Safety through mindfulness: Watch ‘The Science of Character’

I’m not sure who decided this but March 20th is “Character Day” and it’s also the day that filmmaker Tiffany Shlain released a superb 8 minute video, “The Science of Character.”

In addition to making the film available, Shlain’s website Let it Ripple, is encouraging people to:

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danah boyd on why teens and social media are ‘complicated’

Author danah boyd (Credit:

Author danah boyd

This post first appeared on CNET

When it comes to understanding how teens use social media, there’s perhaps no one more clued in than Danah Boyd, except maybe teens themselves. An ethnographer with a Ph.D. in information from the University of California at Berkeley, she has spent the last eight years speaking with and observing teens from all walks of life.

Jacket-medBoyd’s new book, “It’s Complicated: The social lives of networked teens,” is the culmination of this work where, as she writes, she attempts to “describe and explain the networked lives of teens to the people who worry about them — parents, teachers, policy makers, journalists, and sometimes even other teens.”

To gather material for the book, she traveled through the United States from 2005 to 2012, meeting with teens from 18 states among “a wide array of socioeconomic and ethnic communities.” And frankly, Boyd is one of the relatively few people in the social media space who goes out of her to way be inclusive.

It really is complicated
As the title of the book implies, understanding teens’ use of social media can’t be reduced to a sound bite, nor can the benefits or dangers of modern technology. As Boyd observes, “Technologies are often heralded as the solution to major world problems. When those solutions fail to transpire, people are disillusioned. That can prompt a backlash, as people focus on the terrible things that may occur because of those same technologies.”

Full disclosure: Although Boyd and I have no business or financial relationship, we have interacted over the years as co-speakers at events and in 2008 and 2009 when we both served on the Harvard Berkman Center’s Internet Safety Technology Task Force.

The book covers a wide range of topics related to teens and tech, including identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality, literacy, and “searching for a public of their own.”

At the start our interview (scroll down to listen), Boyd pointed out that “young people have turned to social media because their lives have been so heavily restricted.” There was a time when kids could get on their bikes on a Saturday morning and come back before dark, but those days are largely over. Teens, as Boyd said in the interview and in the book, “don’t have that opportunity, so they’ve turned to social media to hang out and socialize with their friends.”

Of course, Boyd does address parental anxieties, but asks, “How much of this is based on reality and how much of this is magnified in unpredictable ways? How do we get at what’s really happening?” She said that her research involved “trying to figure out what [teens are] really doing, why, and how it fits into a broader context.”

That context is important when looking at what teens post online. In the book, Boyd observes that “unfortunately, adults sometimes believe that they understand what they see online without considering how teens imagined the context when they originally posted a particular photograph or comment.” Think of your own social lives where you might say things differently to a group of close friends than you would to your boss. What may seem incredibly inappropriate in one context may be perfectly acceptable in another.

Boyd’s chapter on bullying is must-reading for any adult who worries that today’s youth are habitually mistreating their peers online. “During my fieldwork, I met parents who saw every act of teasing as bullying, even when their children did not. At the other extreme, news media has taken to describing serious criminal acts of aggression by teens as bullying rather than using terms like stalking, harassment, or abuse.” As she points out, “interpersonal conflicts emerge and teens participate in battles over reputation, status, and popularity. Attention becomes a commodity, and at times, teens participate in drama or pranks that can be intentionally or accidentally hurtful to others. Not all drama or gossip is problematic, but some of what teens experience is quite painful.” In other words, like all other topics in her book, “It’s Complicated.”


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In defense of Internet safety education

There has been some discussion lately over whether there is still a need for Internet safety education. I say yes.

It’s true, as some argue, that safety messages from the 90’s are way out-of-date. We no longer need to dwell over the highly exaggerated risk of child predators or the panic over Internet pornography. While online predators do exist, there’s a much higher likelihood of a child or teen being harmed by someone they know — even a close family member — than someone they meet online. Unwanted porn is still a minor problem but most young people know how to avoid it and — after more than 20 years of teens and children going online — we’ve seen little evidence to suggest that great harm has occurred as a result of it. In fact, over the past 20 years, according to David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, most of the sexual- and crime-related dangers associated with being young have gotten better, not worse, since kids started using the Internet in large numbers.

