Keeping Your Kids Safe Online: It's 'Common Sense' Parents should be paying very close attention to the digital media their children are using, says child advocate James Steyer. "Young people in particular often self-reveal before they self-reflect," he says. "There is no eraser button today for youthful indiscretion."
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Keeping Your Kids Safe Online: It's 'Common Sense'

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Keeping Your Kids Safe Online: It's 'Common Sense'

Keeping Your Kids Safe Online: It's 'Common Sense'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're a parent, you may have wondered what your kids are texting to each other or posting on Facebook pages. Or maybe you've thought about it and decided you don't want to know. Well, our guest, James Steyer, says you should pay attention to the digital media your kids are using, and you should think carefully about what devices and networks they're allowed to plug into and what rules you should set for them.

Steyer has spent much of his career thinking about the effects of media on children. He's the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that focuses on the media use of kids and families. He began his career as an elementary school teacher and later became a public interest lawyer. He teaches at Stanford University.

He's written a new book, which explores some of the effects of digital media on kids and offers practical advice for parents on how to handle a child's media issues from infancy through adolescence. It's called "Talking Back to Facebook." He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Well, James Steyer, welcome to FRESH AIR. I was stunned to read a statistic you quote, that kids, if I have this right, between the ages of 13 and 7 will typically text each other more than 3,300 times a month, more than 100 times a day. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: between the ages of 13 and 17, not 7.] You know, this amounts to sort of, I guess, a quantitative phenomenon that could make a qualitative difference in relationships. How does this alter kids' relationships with each other?

JAMES STEYER: Well, I think it's very different when you actually text somebody as opposed to have a face-to-face conversation or even one over the phone. When you text people, or you Facebook them, it's the plunk of a keystroke on your computer or on your phone. And texting is a very different form of communication, much more impersonal, much more impulsive, often times, and it actually allows you to do things that you might not do if you had to look at the person in the eye and say that thing, see the nuances of their face or their expressions.

And I think it's an incredibly important part of the new landscape that kids and all of us are living in.

DAVIES: Now, then there's the social networks that kids use, like Facebook in particular, and I'm wondering how - you know, kids have long been self-conscious and subject to peer pressure and worried about judgments from their friends. How does trying to present themselves on Facebook, where they can actually craft a profile, affect those relationships?

STEYER: Well, I think the big term for me is the term presentation anxiety. My colleague at MIT, Sherry Turkle, wrote a beautiful book called "Alone Together," in which she talked a lot about the concept of presentation anxiety, where boys and girls, particularly teen girls, spend hours a day curating their images: the photos, the messages, the order of photos, all sorts of ways in which they present themselves to the world and then change that over and over again.

In an odd way, even though you're doing it for hours on end, it leaves many kids feeling very alone and also very insecure about how people will react. I also have colleagues at Stanford now who have been doing research on Facebook and self-image, and they've seen that a significant proportion of the girls who they've been studying Photoshop their images on a regular basis because they're concerned about their body images, worried that they look too fat in this picture or too unattractive in that picture.

And they also comment to each other all the time about you look so fabulous and other things that you might not say on the air. And so this concept of presentation anxiety goes to the core of the social and emotional development of kids and teens today.

DAVIES: You know, it's kind of ironic that this - these networks, which connect people in, you know, really amazing ways can make - actually make kids more self-absorbed.

STEYER: Well, there's no question that they connect, but the question is are you really having a conversation, are you really communicating with people, or, as you mentioned, are you - do we live in a culture of the - of e-personality, and quite frankly where we see increasing amounts of narcissism diagnosed in young people because the constant need to curate your own image and to change it is very different than when you're in person with somebody.

You know, for better or for worse, when you're out there with your friends, that's who you are. And they see you, and you see them. This is true for adults, obviously, as it is for kids. But in a world where you can constantly change your image, A) you just do become more self-absorbed; but B) I actually think you become more lonely.

