Last Friday, I had a conversation with danah boyd for an hour about her new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.
We covered many interesting topics over the conversation, but I want to highlight one thread that stuck out for me.
Humans are bad at evaluating risk.
We discussed at least four examples of ways that different groups of adults mismanaged risks related to youth. We talked about curfews in urban areas, designed to keep young kids off the streets at night. They have no demonstrable effect on crime and safety. We talked about anti-bullying legislation and policy that overwhelming emphasize punitive approaches to youth peer aggression that put adults in the position of intervening in many relational issues that don’t meet the definition of bullying, and push communities towards punishing individual kids rather than building cultures and communities. We talked about parents who restrict the mobility of youth, so that even kids in safe neighborhoods can’t leave the house, restricting their capacity to develop autonomy and judgment. This constriction is happening despite the fact that our neighborhoods are actually getting safer. We talked about schools banning social media in schools or banning teacher-student connections online, forcing teens into a social space where their mentors can help monitor and support kids, even though we increasingly have powerful examples of the positive effects of creating safe connections between kids and educators online.
In all of these cases, adults evaluate these risks, and then take some kind of dramatic action, often with unintended negative consequences, rather than engaging the harder work of building up communities and cultures. It’s very easy to write a law that says “schools must punish someone when a child is mistreated;" it’s much harder to write a law that says “peer relationships are complicated and messy, and schools must build supportive communities that support the kind of social and emotional learning that leads to reductions in peer aggression and better learning.” It’s easy to have cops arrest kids for staying out late. It’s harder to build a community where streets are safe and kids have a stake in those communities and in the future. It’s easy to tell kids not to go out. Nothing dramatically bad will happen all at once, but rather the slow delibilitation of a molly-coddled upbringing. School districts can strictly avoid liability by banning all online contact between teachers and students. But then kids most trusted allies can’t help them grow up online.
When we face phenomena that are new (like online social media) or appear new (like cyberbullying), we need to remember how hard it is for us to measure risks and respond to the appropriately. We need to create a culture that holds leaders accountable not for dramatic actions, but for effective actions.
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