Online problems

Still, there are dangers, issues and problems associated with or exacerbated by the Internet and mobile technology. Yes, many of these problems also exist offline, but the same can be said for the types of injuries one can get playing sports or riding in a car. But just because you can break your arm at home just as easily as you can on a soccer field or in a car, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for sports- and automotive-safety programs.

Privacy, which we didn’t talk much about in the 90’s, is certainly high on that list. While protecting one’s privacy has always been a challenge (i.e. small-town gossip going back centuries), the Internet and mobile technology have created opportunities for privacy problems on a grand scale. For one thing, there is what we post. It’s now very easy to post information that might embarrass yourself or others or reveal secrets that perhaps you ought not to share. There is also the issue of things that companies know about us. Anyone who uses a search engine, an online email service or a social network, is leaving breadcrumbs for companies to follow. What’s more, thanks to third-party tracking cookies, some of that information is getting into the hands of companies that we might not even know exist. It’s a serious issue that needs serious thought by consumers, regulators and companies. And everyone — including children and teens — needs to learn how to at least limit what others can find out about them. Plus, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the U.S. and other) governments have the capacity to track us as well and given the enormous power of government over our lives, that too can be a serious problem.

Security is another Internet safety issue that has gotten worse over the years. It seems like every day brings another major security breach where we learn about the vulnerability of our usernames and passwords, credit card information or email. There are lots of professionals in government and the private sector who are working to beef up security but there are plenty of criminals out there finding ways to gain entry into our personal information. It’s a cat-and-mouse game and, right now, the “good guys” are way behind. While there is no way to be 100% hacker proof, there are ways families can improve their security and use secure and unique passwords.

Reputation management is something we thought about in the 90’s but it’s a bigger issue now thanks to social networking and smartphone apps that make it very easy to impulsively post things that can embarrass us now or in the future. A lot of young people are savvy when it comes to avoiding posting things that can get them into trouble but there are plenty of people (including lots of adults) who need to rethink their posting habits.

Bullying and “trolling” have been around forever and it’s true that among young people, so-called “cyberbullying” is often an extension of school-yard issues. But the Internet and phones do change the equation for a number of well-known reasons, including the ability for mean comments to stick around and be passed around with lightning speed. Plus, the Net has created new ways to bully like impersonating someone by getting hold of their phone or password and posting negative things as if they had written them, or passing around inappropriate pictures of someone that are now so easy to take and distribute thanks to new technology.

And I know from personal experience that there are lots of “trolls” out there who are more than happy to say nasty and vicious things about people they know and people they don’t know. There are folks who might be reasonably polite in the real world who have no qualms about being cruel online.

Only somewhat like the real world

It’s true that you are the same person whether you’re online or with others in physical spaces, but there are things about so-called “cyberspace” that change the way some people behave. One of these is what’s called “disinhibition,” where people feel that the Net gives them the anonymity or distance to act out in ways they wouldn’t act in person. It’s like road rage. I’ve seen drivers scream or exhibit rude hand gestures in traffic in ways that they might never do if they bumped into someone on the sidewalk. When you’re online, you can feel even more insulated from people around you but — trust me — those are real people on the “other side of the screen.”

Another factor is that what is posted online can stick around for a long long time and be easily forwarded. While that is possible in the real word, it’s a lot harder than it is online where “copy and paste” means that nothing is truly ephemeral. And of course, negative text messages, email and social networking posts can rear their ugly heads at any time, day or night.


A landmark study on the effectiveness of Internet Safety Education (ISE) by Lisa Jones, Kimberly Mitchell and Wendy Walsh, documents problems and limitations of some of the educational programs and materials that have been used in recent years, but it is by no means an indictment against the notion of Internet safety education. Instead, it points out some of the shortcomings of the programs it evaluated including the observation that, “As a whole, the ISE field has been slow to include research.” The authors correctly point out that “this failure to establish research-supported program theory means that most ISE is a highly speculative and experimental undertaking, whose success cannot be assumed.” The authors also note that:

      • ISE education must move beyond a reliance on stock safety messages and the use of single lessons when addressing complex social-emotional behaviors. 
      • ISE program developers need to reduce their reliance on dramatic statements and scare tactics even further.
      • “Internet safety” goals are very disparate — different educational strategies are going to be needed for different ISE topics.
      • The field needs to use research more when developing educational messages: ISE messages have critical problematic assumptions and under-developed program logic.

