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Podcast and Liveblog: “Born Digital” with John Palfrey

John Palfrey on how the digital generation is different from its analog ancestor and whether they have different notions of privacy, community, and identity.

About This Communications Forum

How is the generation born in the digital age different from its analog ancestors? Are those born digital likely to have different notions of privacy, community, identity itself? How do educators approach this generation to help prepare them for scholarship and for citizenship?

Speakers: John Palfrey, Head of School at Phillips Academy and author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives; and Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media, a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies/Writing.


John Palfrey: In Born Digital, we want to address the “digital native.” There was an idea of a marker: “if you were born after this date, you wouldn’t have known digital technology.” Much of this discourse was in a public conversation and had to do with security of kids (porn, predators, etc.). No one knew what to do with kids who were the “digital natives.” Many people dislike this term, for very good reasons. The primary one is the notion is that you lump all the kids together based on era, rather than access to technology. If we were to define the term, we wanted to make it accurate (like it or not) and back it up with data. We decided that only a subset of kids born after 1985 were actually digital native. Many kids didn’t have connectivity to begin with. Out of 7 billion people, 1.3 billion have broadband and about 5 billion with handheld.

So you have to a) be born after 1980, b) have access to technology/internet, and c) have skills to use it well. The most important research (Henry Jenkins, Ellen Wartella) shows that good access to technology does not equal digital literacy. And many older people still have better skills with technology than younger people; there’s a lot of complexity in this data. Henry Jenkins and MacArthur Foundation did not like the term “digital native,” but they were just trying to be in the conversation, and finding the topics, from the kids’ perspective.

What makes it different from the kids’ perspectives?

  1. Identity. Kids didn’t see a distinction between their life offline and online. It’s more of a mesh for kids who grew up with technology, rather than two separate lives/identities. The notion of having an online identity that projects who you are is different. I changed my clothes and chose my tie this morning based on who I was meeting, but I didn’t change his Facebook profile. Kids don’t see this distinction as much.

Kids have felt in this environment that they can create multiple different ideas that are distinct in these online environments. This is an important phase in adolescence, how to play with their identity. But it’s also easy to use Google and find all of them. On one hand, they have more control, but on the other, they may have less because they can’t undo it. For instance, one aspect of changing schools used to be that you could construct a new identity in a new school. Now online identities follow kids; this is different from people who came before.

  1. Community. This is something deeply misunderstood in discussion of digital technologies. There’s almost a culture war, a sense that the fabric in the community is breaking down because of the internet; that devices make kids unable to communicate face-to-face. There’s some data to suggest that, but I resist this completely; we can create richer and stronger communities through technology. Global Voices is an example that Ethan and his team created. They come together as a community in interesting ways, including physical spaces, and through Project Lingua.
Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media
Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media

Ethan Zuckerman: Lingua is building on phenomena in Chinese and Japanese internet culture where people are interested in culture in other countries. For instance Game of Thrones in China, where “translation teams,” who are mostly teenagers working on their English-Chinese translation skills, solely motivated by interest and passion, translate Game of Thrones episodes. But Most of the time youth online are engaged with the same people they’re engaged with in real life, so the online/offline distinction is indeed blended.

JP: New technologies can always either pull people together or tear them apart. The key is to determine what are the important skills we can teach kids that can bring out the good parts. There is real opportunity for community creation, more than the chance of pulling it apart. But I’m concerned that kids spend too much time online. Multitasking actually makes kids slower at doing their work and is not particularly productive as a studied skill.

  1. Privacy. There’s a myth that kids don’t care about privacy and that they overshare. It’s clear that kids share too much about themselves and don’t think enough about consequences. I’m quite sure that they care a great deal about privacy and protecting information, but they want to share a lot of information with their friends. The challenge is that they don’t make good decisions, they make a lot of mistakes. They forget that if you put some little bit of information into this environment, that it can be searched and replicated. But this is different from “kids don’t care about privacy”; they just need better tools. For instance, Snapchat; there’s a sense that Snapchat sharing is safer, and there’s some truth to that. But there’s still an analog hole; you can take a screenshot of a Snapchat, for instance. This is a recurring pattern.
  2. Civics. Civics is a very good stand-in for what kids are doing in online environments. I’m an optimist about society and about kids; my students have tools at their disposal that can make them better citizens. It won’t determine it—they won’t all of a sudden become more engaged in civic life—but kids can use these technologies to get involved in civic life. Hacking is a way of making and remaking institutions; to break it down in constituent parts and remake it in a meaningful way. Kids have great creativity to tap into and this could be put to work for civic engagement.mail. It won’t happen on its own, but we can harness their creativity.

