera-girls stand by, watch and giggle.
And that’s how you change behavior. Not by wagging fingers at kids and telling them what not to do, but by allowing them to come to these understandings on their own. Schools aren’t the only folks who don’t get this kind of stuff right. Because 100% of adults who work with teens were once teens themselves, and tend to apply the same top down, punishment-based, power-infused supervision they endured. One agency I work with used to make the teens they engage with put their phones in a “phone bucket” when they were caught texting or handling their phone during a workshop – a humiliating and belittling practice that does little but make the adults in the room feel powerful and the teens resentful. The adults in the room would then proceed to text, email and take calls throughout the workshops. Sometimes even pull out a laptop to do their monthly reporting. This is not how you engender trust in young people, and this is certainly not how you structure opportunities for youth to develop better habits. We have since structured the program so adults have as little input as possible (a Sisyphean task sometimes).
Since those early MyMediaLife executions our videos have improved dramatically, and so have the workshops. We have successfully implemented MyMediaLife with cool kids from Harlem and Brooklyn, HIV-positive teens, teens in rural areas, teens with cognitive disabilities, LGBTQ kids, and others. These teens have produced campaigns that address a host of social concerns such as teen pregnancy, homophobia, and racial intolerance, but we also continue to make PSAs that address sexting, cyber-bullying, and cavalier Facebook posting. Beautiful, thoughtful, moving, PSAs that many of the teens are overwhelmed with pride to have produced. Their understanding of their chosen social issue, how to make a film, the value of teamwork, the fundamentals of problem solving, how to leverage emotion, how to take perspective, are all dramatically increased as a result. And most significantly, the skills essential to adolescents’ learning to rely on their prefrontal cortex (reasoning brain) instead of the amygdala (emotional brain) are fortified through social learning and positive reinforcement. Because participants explore the issue so thoroughly and are tasked with coming up with a solution to whatever social problem they identify – what we teach them is a core element of PSA-making, the Desired Effect of the campaign – their own behavior and attitudes relating to the issue change as a result.
After three years of implementing MyMediaLife and watching participants change the way they feel and act towards bullying, sexting, condom use, and taking their HIV meds, and then I remembered – Oh yeah, this is what schools need!
Why can’t schools use a method that lets young people use new media productively to reflect on and help change the way teens use it? If video is going to be the new universal language that transcends borders and linguistics, as the overwhelming proliferation of Internet video indicates, then why aren’t schools embracing and integrating these clearly irreversible trends? I took computer lit in high school. I remember I nearly failed it because it was so boring (and from all the school skipping)! So why aren’t we teaching new media literacy to young people? Why not a YouTube 101? Or Intro to Viral Video? Fine. I accept that that will never happen. But at the very least, why not teach students who find themselves embroiled in new-media messes to use new media and video more responsibly? Or better yet, structure a process where they learn this for themselves.
Young people do indeed have access to an unprecedented amount of information these days, but information alone is not enough. Information plusexperience equals wisdom. If schools want to attempt to change behaviors, and better yet effect changes in social and school norms, then the only way to do this is to give young people a chance to consider the potential harm, and good, that can result from these new communication tools. For example, while teens know that media can be transmitted around the world instantly, most of them do not understand what that means and how that fact can affect them. They have not yet had the experiences that allow them to develop behaviors that protect them, until its too late… It takes only a few seconds to upload a picture and send it somewhere. But if teens don’t have experiences to reference in those brief moments (either theirs or their peers – which are equally instructive), then they are less likely to think critically and more likely to cause harm to themselves or others. Not because they want to cause harm, because they have not yet identified the possible consequences of certain behaviors.
In fact, many times new media transgressions are not malicious but merely thoughtless. Teens are just on auto-pilot and responding to what gets them the most attention or “likes.” In one workshop a group of teen girls made a PSA about bullying that tells the story of an Accidental Bully who unintentionally ruins a young boy’s school life just by snapping a photo. In that same MyMediaLife workshop a group of other teens highlight what can result from over-sharing on social media (and not being thoughtful about your privacy settings) and encourage viewers to be mindful of their Cyber Life. In the absence of new media literacy programming these PSAs become important instructive pieces for how to avoid trouble they have likely not yet considered. They can also help youth think about the way they express themselves and how they employ emotion in an increasingly digital landscape.
Many adolescents have difficulty assessing and naming their feelings, and plenty more have difficulty expressing them adequately or appropriately. This is something adolescents have always had to learn in order to have good relationships and be more socially fulfilled and accepted in their adult lives. But as so many young people are establishing and cultivating relationships over new media, their ability to recognize and leverage emotion may be stilted. And this could be problematic. If a teen is constantly coming off as a jerk when he means to appear genial, then that’s a problem. If a teen has trouble recognizing what emotions others are attempting to express, that’s a problem. It’s a problem I call Digital Aprosodia.