Encourage research and youth engagement and discourage moral panics

I wholeheartedly agree with Jones et al about the importance of research-based education and would add that it’s also important to avoid “moral panics.” For about a decade, media, politicians and some parents were caught up in “predator panic,” which pretty much dissipated around 2008. But then we had bullying panic followed by privacy panic, sexting panic and now security panic. While all of these issues are important, none are of epidemic proportions and risks, in each case, can be managed. That’s why, which (speaking personally) I proudly refer to as an Internet safety organization, has published tips and advice as well as parents’ guides on many of these issues.

Respect and honesty matter

Finally, it’s important to be honest with kids and to respect their intelligence and judgement. As the teens who spoke at the first U.S. Safer Internet Day celebration in Washington made it abundantly clear, many teens are aware of the dangers on the Net and are able to put them into perspective and avoid serious problems. Respecting young people and helping them develop resilience, self-respect and respect for others is the ultimate form of Internet safety education because it encourages them to develop values that will protect them both on and offline for their entire lives. Teens themselves can play a crucial role through peer education and being “upstanders”rather than bystandars if, as Nancy Willard pointed out in an email, “they see someone else making dumb but dangerous mistakes. It’s also important to teach social-emotional learning skills starting at a very young age and for adults to role model kind, ethical and tolerant behavior.

Yes, there is good reason to question the efficacy of some Internet safety programs and, as you can see from the list of articles below, there is plenty of room for skepticism in the Internet safety field, but there remains a need for well thought out, research-based and up-to-date projects that are both accurate and respectful.

Larry Magid is co-director of, founder of and author of the original and 20th anniversary edition of Child Safety on the Information Highway.


The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of “Juvenoia”

Predator Panic Making a Comeback

Privacy Panic Focuses on the Wrong Issues

With new data we can stop the teen sexting panic

Pseudoscience, technopanic and online youth

Beware of the Internet Safety Industrial Complex

Online Safety 3.0: Empowering and Protecting Youth

Challenging ‘Internet safety’ as a subject to be taught

Evaluation of Internet Child Safety Materials Used by ICAC Task Forces in School and Community Settings

Youth Safety on a Living Internet: Report of the Online Safety and Technology Working Group


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Only 9% of adults say kids in their care have been bullied at school

In a new survey from Harris Interactive, 9% of adult respondents reported “My child or a child I am at least partly responsible for has been or is currently being bullied in school.”  Only 2% said that “My child or a child I am at least partly responsible for has been accused of bullying in school (emphasis added). 

These statistics are actually a bit lower than other data we’ve seen lately, which helps to contradict the widely spread myth that bullying is commonplace and getting worse. The study actually shows that it may be getting better.

Misleading press release

As the title of the survey’s press release pointed out, “6 in 10 Americans Say They or Someone They Know Have Been Bullied,” but that’s kind of a meaningless and misleading statistic because “someone they know” can include a wide range of people. If I were asked that question I too would have to say yes but I’d also have to say yes if I were asked “have you or someone you know been killed in an airline crash.” Of the many of people I know, one did die in such a crash about a decade ago.

True, 44% of the respondents said that they “recall being bullied” when they were in school which, based the data about what they know about their own kids, suggests that bullying may be way lower now than it was back then even though the survey also reported that many American think it’s getting worse.

Perception vs. reality

“This is an issue affecting a great many Americans, and there’s a very real perception that it’s getting worse,” said Jen Loukes, vice president of the Harris Poll School Pulse, Harris Interactive’s longstanding School Satisfaction study.” This doesn’t surprise me. With all the media hype about an “epidemic of bullying,” it stands to reason people might feel this way, but just because people think something is true, doesn’t mean it is.


60% of adults recalled being bullied or knowing someone who was but only 9% say their kids are being bullied


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‘Neknominate’ is a stupid and potentially deadly online dare game

Frame from a YouTube video on extreme  'neknomination'

Frame from a YouTube video on extreme

The Irish Mirror calls it “sickening online drinking craze,” and that’s factually correct.  “Nekominate,” also known as neck and nominate, is a game that’s growing in popularity in Australia, the UK and parts of Europe where someone posts a video of themselves doing something stupid or dangerous and then “nominates” another person to stick his or her neck out and do likewise. I’m actually taking liberties with the the term. On Facebook it’s defined as “neck your drink, nominate another.”  I’m hearing that the game is starting to take up residence in the United States.