EZ: How does a negative view of new technologies become an assumed truth? We’ve gone through a generation of non-natives (digital immigrants). Early media theorists—Howard Rheingold, early Sherry Turkle—discussed the way in which everything would be different. But maybe that’s not true; many things are staying the same. There was a lot of cyber-utopian hope that you would see transnational communities. It happens in small groups, but on a large scale this hasn’t necessarily happened. There’s an assumption that once everyone has the technology they will turn over completely to it.

JP: That’s completely right; in early years people had so many high hopes for digital tech—librarians, lawyers, technologists—and put a set of principles on it, a cyber-libertarian idea of it. But old patterns came in, and superimposed themselves on top of it; they didn’t come true the way they were hoped. A bunch of these dreams can still come true though, for instance in education, civics, and creation of institutions (entrepreneurship and institutions) could still have new paradigms.

EZ: Some of your work has really thoroughly debunked “stranger danger.” But what happens offline translates online. What happens online is bullying; bullying and aggressive sexual harassment move into these online fora. That behavior is invisible until the consequences become tragic. How do you talk about digital tools, in a space where kids can be horrible?

JP: Back to “stranger danger”…when people think about the internet and kids, people immediately think of “to catch a predator.” It turns out that it’s not what we all thought: yes, sometimes it happens, and some of the people who would do this harm are online, and it’s horrible. But the risk to kids is actually down. There is not an epidemic occurring strictly because of the internet. And the kids who were at risk of this happening to them are the same kids who were at risk before. There are also really good strategies for tracking predators online, and the strategies are actually working.

But what we do see happening is that kids are harping on one another psychologically, in ways that they didn’t previously. Sites like Post Secret would let people put up comments to one another, and people were very mean. But the general point: in these cases, much it was tied to offline behavior. Kids weren’t mean to each other because the internet existed; it was always connected to existing social relationships.

EZ: One of the things that’s scary to other people is that there’s invisible psychological pressure happening.

JP: I think it’s the opposite. I think we see much more bullying because of the internet.

EZ: How did you end up with a Post Secret site for your school?

JP: It’s 1129 kids, they’re selected in the admissions process to be ‘nice’ – someone has to say on a recommendation that you’re a kind person. It has lots of geeks – I love geeks. It’s 75% boarders, co-ed.

The Post Secret emerged as a result of a class. Three older female students who were respected, and were worried about their peers who were harming themselves. We have trauma like anyone else, and when you’re in a dorm you see it more often than in other circumstances. They thought that it would give people a place to share those problems. They gave every kid a postcard, you could post them in a postbox, and they got posted on the internet.

You can predict what happened. Some of them were artistic and beautiful. Some were weird; a bunch of them were sad but not necessarily troubling. Some of them were cute e.g. ‘Will you marry me?’ A lot of them were harsh and pretty harmful. These three girls, to their credit, put them up regardless. They would put them up every Sunday, and galvanized the community around what was going to emerge each Sunday. In a way it was wonderful and totally what they meant it to be – but it was also incredible dark. There were lots of things about kids hurting each other and themselves.

So the faculty and kids were up in arms, but you also have the internet – free expression – and a school with a very strong independent streak.

EZ: So what was the choice you found yourself with?

JP: Choice 0 is do nothing – let the kids keep posting what they’re doing and you run the risk that someone threatens suicide, you don’t know who it is, and it happens. Choice 1 is you shut it down – thou shalt never put up Post Secret.

EZ asks for a show of hands from the audience for choices 0 and 1. A lot of people didn’t vote.

