The hottest rage in my thirteen year old’s class last year was a first person shooter internet video game called Soldier Front. T’ween boys love these type of internet games because they can play with friends on-line; no need for playdates, the kids all meet in the virtual world and don guns together.
In the past couple years, Twitter has radically changed the face of online communication. This year alone, usage has grown by 900 percent, the company was awarded the “Breakout Company of the Year” web award, and Twitter has spread awareness of such major international events as post-election protests in Iran. Amid this surge in publicity for and excitement about the site, a few reports released surprising findings: teens, by in large, don’t use Twitter.
Based on our findings in Children and Electronic Media issue, this does not surprise us. As the article “Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships” demonstrates, most adolescents use social networking sites to reinforce existing relationships, rather than make new friends. This is contrary to how people use Twitter; much like in the chat rooms of old, they create new networks of friends and acquaintances based on common interests.
Instant messaging, Facebook, and MySpace, on the other hand, allow teens to share personal information and communicate with their friends and existing social networks (in addition to contacting strangers and building new relationships with them). It makes sense, then, that teenagers and young adults seeking ways to reach out to friends helped these communication tools gain enormous popularity.
A study from 2007 found that that 91 percent of teens use social networking sites to keep in touch with friends they see frequently. Although teens may contact strangers and vice versa, this is not the norm for teenage internet use. Rather, teens often use online communication to strengthen existing friendships or gain acceptance in offline peer groups, both of which depend on interacting with the same groups on-and offline and receiving feedback through mechanisms such as “Wall” postings and return messages. In a Dutch study, adolescents who felt they received positive feedback from social networking sites reported higher self-esteem, and the reverse was true as well.
This is not to say that teens do not communicate with strangers. Indeed, many do – but not in the dangerous ways we suppose. Rather, when teens seek out contact with people they don’t know, it is usually for information (on health issues, for example) found at self-help sites or internet forums. Twitter, however, is usually a single-sided conversation used to share news or promote companies and organizations. As the 15-year-old intern behind Morgan Stanley’s report noted, teens often must decide how to allocate a limited texting capacity. They can send targeted text messages to friends. Or they can post updates on Twitter, which in all likelihood will not be seen by those in their social network and may get lost to the internet at large. Adolescents concerned with their social position at school or among a group of friends choose to focus on messages targeted directly to their peers, making Twitter the latest fad of an older crowd.
The goal of this game is to gun down soldiers in what easily passes for an abandoned building in Iraq. Points are given for missions accomplished and head shots (not photos of aspiring actors – bullets to the head which then explodes).
I hated this game and wanted it out of my house. With the newest software, I could block this site. But I don’t have the newest software on all my computers, I am not exactly sure how to use the parental controls properly, my eight year old could probably find his way around any filter, and – most significantly — there are many, many more games ready to fill in if this particular game is blocked. Soldier Front and others like it are not rated, so evaluating them without playing each and every one of them is impossible.
I weighed my options. I could get rid of the internet in the house (which would make it hard for me to work); I could create a filter that blocks out any content dealing with guns (including an important recent Supreme Court decision on the 2nd Amendment); I could move us to a remote part of Alaska and live off the land. None were good options. Attacking the media platform – in this case the computer and internet — rather than the content itself seemed misguided.
In 1964 Marshall McLuhan concluded that the content of electronic media, its “message,” is simply beside the point—that in electronic media, unlike print media, “the medium is the message.” In a recent volume of The Future of Children that I edited with Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Children and Electronic Media, we came to a rather different conclusion. Content, it turns out, is critical to how media influence children. That is, the message is the message. Rather than focusing on the type of technology children use or even how much time children spend with media, parents, educators, and policymakers need to focus on what is being offered to children on the various media platforms.
This turns out to be difficult. At the government level, First Amendment considerations and the increasing reality that many media forms are exempt from government oversight makes broad regulation of content close to impossible. At the community and school level, educators struggle to use media in positive ways while ensuring that technology is not used to cheat or bully. At the family level, it is often easier for parents to tell their children, “one hour of media, that’s it,” than to wade through the content of the myriad media offerings, rely on inconsistent and hard-to-understand rating systems, and compete with an industry that often cares more about commercial success than children’s quality of life. Moreover, with the increasing portability of technology, the reality is that kids are often using electronic media where no adult is present, let alone their parents.
The answer is not more gadgets – filters, V-Chips, parental controls. Rather, industry needs to step up to the plate and do a better job in offering positive media content. In our recent policy brief we examined ways that non-profits and government are using media to positively influence adolescent well-being. These are not the public service announcements of the 1970’s and 80’s (“this is your brain on drugs”) that preached and missed the point. Rather, these are exciting, interactive, “Web 2.0” media campaigns that invite youth to create the content and own the message. Certainly for-profit industry can follow suit. While I am fairly confident that the government cannot ban first-person shooter games, I am sure that industry can decide it is not worth their time to post such games. Advertisers can push this by paying for ads on positive websites. Finally, parents, government and advocates can band together to put pressure on industry to clean up its act.
As for Soldier Front, I resorted to old fashioned parenting and simply banned the game with serious consequences if that rule was broken. It worked this time — no batteries (or broadband) required – but it may not the next when my son is older and I am not standing over his shoulder watching everything he does. Here’s hoping industry has listened by then.