I’ve also seen derivations on the theme with added dangerous or stupid behaviors such as guzzling a beer in a university lecture hall or a crowded intersection while naked.

Health dangers

My concern here is not-so-much the exhibitionism but the severe health dangers associated with guzzling alcohol.

The Mirror, a British tabloid  reported about a 29 year-old who died as a result of quickly downing  a pint of Vodka.  The Mirror isn’t the most credible newspaper in the world, but this is likely a true story. It’s well known in medical circles that guzzling alcohol is dangerous as is binge drinking which is associated with guzzling. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on a case that I’m personally familiar with where a college freshman died while drinking large amounts of blackberry brandy during a fraternity ceremony at Chico State University.

New twist on a very old theme

Young people often crave social acceptance and inclusion and sometimes accept dares as a way to “fit in.” When I was a kid, I was dared to walk across the railing over a bridge where — if I slipped — I would likely fall to my death. I never did it, but friends of mine did and I always felt uncomfortable every time I had to “chicken out” and decline the dare. Beer pong, which has been around for a long-time, can also be dangerous.


For adults, it’s sometimes hard to know how to convince kids to avoid what we consider dangerous behaviors but — when it comes to something this dangerous — we do need to speak out. Despite popular belief, kids do listen to adults, especially their parents. And while they may roll their eyes when you bring it up, it doesn’t mean they’re not listening. BUT — and this is an important but. Don’t make it a lecture. Start by asking your kids if they’ve heard about Neknomination and what they think about it. Chances are if they have, they’ll volunteer that it’s stupid but even if they don’t, it gives you an opportunity to calmly explain the risks.

“Just say know”

Dr. Irene Lazarus, a Chapel Hill, NC-based marriage and family therapist recommends “finding a non-threatening way to bring it up so that the kids can think about it before they’re presented with the opportunity.” She added, “Kids who are shy in social relationships may be more vulnerable to taking a dare like that. Peer pressure is strong but if you can have discussions, kids can have time to think through their stance is before they are faced with the situation.”

Dr. Lazarus recommends the book Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. One chapter title of that book says it all, “Just say know.” As the book points out, “phrases like ‘just say no’ are not sufficient to satisfy many young people.”

 rakAn antidote called “RAKNomination”

There is an antidote being promoted on Facebook called RAKNomination with “RAK,” standing for “Random Acts of Kindness.” The page’s tagline is “record yourself carrying out a RAK and nominate your friends to do the same in 24 hours.” The page, which has been “Liked” by 13,690 people as of today, contains stories of great things people are doing for others.

For more on both Nek and RAK nominations as well as how you can “unnominate” yourself, see Choosing stupidity or kindness: ‘Neknominate’ or ‘RAKnominate’? by Anne Collier, my co-director.


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Confessions of a ‘binge’ viewer

by Larry Magid

Lots of people are 'binge' viewing House of Cards on Netflix

Lots of people are ‘binge’ viewing House of Cards on Netflix

I don’t mind admitting that, for the past few days, I’ve been a binge TV viewer. That’s because Netflix released the second season of its hit show “House of Cards” and, unlike traditional TV networks, the company released the entire 13-episode season all at once.

In theory, it would be possible to turn on the TV at 9 a.m. one morning and watch every episode before catching the 11 p.m. news, but I haven’t gone that far. I have, however, watched five episodes over the past two days and will likely watch one or two — or perhaps three — each night until I’ve gone through all 13.

It’s not my first case of binge watching. I watched the entire first season of “House of Cards” over a few evenings and then watched the British series also on Netflix. My wife and I also watched all 100 episodes of “Monk” and five years’ worth of “Friday Night Lights” over the course of a few weeks.

I love this type of TV watching. In fact, I like it so much that sometimes I avoid watching shows during their current season so that I can wait and watch them sequentially when they’re available online. I’m breaking that rule with the current season of “Downton Abbey” and I haven’t decided what I’m going to do when “Mr. Selfridge” returns to PBS soon, but if I can, I think I might wait till I can watch them on my own time.