JP: More people chose 0 than 1, but it was 40-10 and maybe 50 non-votes. I don’t like either of those choices, and as an educator I see it as an opportunity to meet with these kids. I called them into my office and told them I thought it was problematic, and I asked them how they were thinking about their moral responsibility. So, when you get the postcard I’m worried about, what do you do? They realized they were potentially in this position that none of us wanted to be in. I asked them if they could imagine putting rules to encourage a particular form of activity that you want kids to engage in, and model and shape it a little bit. Let’s imagine someone posts something highly pornographic – some came very close – how do you feel being the publisher of something that people might judge you for. I think the three girls disagreed on these hypotheticals. I didn’t ever play the card of calling them parents.

At first what they decided to do was to post some rules, and if they got troubling cards they would work with our school psychologists. We have three full-time psychologists. Then a couple of weeks later they posted some more edgy stuff and it got close to lines where it might become a disciplinary issue for them. It was coming up on spring break in their senior year, they had a lot of pressure from friends, so what they did was a final posting of mostly cheerful cards and then they closed the site.

EZ: There’s a funny way in which this is a purely analog behavior. They could have put the cards up on a bulletin board in a locked case. Is there something about what’s going on now at this moment of change – the moment of digital natives – such as the assumption of anonymity and the fear of being identified? If you were in the same role in the 1970s, do you think it would play out the same?

JP: I don’t think the kid behavior then was very different, but I think there is a difference between doing behind a glass case in terms of the reach of it. It’s less an art project that people have to come and peer at, and more something that people could see anywhere. People outside the community could see. Parents could see it. Potential applicants could see it. The potential harms and reach are distinct, and are built into a broader and more complex pattern.

EZ: One thing that’s different in a digital environment is that the notion of public is different. Postcards on paper would be public to the Andover student. On the internet they’re public to everyone. There’s the notion that one could act at a different scale – beyond Andover, thinking nationally or globally. You were head of school during Kony 2012 when I imagine it swept through your school like others, and there was a global call to action. Is this a generation that is so narcissistic and self-obsessed that they’ve basically disengaged from civics? Are they moving into a different public space?

JP: We’re moving from the notion of doing something edgy to engaging in political discourse in something that matters on a global scale. A group of kids who are likely to be positive actors in society. These were exactly the type of kids to jump on the bandwagon, the kinds of kids who would like to take action. What I did was grab a bunch of things that were breaking down the debate – your blog post included – and sent them to the students. My argument was, if you want to do the civic thing, let’s think one click more. One reason I’m bullish about this group of kids is that they had all the time in the world for that second-order conversation. They wanted to take action, they saw technology as a way to do that and they saw that they had agency.

EZ: One of the things I’m finding is that there’s an expectation of agency. It’s not something I have. We have a government shutdown, an 8% approval rating for Congress; it’s very hard for me to think how we might have impact on something like the penal system. Then I look at people in their teens and 20s and it seems to be all about agency. Sometimes it’s Kony, sometimes it’s the Harry Potter Alliance, but it also seems like this is more of a general trend with Kiva, Donors Choose and Kickstarter to say “I want to see my impact on the world”.

JP: One positive aspect is gay rights. This used to be awkward and difficult to talk about, but kids are helping each other be safer. A lot of that change is generational. Another place is in prison reform and the war on drugs, which is not a left/right divide.

On an issue by issue basis, I see a real chance of positive change.

EZ: We talked about complicating the notion of the digitally native, and it’s not a simple application of a term to people born in a time of computers. We’re talking about people born since 1980, who had this skillset and had this exposure we then talked about what did we meet in different kind of aspects of life. I’m interested in people who identify themselves as this generation and people who look at kids of this generation.


Ethan Zuckerman and John Palfrey

Q:Parents are abdicating responsibility for technology to their kids. Most parents feel so outgunned by their kids, not realizing that most kids aren’t using technology to its fullest extent, that they’ve walked away from it. They’re embarrassed because they can’t handle it. How do we get the parents of Digital Natives (and second generation parents) to engage?