DAVIES: You talked to a lot of kids, you know, in writing this book and in doing your work at Common Sense Media. Are they aware of this?

STEYER: You know, they're increasingly aware of this. It's a big change. I actually started writing the book last summer, and the change that I've seen between last summer and now that the book is being released, is quite remarkable, and I think actually very positive.

I always ask my students at Stanford - I've been teaching there for a number of years - if you could turn back the clock, and of course we can't, but if you could, would you like to have a world with Facebook or a world without Facebook? And I will tell you that they're basically evenly split between people who say we would like - we'd like to get rid of it and those who see that at the end of the day it's a benefit.

But kids today are starting to become aware of the artificial nature of some of their interaction, the pressure they feel to constantly be on, to constantly respond via text, and also to present their images on Facebook. So I think that young people are increasingly aware of some of both the positives as well as the downsides of this extraordinary new form of communication. And that's a good thing.

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is James Steyer. He's the founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that deals with children and media issues. He has a new book called "Talking Back to Facebook: A Common Sense Guide To Raising Kids in the Digital Age."

You write that privacy is a big concern and the extent to which, you know, social media companies don't protect it. How common is it for kids to share information on social networks that they later regret?

STEYER: Boy, I think it's extremely common for young people, and some adults, to share information on social networks that they later regret. It's pretty amazing when you think about privacy. I tried in the book to define it into two separate basic categories. The first is, to your question, the concept that young people in particular oftentimes today self-reveal before they self-reflect.

You know, there is no eraser button today for youthful indiscretion. And nearly 40 percent of all American teens 13 to 17 admit to posting something online that they later regretted, and 80 percent of teens that were polled recently admitted that they think their friends share too much personal information online. So you're basically talking about the great majority of teenagers.

And I think that the issue of young people, but I think this happens for adults to a lesser extent, putting stuff up that they subsequently wish they'd never done, whether it's for a personal relationship standpoint or, quite frankly, getting into college or getting a job interview, it's just an extraordinary phenomenon.

There was a big controversy in the past few weeks about laws in states where people are saying that employers cannot have job applicants' Facebook passwords. That's because people have stuff up there that they really don't want other people to see sometimes.

But in a world where everything's photographed, where kids are constantly snapping photos with their cell phones and quite frankly where youthful indiscretion is exactly the same as it's always been, the consequences can be much greater where there is no eraser button.

In Europe, they call this the right to be forgotten, and there's been an extraordinary public dialogue over the past six months or so about the importance of honoring the right to be forgotten. Here in the United States, we're just starting to have that in the context of the broader privacy debate. But everybody out there understands that this is an issue.

And privacy, as I remind my students at Stanford, is a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution.

DAVIES: Do kids have special privacy protection under the law?

STEYER: Well, kids under the age of 13 have special privacy protection under a law called COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Now, that was written in 1998, which is the stone ages of digital media. In 1998, Mark Zuckerberg was in grade school. YouTube, Facebook, Google, Twitter - none of those services exist. But that was the last time privacy laws were written in the United States. So we have an antiquated structure to deal with these extraordinary new privacy issues.

And quite frankly, as everything changed in Silicon Valley and on the large technology platforms over the past four or five years, there's been no oversight by society, no government involvement, and until very recently there weren't even significant new privacy laws proposed, so that we're still operating under the 1998 COPPA law, which does restrict the certain forms of information, how kids' personal identifying information have been used.

So for example, Facebook is under COPPA. That's why Facebook officially claims that no one under the age of 13 is on Facebook. But the truth is, as Consumer Reports reported last year, that there are at least 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 on Facebook in the United States.

So the COPPA laws are there to design - designed to protect the personally identifiable information of kids 12 and under. They are riddled, like Swiss cheese, if you will, with some holes that are easily gone through. But also millions of kids now just fake their age and go on Facebook and Google Plus and other platforms.