It turns out, I’m far from alone when it comes to this type of viewing. Last fall, Netflix commissioned a Harris Interactive survey (admittedly, Netflix had a stake in the outcome but Harris generally plays it pretty straight). The survey of 1,500 TV streamers found that “binge watching is a widespread behavior among this group, with 61 percent binge watching regularly.”

The survey found that 76 percent of TV streamers say watching multiple episodes of a great TV show is a welcome refuge from their busy lives, while 65 percent said that if they took a digital time out, they would still want to watch TV. And just in case you think that Facebook and Twitter rule the world, “80 percent of TV streamers say they would rather stream a good TV show than read a friend’s social media posts,” according to Netflix.

The other thing my wife and I have in common with others is that a lot of people binge in groups, or at least in pairs. While a third of binge viewers do so by themselves, 51 percent “prefer to watch with at least one other person.” Nearly four in 10 (39 percent) say they “save” TV shows to watch at a later date when their viewing mate is available.

I’d count my wife Patti and myself among that 39 percent, but I do have a confession. As much as I try to wait till she’s available to watch our favorite shows together, there are times when I cheat and watch on my own and she’s admitted that she does as well.

So far, I’m not aware of any 12-step programs for binge viewers, but if your viewing winds up interfering with your relationship, your work or your studies, then perhaps you should consult a professional. If not, enjoy the show. Just make sure you take breaks now and then.

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Sticks, Stones, and Names Can Damage the Spirit


Dr. Warren Blumenfeld

Dr. Warren Blumenfeld

By Warren Blumenfeld
Guest commentator

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” This stands as one of the great lies our culture teaches us growing up. Another myth states that bullying is simply a sign of a youthful rite of passage, that “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls,” and that it will toughen them to better meet the demands of life.

 In a new longitudinal study conducted by Boston Children’s Hospital and published in the February 17, 2014 online issue of Pediatrics, while the results might appear rather intuitive, researchers confirmed that the longer the period of time peers bully a young person, the more severe and lasting the impact on that person’s health.

 I did not have to wait for the recent study to understand full well the long term consequences of bullying. For most of my years in school, I was continually attacked and beaten by my peers who perceived me as someone who was “different.” Names like “queer,” “little girl,” and “fag” rained down upon me like the big red dodge ball my classmates furiously hurled at one another on the schoolyard. I would not – or rather, could not – conform to the gender roles that my family and peers so clearly expected me to follow, and I regularly paid the price.

 This kind of bullying and policing of my gender started the very first day I entered kindergarten. In 1952 I attended public school in Bronxville, NY. As my mother dropped me off and kissed me good-bye on the cheek, I felt completely alone and began to cry. My new teacher walked up to me and said, in a somewhat detached tone of voice, “Don’t cry. Only sissies and little girls cry.” Some of the other boys overheard her, and quickly began mocking me. “The little girl wants his mommy,” one said. “What a sissy,” said another. Without a word, the teacher simply walked away. I went into the coatroom and cried, huddling in a corner by myself, until she found me.

 Not knowing what else to do at this time with what they considered as my gender non-conformity, my parents sent me to a child psychologist at the age of four until my 13th birthday because they feared that I might be gay (or to use the terminology of the day, “homosexual”), and because they were afraid for my safety.

 There was a basic routine in the “therapy” sessions. My mother took me out of school every Monday and Thursday at 11:00 to the psychologist’s office. I walked in, took off my coat, and put it on the hook behind the door. The psychologist then asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to discuss. I invariably said “no.” Since I did not understand why I was there in the first place, I surely did not trust him enough to talk candidly.

 When I was less than forthcoming in our conversations (which was on most occasions), he took down from the shelf a model airplane, or a boat, or a truck, and we spent the remainder of the hour assembling the pieces with glue. In private sessions with my parents, he told them that he wanted me to concentrate on behaviors and activities associated with males, while of course avoiding those associated with females. He instructed my parents to assign me the household tasks of taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn (even though we lived in an apartment building and we did not have a lawn), and not washing or drying the dishes. Also, he also told my parents to prevent my playing with dolls or to cook. And – as if this all was not enough – he advised my parents to sign me up for a little league baseball league, which despite my hatred of the sport, my father basically forced me to join for two summers.

