Expert Commentary

Urs Gasser of the Berkman Center on digital media and tech trends: Research chat

May 2013 interview with Urs Gasser, executive director of Harvard's Berkman Center. He discusses youth and privacy, bullying, social networking trends and the news media.

Urs Gasser (Berkman Center)
(Berkman Center)

Urs Gasser is the Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School. In 2008, he and John Palfrey published the path-breaking book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.

Gasser continues to do pioneering research work in this area, and lately his team at Berkman’s Youth and Media project has been collaborating with the Pew Internet & American Life Project for a series of reports. This past week, the collaborative published a new report titled “Teens, Social Media and Privacy.”

As part of our ongoing “research chat” series, Journalist’s Resource recently caught up with Gasser to get his insights on a variety of digital media-related topics. The following interview has been edited:


JR: Born Digital was published over five years ago now. Obviously, Twitter and some other social and digital media platforms had not yet fully matured – or even appeared yet. How would you extend some of the insights of book, and where do we stand now, more than five years on?

Urs Gasser: The intent of Born Digital was to write a book that would have a shelf life of longer than a year. Of course, that’s tricky to accomplish if you write on things digital, like we all do, as we live in this fast-paced environment. But the motivation of the book was to actually look at youth as one interesting population, in the hope of understanding the structural shifts in the informational ecosystem facilitated by digital technologies. Our design in a way – and our hope – was that some of the key insights from the book would still hold true five years later, seven years later.

Many of the topics that we care about today are also topics we had on the radar a few years ago – let’s say privacy or safety and bullying. These are issues that are still relevant today. What I’ve seen shift the most over the past few years is perhaps less in the space of challenges and risks but in the space of opportunities. It’s interesting to see that relatively early on — almost in terms of an early warning system — policy makers, teachers, educators and parents were already aware of some of the risks commonly associated with Internet usage, but had less focus on the opportunity side.

I think that we got more educated about the risk space as adults and decision makers, and therefore we now have more bandwidth to focus on the huge opportunities. If you take online learning, for example, there we have seen a really big transformation at least in the public awareness and also institutional experimentation. That is perhaps the biggest shift; we just had fewer stories to tell in the book, in 2008, than we would have today, with the MOOCs and connected learning. Both happen on the theory side, but also in terms of experimentation and actual implementation in schools and out of schools, too.

YouthMedia_BerkmanJR: In terms of online learning and education, obviously there’s lots of reporting and blogging about what the future may hold. From your perspective as a researcher, what are some of the insights educators should know about?

Urs Gasser: Perhaps my main point would be that we are in a very early stage of this development. We’re definitely still in the experimentation phase, so there are not yet any best practices available. There are different efforts in different institutions to incorporate digital technology more broadly into classrooms and into school environments — to connect schools with out-of-school activities and at-school activities, very importantly. But we’re in the early phase and are still collecting data and trying to evaluate these different experiments. In terms of the mindset, that’s the key point to understand. There is no silver bullet solution there; there is no gold standard.

In a broader sense, the jury is still out as far as the evaluation of the use of digital tools in formal educational settings is concerned. Much emphasis is currently on engagement and participation. We want to figure out how to use these tools as a way to increase interaction and engagement. In terms of the effects on skill building, there is theory but not very much hard data how the digital tools actually lead to the development of new skills and practices. We all hope to see this connection in practice, but we haven’t made the case yet in an empirical sense.

JR: Let’s circle back to privacy and youth – teenagers and Millennials. Where do we stand on privacy right now? What research findings should people know about it?

Urs Gasser: There is actually an important report just coming out that Berkman did together with Pew. The key finding is that – and we’re not the first ones to point it out – youth still care about privacy. So it’s not that youth have lost sense of the value of managing personal information. But certainly their sense of privacy and reputation is influenced and shaped by the platforms that are so popular. The attitudes towards privacy have changed, and are different from how adults think about privacy. Now at the same time, we also see an important social learning process among youth, partly influenced by adults, influenced by their parents, teacher and so forth, as well as also peer learning as far as privacy practices are concerned. So, in a way I’m rather optimistic that we will achieve a new social equilibrium based on the interviews we have conducted with youth. They are actually thinking quite carefully about the sharing of personal information.

