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Wednesday, May 8, 2013


I am reading a terrific book by Nancy Willard entitled: Cyber Savvy: Embracing Digital Safety and Civility.

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in cyber bullying especially from an educational perspective.  There is a great website based on the book and it is a great resource for any educator:

In the book there is a chapter called, The Dangers of Techno-Panic.  This is how she defines it:

"Techno-panic is a heightened level of concern about the use of contemporary technologies by young people that is disproportionate to the empirical data on the actual degree of risk.  Moral panic is when a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal systems and interests.  Techno-panic appears to be a moral panic in response to fear of modernity and change as represented by new technologies."

We see examples of moral panic unfortunately all the time.  Any cataclysmic event that occurs triggers a host of 24/7 news coverage and makes people think that such an event is going to be a regular occurrence.  (One of the principles of change that is too often overlooked by leaders is the notion advanced by John Kotter a "sense of urgency" being a prerequisite for change.  Skillful leaders help people connect to the need for change through their hearts not just their heads.)

Moral panic and all that results from it operates on this sense of urgency gone wild and out of control.  Panic is the right word.  Kotter talks about urgency coming from a sense of wanting to do the right, moral and necessary thing to address a problem.  Panic comes from fear and too often triggers actions that have  little or no regard for the reality or the facts of a situation.  This panic triggers ill-conceived laws and policies that too often end up not addressing the real problem but making the whole situation more "problematic".

Moral panic is fed by an overexposure and dramatization of one event by media attention.  Here again a key element of change comes into play: the use of story to connect people to an issue or problem.  The media is good a telling stories and humanizing what were, prior to the cataclysmic event, abstractions or real problems that were out of sight and out of the public's mind. Used skillfully by a leader, story telling is a key tool for changing people's hearts and minds.  Moral panic sets in, however, when one tragic story triggers fears of that story becoming everyone's story.  Every crisis can be an opportunity for change but that change shouldn't be shaped solely by knee jerk reactions.

Long term policies and solutions to problems should be informed by research and reason.  Unfortunately moral panic too often creates policies and regulations designed to prevent the rare exception from happening.  Too often these ironclad regulations remove the element of human judgement and common sense in responding to the problem.  The best examples of a moral panic produced policy are zero tolerance ones.

Willard makes a very salient point about techno-panic that is also too often overlooked she states: "Often purveyors of techno-panic have underlying motives.  Organizations seeking funding to address Internet safety have been known to overhype the risks.  Fear based messages are conveyed by companies seeking to sell "technology quick fixes" to parents.  Other times, the techno-panic has come from law enforcement officials who have an unfortunate tendency to focus on fear...The widespread fear about young people online is not supported by the research data." (In advertising the cliche was "sex sells"-if that is true, then fear is a close second.)

This techno-panic also stems from the fear adults have of not being in control of what kids are doing.  The irony is that when it comes to non cyber bullying, adults too often have the illusion of control and feel that strong policies, rules and consequences can really do the job of controlling kids.  They don't have this illusion when it comes to technology-they know that kids know more than they do in this domain.  This is why cyber bullying and other techno fears prompt educators to defer to law enforcement officials.  (I once did a series of presentation on bullying but was paired with a state trooper who presented on cyber bullying.  He was very entertaining but definitely played to people's fears even though his facts weren't always very accurate.)

Sadly this techno-panic only widens the chasm between the adult world and the student world.  Kids do need to be guided by adults for responsible use of technology but it should be in the context of navigating the social world and how we need to treat each other.  It is really a moral issue not a legal one.

Here is how this techno-panic makes bullying prevention more problematic:

Adults think that the problem is much worse than it really is.  Most kids are very responsible users of technology.  When adults fail to recognize and acknowledge that  fact, the kids who are responsible users are more likely to tune out the adults in  charge.  (This makes sense-who likes being told repeatedly not to do something they already don't do.) Adults alienate potential partners who can help them  address the problem.

Reinforces the notion that adults are out of it and that bullying is an adult created issue and just another attempt by them to control even in the one arena where kids feel in control.  This can only increase the desire of some kids to outfox adult authority.   Adults need to recognize adolescents' developmental need for autonomy and provide positive outlets and opportunities for it.  Failing to recognize this need will only "force" kids to seek autonomy away from the adult world and improve their skills in hiding it.  Kids who are good at outfoxing adult authority usually gain more respect in the eyes of their peers-this is especially true when the adults are  primarily perceived as people who want to control kids.

This is why most kids reject the term bullying and replace with drama.  When kids reject the adult word for their own experience, they can tend to overlook situations when drama does really cross the line and turns into abuse.  If they tune out adults, we lose the opportunity to talk about a continuum of behaviors and the distinctions that do sometimes have to be made.  Kids understandably don't wanted to be labelled as bullies so one way of avoiding that from ever happening is to discredit the word to make sure it never applies to them.  We lose the opportunity to talk about these important issues-we  cut off discussions that can truly help kids develop their moral conscience.

Kids rightfully fear adult overreaction to real problems that kids are concerned about.  This decreases the likelihood that they will go to  adults to ask for help and advice on problems that might want to handle on their own.  Adults inadvertently cut themselves off from kids as resources and sounding boards.  Unfortunately kids do need the advice and guidance of adults but will not seek if they only see adults as authoritarian and heavy handed.

Kids fear losing access to technology if they report or share information about the misuse of it.  This represses the likelihood of them reporting a concern.

With techno-panic as the source of change, a great opportunity for "connecting" with kids is lost.  Kids don't want to always be in a one down position with adults.  When adults can seek out kids for help with technology and involve them as partners in developing reasonable guidelines for responsible use, this one down barrier is removed.  Kids do not think less of adults if adults acknowledge that kids have a necessary expertise-the opposite happens-  they are only too willing and eager to help when asked.  This problem can become a tremendous opportunity for a true partnership with adults and kids.  When peers take the lead in a positive direction and are viewed as the solution rather than the problem, the entire culture of the school can tip dramatically toward citizenship, respect and caring.

Willard's book is a very valuable resource for replacing techno-panic and everything that accompanies it with a reasonable, non fear based approach designed to work with kids in creating a more caring and responsible environment for every member of the school community.

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