 “When you wave,” my father sternly warned one afternoon on the front steps of our apartment building when I was eight years old, “you MUST move your whole hand at the same time. Don’t just move the fingers up and down like you’re doing.” He grabbed my arm, and despite my free-flowing tears and cheeks red with shame, he vigorously demonstrated the “proper” hand wave for a “man.” Then, as if anticipating the scene in the film La Cage Aux Folles (and the U.S. remake The Birdcage), my father took me into the backyard and forced me to walk and run “like men are supposed to move their bodies.” Obviously, I had previously been doing something wrong. “Of course the other children pick on you,” he blamed. “You do act like a girl.” I was humiliated.

 Despite this, I developed what would become a lifelong appreciation of music and art. In the fifth grade, I auditioned for the school chorus and the music teacher accepted me along with only a handful of boys and about 50 girls. The scarcity of boys in the cast was not due to any gendered imbalance in the quality of boys’ singing voices. The determining factor was one of social pressure. I and the other few boys in the chorus were generally disliked by our peers. In fact, most of the other boys in our class picked on us, and labeled us “the chorus girls,” “the fags,” “the sissies,” and “the fairies.” The girls, on the other hand, who “made it” into the chorus were well respected and even envied by the other girls.

 I can see now that this all amounted to an insidious and dehumanizing fear and hatred of anything even hinting at femininity in males. This is, of course basically thinly veiled misogyny, and it nearly succeeded in taking my life.

 Looking into the bathroom mirror, my 14-year-old self stared back at me, tears rolling down into the sink below. All I could envision was the continual and relentless attacks: boys flicking my ears from behind aboard the school bus, girls loudly giggling as I walked by, peers isolating me on the school yard keeping me from playing games or joining them for lunch, students flinging food at me from multiple corners of the lunchroom, boys waiting for me with constant blows to my stomach and face when teachers weren’t looking.

 I don’t remember where, but I learned that if I took more than the recommended dosage of aspirin tablets, I could develop serious internal bleeding. Seeing no way out, I opened the bathroom medicine cabinet turning my 14-year-old reflection away. Reaching inside, I grabbed the 1000-count aspirin bottle, and with hands shaking, soundlessly twisted off the cap as not to arouse suspicion from my family just beyond the door. Then with seeming effortlessness, I poured a handful of pills as if I were pouring salt into a shaker. With little hesitation, I lifted my clenched hand toward my mouth and tossed the white disks into my mouth, choking and gagging as they hit my throat, then heaving back toward my tongue, then teeth, then into the sink.

 Though I was angry at myself for not having the “stomach” to kill myself, I was also relieved because I suppose at least a part of me still wished to live.

 All things considered, my life turned out fairly well. I entered college in 1965 during a time our society underwent dynamic changes. I joined with others to demonstrate our opposition to the war in Vietnam; I worked with students of color in our common struggle against housing discrimination around our campus, and I helped plan ecology workshops to highlight the state of our increasingly polluted planet. I chose to join a therapy group in my college counseling center, which gave me the support to “come out” as gay. I later went on to become a teacher for blind children, a journalist, and a tenured university professor.

 As I am writing this today at age 66, I consider myself not as a victim, but rather as a survivor of the bullying and abuse from those earlier times. When my therapist diagnosed me having Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, along with Social anxiety disorder, moderate agoraphobia, and clinical depression nearly 25 years ago, I was actually relieved, for then I could begin to let go of the self-blame I had carried for so long.

 Today, I often hear Steven Sondheim’s song, “Anyone Can Whistle,” in my minds ear, a Broadway show tune about a person who has accomplished many difficult tasks – like speaking Greek, dancing the tango, even slaying a dragon – but who seems incapable of managing simple things like whistling.

Anyone can whistle, that’s what they say — easy.
Anyone can whistle, any old day — easy.
It’s all so simple.
Relax, let go, let fly.
So someone tell me, why can’t I?

 In my life, I earned numerous degrees including a doctorate, and I published quite a number of books and peer reviewed journal articles. I have been asked to speak throughout the United States and around the world on varied topics, and I have been given a wonderful opportunity to travel to places I only dreamt about when I was younger.