One of the really fascinating outcomes of our focus group interviews is that the thinking about the sharing of personal information doesn’t necessarily happen in terms of “privacy” – privacy is often not the frame youth use for this conversation. What we’ve heard over and over again in our most recent focus group interviews is that Facebook is increasingly perceived as a highly controlled and constraining social space. Youth often say it’s highly judgmental. So essentially everything you do, everything you post triggers immediate responses and reactions  by your peers and other people, including adults. This leads to an interesting feedback loop in terms of what kids want to share and also, importantly, to a shift what platforms they like to use for self-expression.

We have often heard from participants that Facebook represents the polished profile; it’s no longer the site where youth really can present themselves the way they are. Teens increasingly use Tumblr, and especially Instagram, to really say what they think – to present “me” the way I am, as opposed to Facebook, where you have this immediate kind of judgment about whatever you do. That was a fascinating finding from over 200 kids that we’ve interviewed over the years and also some survey data from Pew.

See a related video presentation from Berkman:

JR: So the Facebook personal account has become much more of a perceived public space for youth?

Urs Gasser: Exactly. It’s kind of the brochure where you have a nice picture and show your nice side. The fascinating part of the story is that, before teens even start to think about privacy, there is some kind of a reputational issue and a peer-judgment problem that actually makes them think hard about what they post. Even before kids start to think about privacy settings, they are concerned about the social impact of the information shared in practice. So in a way, privacy comes thereafter; it’s not the first thought. Of course, the effect is a similar one, but for other reasons. I thought that was totally fascinating. It’s a helpful re-conceptualization of the privacy debate. Now everyone is talking about privacy, but we have different notions and different things in mind when we use the term. Sometimes when you listen to youth, you get into these new insights. To me, that was very refreshing, to reframe it more in terms of social pressures and self-expression or in terms of managing one’s reputation.

JR: The Berkman Center has done wonderful work on bullying and related issues. Where are we now in terms of our understanding of youth and online bullying?

Urs Gasser: Perhaps the most important aspect is that bullying is much more nuanced than one would think. Actually, looking at the data and literature, first of all it’s even relatively hard to agree upon one single definition of bullying. So there are lots of definitional challenges. Second, that makes it also hard to understand how frequently kids experience bullying. It’s roughly fair to say that it’s between 10-15% of kids, according to most surveys we’ve seen. But some of them report up to 40%.

Third, there is an interesting nuance between online and offline bullying. The boundaries are blurring between the two, so it’s even questionable how meaningful the term “cyberbullying” really is. Fourth, as far as the different roles are concerned, that is a very important distinction that many people may not be aware of. It’s not only about the victim. It’s also about the bully who himself or herself is often also a victim of bullying, so that the distinction between victim and bully is also less clear than what many would expect. There’s also the role of bystanders and others. It’s important that we not only focus on the victim but actually try to understand all different roles involved. Because all of them may help to create the kinder world, but more importantly all of them are also affected by bullying. In whatever role they play, they may be negatively affected. Any solution needs to really understand the phenomenon better, rather than to jump to conclusions and, say, implement zero-tolerance policies, which haven’t worked — that’s one of the things we know from practice.

So it’s full of nuance, and the conclusion of all that is that the approaches need to mirror the complex social realities. What’s needed perhaps is ultimately a strategy with multiple elements and points of intervention, working to improve the school climate and think about all these different factors that play into it.

JR: You’ve examined youth and information-seeking habits, and issues of credibility. You folks did a big paper in 2012 synthesizing the current research literature. How do young people arrive at insights about their world through online research – whether for personal health information or research for a classroom report? What should parents and educators know?

Urs Gasser: The first insight is that indeed digital plays a key role in seeking information. It’s not the only way – that’s the caveat – depending on what area of life we’re looking into. Other sources may play a role, too. But the baseline is that digital space, the Internet is the place to go for youth seeking information. The second big takeaway – which, again, is not a big surprise but is confirmed through data – is that search engines still play a very important role when youth are doing school assignments or things like that, and also if they have health-related questions. A lot of that happens through search engines.

At the same time, the “push” side of the information equation is growing in influence, too. In other words, it’s increasingly important what you are exposed to because others point you to it through Facebook or Twitter or any of the other platforms like Tumblr. That’s an important trend. It’s quite interesting to see what types of information are distributed on these platforms, where there’s a “push” approach. This is certainly true of everything that has to do with sports, entertainment and celebrity. You would follow the sources over Twitter, or you’d learn about the next concert because your friends posted about it on Facebook. That’s certainly one of the areas where much of the information-seeking is happening over social media, as opposed to other areas of life or types of information like health, where other mechanisms, including search, for information seems to be predominant.