So dealing with the broad structure and the need for sort of common-sense privacy laws is clearly on the agenda in the next year or two. Whether the large tech companies in the country are happy about that or not, I think that the public will be increasingly demanding new, clear, common-sense laws around privacy.

DAVIES: I'm sure this is a much bigger subject, but give us one example of a privacy provision that ought to be in law?

STEYER: Well, at Common Sense - I'll give you three, because Common Sense proposed I think a pretty simple regimen around it(ph) . One, we believe that the standard should be opt-in, not opt-out. Today as it stands on all of the major social networking platforms, and quite frankly with much of your information online, it's shared unless you opt out of the service.

At Common Sense, we believe for kids under the age of 18 that it should be a strictly opt-in provision, where their parents have to give permission for that information to be used or tracked, or they simply can't do it. So opt-in versus opt-out would change everything.

The second thing we've called for is what we simply call the eraser button. The technology wizards of this country, who are so extraordinarily talented and have led to so much innovation over the past five or 10 years, have the resources and the ability to create an eraser button so that you or I or anyone out there could just say, hey, take that down, not just on one platform but on as many places where that information and data can be traced.

And I think the third thing that we've called for at Common Sense is do not track kids. And simply under the age of 18, don't track kids unless you have explicit parental permission to track their information with cookies and other things which you have on websites.

Today, kids' sites - last year the Wall Street Journal found that 30 percent more tracking cookies on kids' computers were being used than on general audience sites. So these are very basic things, but they will have an extraordinarily positive impact on preserving privacy if we would just enact them.

DAVIES: James Steyer's new book is called "Talking Back to Facebook." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with James Steyer. He's the founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that deals with kids and media issues. He has a new book called "Talking Back to Facebook: A Common Sense Guide To Raising Kids in the Digital Age."

Well, about half of this book is very practical advice for parents, and it's organized by age group, and you start with birth to age two, and I read that and thought: Are you kidding? Do we really need to worry about what our infants are doing?

STEYER: Well, the world is actually a digital stage when it comes to babies. And you know, online babies - online audiences are now seeing sonograms even before babies are born. And people are so infatuated with their little infants and posting pictures of them, and you're creating what we call a digital footprint almost from the time that kids are born.

So zero to two is actually a real time. Also, you now see parents who are taking their little one-and-a-half-year-old child and plunking them in front of an iPad or other tablet and having them check out the incredibly cool images and games that can be created on those platforms.

So in fact it may sound odd to have a chapter in a book about birth to age two when it comes to kids and technology and media, but in fact it's a reality today because it's easy to be dazzled by this new technology, and they can make it irresistible to post that picture of your new baby for everyone to see in the world.

DAVIES: OK, well, let's talk about - one issue is whether it's in any way helpful or harmful to show your kid digital media stuff on screens. What's your view?

STEYER: Well, I think that zero to two, you know, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the pediatricians, children's doctors of the world, have recommended and re-recommended earlier this year that there be zero screen time for children under the age of two, that there is no educational benefit to that, and in fact that there can be brain development issues and other kinds of physical harms, if you will.

So the American Academy of Pediatrics says zero screen time between zero to two. I think that that is pretty basic advice, but one that as a parent of four children myself, it's a little hard to follow the zero screen time, but it's certainly a good overall recommendation because that's the time when all those things we do with infants - nurturing them in our arms, cooing to them, playing little games on the floor if they're able to sit up - those are the kind of things that are much better than some kind of screen experience.

DAVIES: Now, should you worry about posting online photos or videos of your baby or toddler?

STEYER: I think you can be concerned about that because you never know where they're being used. And again, you're creating a digital footprint. And some of the leading technology executives that I know never put up any pictures of their own children. So maybe there's something to be learned from that.

DAVIES: Yeah, what's the concern?

STEYER: Well, social networks are obviously a natural place for sharing cute pictures of your little ones with friends and family. But keep in mind that once a photo or a video is up on the Web, it's up there permanently. And even if you delete it, someone else may have already downloaded it and shared it online.