 I have come to understand full well, though, and I have come to accept my severe limitations due to the damage I endured from those earlier times. Sondheim’s “whistling” stands as an analogy for relationships.

Though I have attempted to develop long-term romantic relationships along my way, I have come to endure the harm to my emotional self. I have lived alone since 1977 following a series of tries at sharing residences with trusted roommates, though none of these living arrangements worked for me.

 In truth, sticks, stone, and names can damage the body as well as the spirit, and they all can kill. Fortunately, schools have at least begun to leave the myths and lies behind, and to take actions. Most notably, we are witnessing more schools conducting programs to empower the so-called “bystanders” – those who know of the bullying, but often feel powerless to step in – transforming them into active “upstanders” intervening to stop the abuse.  

 With knowledge, understanding, and interventions, young people are now leading the way to a better future. So…

Maybe you could show me how to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor ofHomophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).


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People who suffer from so-called ‘game addiction’ have other problems

by Larry Magid

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

There was a big flap last week over the game “Flappy Bird,” an iPhone and Android app that was pulled out of app stores by its Hanoi-based creator, Dong Nguyen.

It all started when Nguyen tweeted that, “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.” A couple of days. later, the 29 year-old followed up by removing it from the Apple and Android app stores

Flappy Bird was an incredibly popular game, reportedly having been downloaded more than 50 million times. The free game was supported by advertising and, before he announced he was pulling it, Nguyen told The Verge website that it was generating about $50,000 a day in advertising revenue.

The game, which is quite hard to play, involves trying to get the bird to fly between pipes. Every time I played it, the bird and pipes collided.

During the day or so between his announcement and pulling the game, there was lots of speculation about why Nguyen made this decision to jettison a popular and highly profitable product. Some called it a publicity stunt: others worried that maybe he was suffering from some mental illness. But last Monday, Nguyen told that he had removed the game because “it has become a problem.” He said that “it happened to become an addictive product.”

The Forbes interview left me with more questions than answers. It’s hard to believe that someone would pull such a popular and profitable product from the market just because some people may be using it in a compulsive manner. Could it be that Nguyen had ulterior motives?

He’s in Vietnam and I don’t have a way to contact him, so I can’t ask him directly. But we do know that Nguyen’s gotten an enormous amount of free publicity, not just about this game, but about his career as a game developer. This isn’t the only successful smartphone game he’s written. He also created “Super Ball Juggling” and “Shuriken Block,” which were the eighth and 17th most popular iOS free games when I checked a few days ago. What’s more, even though you can no longer download Flappy Bird, those who already have it can continue to play and keep generating advertising revenue for Nguyen. Nguyen has said that he plans to develop other games, and I’m betting that whatever he creates will be widely covered by the tech media and downloaded by millions of people.

In his Forbes interview, Nguyen also expressed some personal reasons for grounding Flappy Bird. He told Forbes Asian reporter Lan Anh Nguyen that “my life has not been as comfortable as it was before” and that “he couldn’t sleep.”

But if Nguyen’s motive was mainly to prevent more people from becoming “addicted” to Flappy Bird, pulling the game from the marketplace isn’t likely to accomplish anything. Sure, it will prevent others from spending an enormous amount of time using that particular game, but curing so-called gaming addiction by deleting one game would be like trying to cure alcoholism by taking a particular brand of whiskey off the market. Even outlawing all liquor, as we tried during Prohibition, didn’t keep people from using or abusing alcohol if they really wanted to get a hold of it.

The bigger question here is the extent to which game addiction is a problem, and how we treat it. Technically it’s not yet a recognized mental disorder in the United States. The 2013 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a “condition warranting more clinical research and experience.” Still, a lot of mental health professionals do worry about compulsive gaming behavior, which has been also associated with physical ailments and even death in extreme cases, especially when gamers are so obsessed with their games that they ignore nutrition and sleep while living on copious quantities of caffeine-laden drinks and junk food.

But despite the well-publicized cases of obsessive or harmful use of video games, social networking sites, apps and other technologies, millions of people engage in these activities with no noticeable problems. Just as most adults can drink an occasional alcoholic beverage without becoming addicted, the vast majority of adults and kids can play games or use other technologies without any major ill-effect.