JR: Search engines like Google are increasingly personalizing search results, and there is more of a filtered experience online, based on a user’s profile. How do you see that affecting how youth discover things online and learn about their world? Is this filtering a good thing? Are you concerned? Obviously, it’s part of a big conversation about “filter bubbles.”

Urs Gasser: It’s a huge debate. My personal opinion is that of course there are certain risks. Much of it depends on the degree of personalization, right? How much do you want to push the envelope? If you have your totally separate ecosystem from mine — in an information world bubble — then I’m more concerned. This is as opposed to you just getting certain headlines presented in different ways, to make you more likely to read what I’m going to read, anyway. So it’s a matter of a degree. It also depends on the question of what the algorithms are actually doing: How are the priorities shaped? How are the findings shaped? Is there manipulation? Or is it just kind of following basic patterns that suggest relevance?

So it depends on these two variables. On the one hand, we are all lost in this huge amount of information that is potentially irrelevant. If technology helps us to sort out what is relevant to you and to me – which might be different from each other – that could actually be a helpful thing, right? Then there’s the flipside where you overdo it, and we don’t have anything to talk about anymore because we live in separate worlds. But overall I’m personally not particularly concerned, as I think there is enough diversity in the ecosystem and enough reason that we’re exposed to different information sources that we’re not living in these isolated silos of information, at least not soon. And regulation plays a role, so we have it in our hands to set barriers.

PewInternetJR: You bring an international perspective to this, having come from Europe. We tend to be very inward-focused here in the United States on these youth and media issues. But in Europe and developing world, are there things going on – trends, patterns – that are instructive? Perhaps some comparative insights or stories that might give us perspective?

Urs Gasser: In Europe, there’s a very strong group of researchers around the EU Kids project looking into similar questions. That’s kind of the set gold standard – this European project led by Sonia Livingstone, who is an incoming Berkman fellow for the next academic year. They have fantastic reports and comparative studies and very rigorous methodologies – it’s super interesting. And then also very cool is UNICEF, which is engaged in similar projects trying to understand how youth are using technologies in the developing world, and we’re actually advisors to the UNICEF team doing this research. There have been exploratory studies conducted in Indonesia, in Turkey, in Vietnam and in several other countries. It’s fascinating to see the differences, as you would expect, in terms of how the Internet is accessed in the developing world. Internet cafes play a much more important role than they do here. Mobile is very different in some countries. For many, the “Internet” means just access through mobile phones and apps, as opposed to desktops or other devices.

Then you see also how the concerns of parents and policymakers change, or are quite different, from country to country, which has to do with the local culture and local values. In some countries, it’s more about religious values: There’s a big fear that the Internet is just used for online gaming and is able to distract kids from studying. And again, depending on the country, there are fears about sex tourism, child pornography — with good reason, unfortunately. Yet in other countries, there is more hope that this will bring more opportunities to shape economic growth.

It’s a very, very good reminder that, while digital technologies are new and exciting in many ways, they’re deeply embedded in existing social structures and power structures, and also in value systems that are very different across the globe. That, as we all know, creates all sorts of challenges when we try to create the governance system for a global medium, while at the same time we have these different values and different attitudes, even among youth, actually.

JR: Finally, you read the U.S. news media reporting on youth and technology, and you must see certain narratives and frames that you are not always happy with. What are some of the things you wish the American media “got” a little better?

Urs Gasser: I’m glad to see that we have finally moved away from perceiving and portraying the Internet as something that is potentially mostly dangerous or bad for kids, to a more nuanced view of the opportunities. So I’m glad to see that. But still: The first thing you think about when hearing Internet and kids is safety, “stranger danger” problems and bullying now. Looking at the actual data, you realize these are serious problems – make no mistake there. But there are other areas where we should also pay attention, and that deserve our efforts. I’m not sure that media has done a good job here in getting the balance right in focus our attention equally on challenges and benefits.

Overall, that’s perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve seen: There is a tendency of reinforcing the fear and perception of digital technologies and the Internet as something that puts kids at risk, as opposed to saying, “Let’s have a look at the data.” Indeed, if you were to look at the data, you’d see that kids have never been safer before than they are today, statistically. When you put it in that perspective, you have a more “cooled down” kind of feel. But admittedly, that doesn’t make great headlines.

Keywords: Twitter, Facebook, youth, research chat

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