And so it's a record that's trackable and public and permanent. And your child will have to live with that, and sometimes they don't want to. So I would say if you do opt to share baby pictures online, then make sure your that privacy settings are very carefully restricted and kept up-to-date so that they're in the most restrictive format.

The other thing is that you can actually extract data and information about where a photo was taken and when, and that is another part of your child's personal history being made accessible to the world in a way that you might not want it to be.

DAVIES: OK, now, when kids reach the age of three to four, if I read you correctly, there is some potential benefit from kids learning from digital media with the right kind of content. But you say a key element, and this is really true from this age on, is limiting screen time. I guess this sort of sounds obvious, but how much screen time, and what do we mean by screen time?

STEYER: The rule of thumb that I tend to use is, well, if a kid is three or four, maybe an hour a day of screen time, and that could include great videos, that could include maybe if you go onto online and play a cool game or let your kid watch a new "Sesame Street" video or something like that, but around an hour a day.

As kids get older, my recommendation is up to two hours per day of screen time is realistic, but quite frankly, the numbers are very different than that. At Common Sense we did a big zero to eight study late last fall, and we found that the average kid under the age of eight is spending enormous amounts of time in front of a screen. And that can impact brain development.

It can have positive effects, but it's all about moderation and balance.

DAVIES: Now, you write that at age five to six, kids are actually beginning to do their own Web browsing. And this is something I didn't know. You write that companies have made children's Web browsers. Explain what they are and whether you think they're a good idea.

STEYER: Well, most five to six-year-olds have already used a computer by themselves, and some of them are just interested in jumping on the Internet and exploring because they see their older siblings do that, they see other parents do that. And obviously the Internet is no place for a child of age five or six to explore alone or unsupervised.

So what's happened is there are these Web browsers which can, if you will, filter out options so that age-appropriate content is all that your kid is exposed to. But I worry that encouraging Internet use and too much independent browsing at this age can also set the stage for digital addiction when your kid becomes a bit older and is spending way too much time on the Internet.

So there are browsers, and they either charge membership or do it via subscription fees. The ones that are free oftentimes have advertising banners that can be very attractive to your five or six-year-old. But if you're looking for sort of Web surfing with training wheels experiences, you can check out the browsers yourself and see if they're good.

DAVIES: And I think you write that, you know, apart from getting, you know, an external tool like a children's Web browser, it's just as important for you to spend time browsing with your kid yourself, talking to him about it.

STEYER: Well, I think if there were two things that I would keep in mind as a parent, two basic rules, one is you have to do your homework. So you have to understand what platforms your kids are on, whether - whatever age they are. So whether it's how they're using a Facebook platform or whether they're going to or or how they use YouTube, the number one site for kids under the age of 11, if you can believe it, you need to do your homework and do it with them and go on with them and experience with them, quite frankly teach them limits and rules.

But I think the second thing you have to do is you have to be a role model for your children. If you're constantly glued to your Crackberry, if you're constantly tethered to your phone or your computer or your tablet, you're not paying as much attention to your child, you're not giving them the emotional and social support and attention that they need, and quite frankly you're setting them a very bad digital role model.

And I think that's an incredibly important thing for parents to remember today, because my kids sure give me a hard time when I come home and I'm stills ending emails on my BlackBerry, and they're saying, Dad, pay attention to me, you're home, watch my game. You can go to - you know, it's very interesting to go to soccer games or baseball games today with parents and to see them on the sidelines, and instead of cheering their kids on, they're lost in their phone, or they're staring at a screen.

And I think being a good role model is critically important, just as doing your homework about where your kids are exploring in the digital media world is an essential element of parenting 2.0.

DAVIES: Well, James Steyer, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

STEYER: Great to be here.

GROSS: James Steyer is the author of "Talking Back to Facebook." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

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