If someone is addicted to Flappy Bird or any other product, it’s a problem that needs attention. So rather than ban or pull games off the market, we need to redouble our mental health efforts to give compulsive gamers the skills they need to lead more balanced lives.

Mr. Nguyen has the right to do whatever he wants with Flappy Bird, but if he asked me for advice, I’d tell him to put it back in the app stores and donate that $50,000 a day to mental health programs that help problem gamers control their impulses.

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U.S. Safer Internet Day focuses on potential, positives and problems too

Senator Charles Schumer with student panel at U.S. Safe

Senator Charles Schumer with student panel at U.S. Safer Internet Day (photo: Sarah Baker)

It was a great honor that, the non-profit Internet Safety organization where I serve as co-director, was selected to host the first official U.S. Safer Internet Day.  The day, which has been celebrated in Europe for the past 11 years, saw events across the world including a celebration in Washington D.C. Tuesday where Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke along with a panel of high school student leaders and another panel of social media executives.

I moderated the event along with co-director Anne Collier.

On a panel moderated by 17 year-old Aidan McDaniel of West Virginia, executives from Facebook (Instagram), Google (YouTube), Microsoft (Xbox Live), Twitter and Yahoo (Tumblr) talked about the way their companies deal with abuse reports, child pornography, bullying and other problems. But they all agreed that the overwhelming majority of their users are good online citizens.


Students attending Safer Internet Day U.S. (photo: Sarah Baker)

Just as cities and towns have to spend resources dealing with a small number of  trouble-makers, social media companies need to police their services so  users have mostly good experiences. All of these companies maintain close ties with law enforcement, which helps them deal with the most egregious problems. But in most cases when problems come up, they’re handled internally by warning the offending user or – if necessary – kicking them off the service.

Social reporting

Facebook now enlists its users to help each other with what they call “social reporting.” Instead of Facebook staff intervening in what are often relationship issues, they offer a tool that helps users work it out among themselves or seek help from a trusted third party.  The program, which is carried out with help from the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale, has been very effective, according to its developer, Facebook engineering Arturo Bejar. “We found when we were looking at reports that there were a lot of things getting reported that were really misunderstandings or disagreements among people who use the site,” he told me in an interview shortly after the company launched the program.

One Good Thing

While some of the day focused on problems encountered online, much of the discussion at the U.S. Safer Internet Day celebration focused on the positive things people are doing with connected technology. An important part of ConnectSafely’s program this year is the ‘One Good Thing” campaign that encourages people around the country to post positive short videos or blog posts positive things they have done or know about, using the Internet or mobile devices. The list ranges from high school kids using Facebook to promote a “Save the Pandas” campaign to a college student who spoke about the  online support given to him and friends  after the death of a fellow student. Others talk about their school’s “compliments page” or how they have gone online to support fellow students who have been cyberbullied. You can view and read these great things (and add your own) at

The youth student panel, moderated by Yahoo Tech “Modern Family” columnist Dan Tynan, included students from Washington DC, Chicago and Detroit. The young panelists talked about ways students can be “upstanders” rather than bystanders when someone they know is bullied online or off.  And, the kids pointed out that bullying is not as common as some adults may think. Most of their classmates treat each other with respect at school and online.

Senator Schumer on economic benefit of net

The final speaker at the Washington event was Senator Schumer, who quipped, “While I’ve probably never snapchatted with Senator Rand Paul, I do understand the great potential of the Internet.”

He said that it is now a very important part of New York’s economy, both in cities (New York city is giving Silicon Valley a run for its money) and in rural areas. He pointed out that it increases political engagement of youth and has resulted in far more young people wanting to work for elected officials. He also touched on the Internet’s role in education and telemedicine and reminded the audience that it’s “important for every family to talk about Internet safety and rules in their household.”

Safer Internet Day 2014 has come and gone, but every day is safer and better Internet day. This year’s theme, “Let’s create a better Internet together,” is a rallying call not for legislation, big pronouncements or major new products but ways that we can all contribute every day by remembering that the Internet isn’t really a network of machines but a network of people with aspirations and feelings. So, it’s really not about creating a better Internet but creating a better world.



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Safer Internet Day Event — View Live

Event starts at 9:00 AM Eastern February 11, 2014

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