SXSWi Panel: Growing Up in the Age of Facebook

By Bob Marshall 

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to believe that anyone reading this post is actually quite relieved that they didn’t experience adolescence in the world of social media. I was told this past weekend that some AgencySpy readers thought I was in my mid-40s. (Really?) But, I’m in my mid-20s, and much of my time in high school was spent on MySpace, joining Facebook when I first got my college email address.

Though I don’t have kids, I attended a panel about cyber-bullying and social media this afternoon. Admittedly, something I’ve been quite interested in is how people just a few years younger than I am are using the Internet to communicate in ways completely different from me. I’ve never felt older than when I realized instant-messaging wasn’t a thing anymore, and I was totally shocked when the media linked some recent teen-suicides to name-calling on social media. Is social media an actual concern for adolescents, or is the mainstream media just turning the Internet into the villain?

According to panelist Emily Bazelon, senior editor of Slate, “sensationalist media coverage” is indeed at fault for giving a bit of a slant on cases such as Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clemente, two young people who committed suicide because, as the news reported, they were victims of cyber-bullying. As panelist Danah Boyd, of Microsoft research and NYU, put it, “The more I started investigating, you realize we don’t understand the whole story.” As for the media’s interpretation of these events, “We need these stories to be more complicated.”

“I should probably feel compelled to stand up in the defense of the media, but I actually don’t,” said New York Times op-ed columnist Bill Keller. With stories of cyber-bullying, he stated, “There’s a tendency to oversimplify.” In fact, all panelists agreed that there’s a world of issues underlying the actions that troubled young people take on the Internet, from parents setting poor examples to stress. While the numbers show that bullying hasn’t grown with the rise of the Internet (they’ve actually stayed relatively flat), it doesn’t mean that social media hasn’t complicated things.

So what’s a concerned parent to do? Panelist Jason Rzepka, MTV’s senior vice president of public affairs, said his research is showing a lot of positive trends, and the most helpful source of influence for young people was their friends. In other words, it comes down to whether or not sticking up for your friends is seen as a “cool” social norm.  “One of the most effective things that we’ve seen is kids deleting this accounts or sharing their passwords with friends,” he says. While  Boyd didn’t quite have the same optimism as Rzepka, she did say that the first step to understanding the cyber-bullying is understanding that, “Parents need to realize the complexity, and know they’re only seeing part of the story.”