|Net safety: How social networks can be protective|
Research shows that community (one's social network) is protective as well as supportive – now let's leverage that to further youth online safety.
By Anne Collier
It's arresting to think about what Stewart Wolf, M.D. – discovered and presented at medical conferences, as told by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – in the context of social media and online safety today. Back in the 1950s, he found a community in Pennsylvania statistically very free of the No. 1 medical concern of the time, heart disease, and looked into what was going on there. When Wolf presented his research, he found that his skeptical colleagues "weren't thinking about health in terms of community [emphasis Gladwell's]." Now sub in (online) "safety" for "health": "Wolf and [his co-researcher, sociologist John] Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that they wouldn't be able to understand why someone was healthy if all they did was think about an individual's personal choices or actions in isolation. They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were...."
Now add the online piece A child's (anybody's) safety and wellbeing have a lot to do with his community offline and online, since the research shows that our online social networks are largely our offline ones.
Almost echoing Dr. Wolf, USATODAY reports that, "for the most part, being part of a social network is good for you.... For example, a study in this month's Scientific American Mind finds that social support and social networking offer benefits, from additional resilience to greater life satisfaction to reducing the risk of health problems. Other studies in the past two years have found that feeling like a part of a larger group helps in stroke recovery and memory retention and boosts overall well-being." And the co-authors of a new book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, report that so much of what we think of as individual, e.g., body shape, politics, happiness, are really "collective phenomena."
About peer groups, not technology
The studies in the USATODAY article that look at community are more helpful to moving the youth-risk discussion forward, suggesting that we consider three things: the impact of an individual's community (online and offline) on his or her well-being; how the individual affects the community; and how the community functions and addresses problems for its members (as a group of people, not a site or technology).
The guild effect
So when we work in the field of youth online safety, it might be helpful to think about young people, its intended beneficiaries, in context – as participants in their online/offline communities rather than potential victims, as we have so much in the past. As for those communities: there may be times when outside intervention (from, say, friends, parents, or Customer Service) is necessary but other times when a little time is needed to allow the community itself to sort out how to deal with antisocial behavior. The other piece that needs more consideration is how to encourage youth to develop a "guild effect" in their online environments, so they're invested in the wellbeing of the community and fellow members, as well as themselves.
From interest-driven to friendship-driven
What this suggests to me is that "the guild effect" (safe, civil behavior as a social norm) kicks in quite naturally in "interest-driven" social networking, one of the two forms of social networking described in last year's study from the Digital Youth Project (see "*Serious* informal learning"). The question is, how can the guild effect be just as effective in "friendship-driven" social networking and across the entire social Web, fixed and mobile? I think this may be the central question for online safety going forward.