A: The extent to which parents, teachers and mentors check out on the grounds that they don’t know enough too quickly. That’s the wrong strategy. Our book was geared towards parents and teachers because they were feeling outgunned, but they don’t need to be. In most cases, kids are nowhere near as technically capable as they are feared to be. Parents should demonstrate a healthier relationship to technology themselves, and be a good model to them. But let the kids show you what they’re doing and learn from them. My 11-year-old daughter would like to show we what she did on the iPad. Abdication is the wrong answer.

Q:One thing I’ve seen work really well, is for parents and teachers to ask kids for help.

A (EZ) The art of teaching at the Media Lab is the art of getting out of the way because students are good with their skill sets already. We’re teaching the subject, but let the students teach the medium.

JP: Can you elaborate a bit on the theory of pedagogy and if it’s something that could scale outside of these walls?

EZ: I’m co-teaching a class with Philipp Schmidt, Mitch Resnick and Patty Maes right now on this. We built a class reacting to MIT’s EdX experiment. EdX is a wonderful thing but it’s built around instructive learning. We almost never teach that way in this building. We teach almost exclusively around project or peer-based learning. That stuff all works really well when you’re in a room together. But it gets harder when you’re on a Google Hangout. Our teams are getting together to try and tackle that problem, and we’re right on the middle of it. At its best, one of the things that works is that you can find that peer who are willing to work with me and complement my ideas and skills. But it’s going to take 5-10 years for it to start working.

Q from WGBH: We produce a lot of content for younger kids and we’ve found that they love tablets. There’s all the talk about flipped classrooms and hybrid models – what do you think will happen?

A: With total humility, I think much of the experimentation is happening in public schools and in less rarefied environments. In many cases the wealthiest schools are less likely to innovate because they’ve been successful for so many years.

On the other end of the spectrum you have Stanford’s online high school – for $18,000 you can take an entire high school program over four years – or you can take Khan Academy’s classes for free, although you can’t get a diploma. I would like us to bring together the best of the in-person Socratic model and the innovations happening remotely. We’re working with Khan Academy – we had Salman Khan visit last year and what they did was create problems for other students to answer. Kids love creating problems for other students to answer. And the other benefit is that we get lots of data back on which problems people did well on, where they struggled, etc.

I don’t think that’s the only model that can work. We can do flipped teaching; more project-based learning and creative learning would be great. All of those things are going to be powerful for our kids.

EZ: We should see what emerges naturally too. How do we take what’s already working and see how we can do a better job of it? When we were teaching at Berkman Center, we were at a point where students were just bringing laptops into classes. Students were fact-checking everything we said and calling us out on everything we do. This was a different form of pedagogy, keeping me sharper and them sharper. They were treating my words as hyperlinks. I’ll be interested to see whether other paradigms will start emerging where people are very heavily wired, and seeing what these behaviors will be.

Q: Sands Fish from MIT Libraries: What do you think of unplugging as a form of control with kids?

EZ: I’m still trying to figure out what relationship I want my son to have with technology. We didn’t do the ‘don’t touch the tech’ thing with him because it seemed completely out of step with mine and my wife’s lifestyle. Drew was navigating YouTube and finding out what to watch at 15 months. I subscribe a bit to the notion that interactive screens versus flat screens are a bit different. If you want a four year old to unplug, you need to unplug. That’s both a great impetus as a parent to wake up and start interacting, and also a good way to keep track of your own screen use and your relationship with technology. Tomorrow when I head home I’ll be alone with my son, and I’m already adjusting to how little screen time I’ll get. It’s a blessing.

JP: I don’t like arbitrary constraints such as schools that prevent kids from accessing porn, those kinds of responses aren’t attractive to me as a form of parenting. We have kids over to our house and sometimes we have 90 minutes of mobile free time, and most of the kids are delighted to have that. My strong preference would be use as much moral suasion as possible, and as many carrots as possible. I think that’s vastly better than pulling out the cork. There are instances where kids are addicted in some form or another, and there are lots of debates around that, but I think in the vast majority of cases it’s about creating an attractive balance.

