Guest Blogger: More Thoughts on Student Safety Online

Earlier this week I commented on a New York Times article about the Berkman Center’s Report on social networking, “Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies.”

After taking time to read the report, I am even more excited about its findings, and it has got me thinking about why studies of the Internet are important — not just for devotees but for anyone interested in human nature, social organization, and development.

Technology does not fundamentally alter human behavior (although it can fiddle significantly with history, which involves more moving parts). But studying user behavior holds a mirror up to ourselves and how we interact, offering a rare opportunity to observe ourselves in the process of acting out the human condition. As we create, and in many cases recreate, ourselves in this new environment, we can be self-conscious about the motivations, actions, and expressions that could otherwise remain repressed, ignored, or forgotten by all but the most astute social scientists.

To read in this report, for example, that “minors are not equally at risk online” is to remember that many complicated factors go into how children or teenagers can become risks to themselves or to others. Consider bullying, for example, which can be found in cyberspace or on the school playground. Access to “harmful, problematic, or illegal content” did not begin, and will not end, with the Internet.

The Internet adds new dimensions to these concerns — just ask any college student who has been the subject of a defamatory remark on Juicy Campus, where anonymity is amplifying the kinds of remarks that have long been scrawled on bathroom stalls. Or ask the many friends and couples who have found each other only because of the technological capabilities of social networking and, as a result, have enjoyed relationships that they otherwise might not have had. The Net’s impact is easy to miscalculate. We often misunderstand the role digital technologies play in our lives, or we exaggerate their effects.

So what implication does all this have for higher education? Everything goes back to basics, in this case the underlying principles of our missions. It is no accident that the recent revision that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made for its physics core classes — shifting from the large-lecture format to one where students work interactively during class — has first to do with understanding pedagogy. Smaller classes and immediate feedback give students a better chance at successful completion of the class, and technology facilitates the feedback. Technology is always a means, never the end result.

In a course I teach at Cornell University on “Culture, Law, and Politics of the Internet,” we always begin with Lawrence Lessig’s basic analysis of the Internet as a confluence of legal, market, technological, and social factors. At some point I ask, “Which factor is most relevant?” It is a trick question. The real lesson is that these factors work together in a constantly evolving dynamic. Sometimes students will come to that understanding by taking a specific issue and arguing for the dominance of one factor based on particular evidence. But it usually does not take long for the student to see the complexities of the situation. To ascribe to a technology all kinds of neurotic or illicit behaviors is to be alienated from ourselves. —Tracy Mitrano

Tracy Mitrano, our January guest blogger, is director of information-technology policy in Cornell University’s Office of Information Technologies, where she also directs the computer policy and law program.

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