Aprosodia is a neurological condition that prevents a person from properly conveying or interpreting rhythm, pitch, stress, intonation, etc. in the spoken word. In other words, someone who suffers from aprosodia would be unable to hear when someone is joking, being sarcastic, being passive aggressive, etc. They are blind to these kinds of social cues and would have no idea whether someone really means it when they say “nice haircut.” Online, we are all aprosodic. Communicating emotion and tone in an email, text message or tweet can be a challenge. This is why the emoticon was invented. To say just kidding or I mean that sincerely. But we can’t become a society that relies on Emojis to express our true feelings. This kind of human learning needs to take place in social settings so youth can see and practice emotional awareness, expression and control.
We do this in a number of ways in MyMediaLife. One is through the Trigg-O-Meter, which is a scale from 1 – 100 that represents how “triggered” a participant is – either by the topic, another teen, or something else going on in their lives. The number 1 represents complete calm and not being triggered, and 100 represents high emotional discomfort or intense excitement, or being fully triggered. When asked, youth participants call out a number that represents their current emotional state. This is practice for properly expressing emotions without having to act on those emotions. This also helps strengthen the link between thoughts, feelings, and actions – the fundamentals of the relationship between how we feel and how that makes us behave. We also teach participants to consider the kind of emotion with which they would like to Hook (another core element of a PSA) their target audience. We then give them a long list of emotional terms they can peruse carefully to increase their emotional vocabulary by finding just the right hook word. “Inspired!” a girl shouted one time! And I was. And so were they! Face Time was made to teach other teens about digital aprosodia and to help them reflect on their use of texting in relationships.
I know science gets a bad rap these days, but social marketing organically employs behavioral science to achieve its goals. Social Marketing is merely marketing for social good, the marketing of behaviors instead of plastic crap no one needs. But social marketing uses the same principals as marketing to communicate the value of these behaviors. “Marketing in theory based. It is predicated on theories of consumer behavior, which in turn draws upon the social and behavioral sciences.” That is, we explore a number of prescriptions for how people change such as the Health Belief Model (HBM). In an early MyMediaLife implementation we worked with a small group of young people to find a new way to get teens to consider what condoms can do for them and to address the target population’s perceived barriers – one’s thoughts about the obstacles in the way of a implementing a particular behavior. The perceived barriers are the most influential element of HBM because they determine if someone will adopt a new behavior or not, depending on if the benefits of the behavior outweigh the consequences. Because these youth were the target population, they were able to easily identify a very commonly perceived barrier – condoms inhibit sensation (it feels better without condoms) and produced a PSA about it. Consistent with the HBM prescription, the youth needed to ensure viewers truly considered The Importance of Condoms by weighing the pros and cons. So instead of making a video telling youth a message they’ve heard a thousand times in as many ways, they made a video about how great condom-free sex (raw-dogging it) feels; highlighting a pro of unprotected sex. After getting viewers’ attention, they go on to list the “side effects of unprotected sex” in mock-pharma-ad style that include green discharge and baby-momma-momma’s drama. The PSA was seen by a NY State Senator who bashed the campaign, and a flurry of media attention ensued that got the host agency some much-needed attention and a lot of support from community members who got the PSA.
My high school disciplinarian, Mrs. Sadie, took my tarot cards away and never gave them back, but I did not stop reading tarot cards. In fact I got one tattooed on my arm (try taking that away, bitch). Similarly, the old-school (literally) approach to managing this new crop of new-media, school-based behavioral issues is not effective. Youth depend on these media for identity formation, peer and social learning, dating, sexual discovery, connection, and so much more. The many small dopamine squirts they receive throughout the day as a result of engaging with these media indicate that not unlike my tattoo, new media tech is very much becoming a part of young people’s physical bodies now; as their emotional lives play out over these media their brains and neurocircuitry now depend on them. (Instagram-gratification, as one of my teens put it.) And as the tech advances they will only get more and more physically integrated (e.g. Google glasses, smart clothing, ultra thin and flexible LED screens, etc.). Let’s see my high school disciplinarian try to take phones away when we’re all a buncha cyborgs! Resistance is futile Mrs. Sadie!
But we can use teens’ attachment to new media to our benefit. Instead of passing around a phone bucket to alter wrongdoer’s new media behaviors, let them use new media to reflect on their media lives. Put bullies in a mandatory, after school PSA-making workshop to make a campaign about bullying. Show the PSA they make on the schools’ CCTVs, in homeroom, in new student orientations, on the School’s Facebook page, etc. Encourage the bully promote the PSA among his own social network. Show their parents what they made. Show the people they bullied! Better yet, give youth who are bullied a chance to find their voice and empower others by making their own campaign. New media literacy doesn’t have to be implemented as a punishment. Schools can be pro-active and offer programming that both informs and shapes student’s media lives. Once we admit that video and new media are an indelible cultural text that youth respond to profoundly, we can stop judging teens and start helping them make better choices, establish healthy norms, and reinforce new-media etiquette – for themselves.
Participants responses to the question, “What was your favorite part of MyMediaLife?”
In response to the question, “what was your least favorite part of MyMediaLife?”
 Novelli, William D. (1990), “Applying Social Marketing to Health Promotion and
Disease Prevention,” in Health Behavior and Health Education, Karen Glanz, F.M.
Lewis and B.K. Rimer, eds, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 342-369.