Q:Sasha Costanza-Chock, Asst Professor of Civic Media: My question is about broader field of studying digital media and literacy. As a social media scholar as well as activist, what are the interesting and innovative digital practices that are emerging from social movement spaces, and how can they be shared more broadly? If we had resources to further develop them, what would they look like? Young people have always been leaders in social movements, and the response to that observation is that it’s a marginal group, and what we care about is the broader space of all youth. But I’m less convinced by that, because we have much to learn from those practices, and if we don’t talk about them in our research and conversations, then some of the most innovative stuff remains invisible forever. What are your thoughts on this dynamic? How can we center the voices of youth movement activists when looking at digital literacy?

JP: If one believes the Wikipedians could change the way librarians work, it is relevant to think where the children are in that situation. It doesn’t seem to be all that hard to say – that’s a worthy case study, a worthy case about change that we should look at. Even if it’s not every reader of USA Today or whatever broad audience we want to use, that’s ok. That might be an elitist thing to say, but I do think that small groups of people are often the ones who change the course of history. One of the things that’s clear from our research is that if you look at data security or privacy, more sophisticated kids make better choices – and that’s where the concern lies, to me.

EZ: I think the problem is when you’re talking about the youth you are talking about your kid. I remember a time when dana boyd and I were at a conference and we were the youngest people there. I was self-conscious and asked her “How do you deal with people who are twenty years older?” And Dana said “I tell them what their kids are doing.” And she’s spent twenty years doing that. I think the hard part is to preview what activism is going. Some questions will be different that 2-3 years ago. I’ve been on panels with JP for years, but very few times since I had a kid. I’ve found I’m answering questions very differently now than I would have four years ago – even two years ago. “Children are basically lumps until age two.”

JP: Sometimes when you’re trying to have a conversation about these smart kids, you’ll set up a panel putting these kids together with adults, and the kids knock it out of the park. Immediately, the conversation after is that “those kids aren’t my kids”; they aren’t normal kids. But they are in some ways; we can learn from them.

Q:I think the problem is very parallel. We have a lot of social movements and some of them are using innovative technologies and some aren’t. It’s hard to sort through what information I’m identifying. It’s hard to pick out patterns for social movements to become visible. Some of them are less visible than others.

JP: Sometimes when you talk to kids in an interview or focus group, you’ll observe something on a screen that looks like bullying but the kids will brush it off, and then you’ll see something else that’s harder to attribute but it’s upsetting to someone. One thing that’s hard to parse as adults is that context matters so much. Having something on screen can help recognize those things. But can we do anything with that extra information? We have much more data than ever before, but it’s not clear what we can do with it. I think we have to be careful of that.

EZ: One of the spaces where big data can be useful is that there’s an interesting challenge between the specific case and the trend. Mary Joyce has put together an amazing set of case studies, more than 1,000 cases of digital activism around the world. Sometimes these social movements are digital shells and not substantial movements. I think bullying might fall into some of the same outcomes. There’s lots of unpleasantness that doesn’t go anywhere, but then there are these outliers which reach mass media and are horrific, and they shape how we understand bullying. Because we’re so wired for narrative it’s hard sometimes to ascertain whether those cases reflect a trend or are even going against it.

Wang Yu: Is it proper to put everything in one basket, to put them “born digital”? Should we define them as “born Facebook”, “born mobile,” “born gaming,” etc.? How much can we explain the violence of people in the digital age?

Ainsley Sutherland: Children are strange legal animals and don’t have the same rights and independence. Two questions. One: there’s a dystopian future where parents can keep track of everything kids are doing online and there’s a struggle for mastery of that. Two: what’s the role of legislation here? There was the case in ?? of parents being able to view everything that their kids had done online.

Chelsea Barabas: In the beginning of your talk you brought up 2 factors for digital natives: access and skills. Have you seen any interesting trends in the first round of the digital natives coming into maturity? What are the ways you’ve seen a digital native prosper and be upwardly mobile in society, versus those who aren’t? What sort of interventions are fixing this disparity?

JP: I have a question for Ethan too. How do you define the difference between thick and thin engagement?(?)

EZ: Difference between thick and thin engagement. There is room for both. Sometimes a Facebook like gets you there, behind the more active engagers. My favorite recent example is Carmen Rios, who wanted to prevent sexual assault among high school students, and she wanted to do it in the locker room. She was able to do that by getting 70,000 signatures on an online petition really fast, and as a function of that get the backing of an association of high school coaches.

JP: On the last question: in terms of potential interventions for helping social inequality: libraries are a huge part of that. Gates Foundation working with libraries; though when libraries close at 5pm, they move to Starbucks. But when a public space can attract kids, I think that’s a very helpful specific intervention. In terms of the change already in the workforce: the first tick for born digital is the breakdown of hierarchies. We are moving from extremely top-down hierarchies to flatter ones. Effective managers will notice that a flatter structure works better. We’ll see if that affects government and society more broadly, but in specific spaces it will help.

Second, to the question of rights – I think this is a really important topic. We need more activism, and I worry a lot about the erosion of civil liberties. Kids are leading a life that is being recorded in so many ways. If all of that is subject to surveillance that we don’t know about or can control, that’s really problematic.

EZ: It’s important to get corporations in there too. The danger may be more the commercial collection of data, as much as the NSA. We might look at the European model which has stricter internet privacy regulations than the United States.

JP: One of the wrinkles is that the fourth amendment doesn’t apply to third-party data. The last question is whether there are sub-generations. That’s interesting research – I’d love to see people do that. You might fight with Henry Jenkins but that could be a good thing to do if you’re early in your career.

EZ: Picking a fight with Henry Jenkins is a great way to end any conversation. Thanks very much to John.

Liam Andrew
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Liam Andrew

Liam Andrew is a digital media leader, researcher, and software engineer, working at the intersection of journalism and publishing products and technologies. He is the Chief Product Officer at The Texas Tribune, where he leads development on tools for storytelling, membership, revenue, and process for nonprofit newsrooms and local/regional news initiatives. He is excited about extending the abilities of researchers and writers, and finding novel ways to present, promote, preserve, and enrich digital stories. An Iowa native, Liam earned his bachelor's degree in literature and music at Yale University.

Thesis: The Missing Links: An Archaeology of Digital Journalism

Yu Wang
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Yu Wang

Wang Yu spent his years empowering Chinese grass root NGOs with technology. As a member of NGO 2.0 China project, he participated in building the Philanthropy Map, which is designed to help Chinese NGOs and corporations find each other's needs. He also attended Web 2.0 workshops for Chinese NGOs as an instructor, to train them how to utilize social media to achieve their goal.

As a graduate student at University of Science and Technology of China, Wang is interested in software developing and engineering, science communication, online education, data analysis, mining and visualization. He believes that the well-being of society resides in collaborative solving social issues and sharing delight about knowledge, life, and the world.

Thesis: Heike, Jike, Chuangke: Creativity in the Chinese Technology Community

Rodrigo Davies
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Rodrigo Davies

Rodrigo is a product manager at Asana in San Francisco, and focuses on bringing clarity to how teams collaborate and get work done. Previously he has served on product teams tackling complex problems in sectors including transportation (Strava Metro), finance (Neighborly), community organizing (Spacehive) and emerging market media (Conde Nast). In his spare time, Rodrigo serves on the advisory board of Build Up, an award-winning non-profit he co-founded, and two San Francisco-based organizations, Youth Art Exchange and the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area.

Jason Lipshin
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Jason Lipshin

Jason is an interaction designer and user experience researcher focused on mobiles and ubiquitous computing. He is a graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program and has worked with both the MIT Imagination, Computation, and Expression Lab and the MIT Mobile Experience Lab. Through his work with the Mobile Experience Lab, Jason has helped develop new concepts and prototypes for clients including Marriott Hotels, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, and RAI - Italy's national broadcasting company. This summer, he will be working for Disney Interactive Group in Tokyo.

Thesis: Network Design: A Theory of Scale for Ubiquitous Computing

Liam Andrew Written by Liam Andrew
Yu Wang Written by Yu Wang
Rodrigo Davies Written by Rodrigo Davies
Jason Lipshin Written by Jason Lipshin