Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Facts and Opinions in the Internet World

Here is a brilliantly-written, satirical editorial by Rex W. Huppke, Chicago Tribune reporter. The author mourns the death of Facts, and writes an obituary.

Political in nature, the editorial also alludes to information overload in the digital age:
To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet.
American society has lost confidence that there's a single alternative...Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there's no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It's just kind of a bizarre world in which one person's opinion counts as much as anybody else's.
I love this editorial and its commentary on modern life. I learned long ago, probably in college, that 47% of statistics are false. Today, that number is probably a lot higher. (This is, of course, an old joke.)

In all seriousness, I probably take very little that I read as 100% concrete, unwavering and factual. Don't polls include a margin of error? Aren't researchers trained that there is also a margin of error in their data? Are you ever sure who is funding the studies that provide the "facts?"

I write this little blog and I quote a lot of research and data. I try my best to use legitimate sources and provide lots of references so the reader can read on. Still, the information I share is only as good as the sources that I use. And I hope that the information I reference is as accurate and unbiased as possible.

One last quote from the editorial:
Opinion has become the new truth. And many people who already have opinions see in the 'news' an affirmation of the opinion they already had, and that confirms their opinion as fact.
Studies in psychology teach us that people often internalize what confirms their original beliefs, and they tend to ignore or refute things that are contrary.

I share my opinions on this blog. But you never know... I could be wrong about things. Still, my hope is that we as parents take a moment to stop and think about how technology might influence our individual families in ways that we may not want. We need to be in charge of our families' media consumption and screen time, and not let the technology be in charge.

We need to take pause, determine our priorities for our kids - and for ourselves as parents, partners and spouses - and move those priorities to the top of the list.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bullying Teachers and Digital Citizenship

An article by Christine Armario with the Associated Press reported on incidents of students bullying teachers, principals and other school employees. A few examples:

* In New York, Karen Klein, a bus monitor, was tormented to tears by students taunting her, including references to her dead son - and it was all captured on video and posted to YouTube.

*  In Maryland, students posed as their principal's children on pedophile websites. In other locations, students claim to be their teachers "on to neo-Nazi and white supremacist sties claiming to be a Jewish or minority teacher and inciting the group's anger. Others have stolen photographs from teacher's cell phones and posted them online."

* In Florida, a student started a Facebook site for other kids to express their hatred for teacher Sarah Phelps. The student, who eventually took the site down, was suspended and disciplined by the principal. But the ACLU backed the student's right to free speech, and she won $15,000 in damages and attorneys fees in a suit against the principal.

I don't know any details of this last case other than what was published in Armario's article. Maybe Ms. Phelps is a terrible teacher. But maybe she's a darn good one, or even somewhere in between. Regardless of her teaching abilities, her case seems to highlight how the right to Free Speech through the digital means can encroach on a person's right to common respect and dignity. As a society, I'm not sure we've given this enough reflection. A person obviously has the right to ruin his or her own reputation. But do we have the right to do it for them using widespread digital means? The issue is gray, according to our court system, which is inconsistent with their rulings with similar cases (see Wired, 2010).

Bullying and assaults on others' reputations is nothing new, of course, but it seems that with social networking and other online tools, it's easier than ever to do. According to Pew Internet and American Life Project, online harassment and bullying is different from traditional forms of bullying because of the speed and breadth of how messages are distributed, and because inhibitions are lower through "computer-mediated communication."

I thought the teachers had some insightful words. While Ms. Phelps encouraged parents to turn kids' mistakes into "teachable moments," she said in a written statement: "We need to redefine and expand our definitions of bullying, particularly techno-spread bullying devoid of personal accountability and disseminated under the guise of free speech."

Klein, the bus monitor, asked in an interview why students "would treat a bus monitor in a way they would not treat their own grandmother." She poses an interesting question. Why would we not do unto others as you would have them do to you - our your loved ones? 

Are we ready to throw that age-old principal out the window as we send a message that publicly bullying teachers - or anyone - is a viable form of expression? With all the positives that the Internet brings: enhanced connectivity, a sense of community, and access to information at our fingertips, individuals also have so much more power to hurt one another through the use of our social networks and other online tools.

We can't legislate digital citizenship, but we can still be good digital citizens. We can support those who have been hurt by bullying. And we can educate our children that decency and courtesy to others still apply online.

For another opinion on the Phelps case, see Fast Company.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Hazards of Sitting: Decreased Life Expectancy

There have been more articles published about the dangers of sitting for long periods of time.

According to the Wall Street Journal, researchers in Louisiana studied data of "sedentary behavior" and health from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They concluded that sitting for just three hours a day can decrease life expectancy by two years, regardless of physical activity and other habits. Watching two hours or more of TV daily can further decrease life expectancy by another 1.4 years.

These findings echo results from other recent studies in Australia and Finland, which also point to the serious hazards of prolonged sitting. According to these studies, long periods of sitting - even when combined with daily physical activity - is connected to risks of cancer, heart conditions, and diabetes and other glucose management issues.

These studies are significant for office workers, who spend an average of eight hours a day - and as many as 15 hours a day - at a desk in front of their computer ( The Wall Street Journal article says,
Last year, scientists found that people who worked 10 years in sedentary jobs, or jobs that don't require a lot of energy expenditure, had twice the risk of colon cancer and a 44% increased risk of rectal cancer, compared with people who had never worked sedentary jobs.
Those of us with desk jobs can help ourselves by standing or moving at least every hour. I guess I'm advocating more trips to the water cooler, employee lounge or restroom. Or at least take more walks to talk face-to-face with someone in your office that you could otherwise email, or stand up while taking that conference call.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Practicing Presence: Where Have I Been?

When I started this blog, my intention was to write nearly every day. I followed through for about three and a half months. Then, two things happened to derail my goal.

First: summer vacation. This happens to me every year: my kids get out of school for the summer, and I struggle to find a new rhythm to the daily routine. I still work from home, but the hours of constructive work time diminish (summer childcare is expensive - and I can only afford so many hours).

I won't complain, however. Kids need their time "off" from their obligations, just like adults do, so I'm thankful that summer's here. And it's good for me, too. I'm making an effort to reconnect with my kids in a way that's different from the rest of the year, to make those summertime family memories that we all envision holding onto in later life.

Second: I was spending too much time on the computer. Oh, the irony of it all. As I researched and wrote pieces for the blog about our tendency toward the excessive use of devices, I began to feel exposed, as if there was a great big, blinking arrow in the sky pointing right at me, saying "guilty!"

I am, to be honest, tired of my computer and my phone. I want more freedom. I need boundaries. I want to be a better role model for my kids so that when they get phones, they won't ditch me completely for their online world. So I made a few changes:

* I moved my laptop to the guest room, which now doubles as my office. Unlike the office-slash-dining room table, the guest room has a door. I can literally close myself off from my work and my computer when it's time to go. My phone stays in here, too, as much as possible. Sherry Turkle encourages the concept of "sacred spaces" in the home where devices are not allowed (i.e. dinner table). In the same way, I've created a space for my devices to stay and not invade the rest of the house. The physical boundaries are now set.

* I took a trip a few weekends ago and left my phone sitting in the hotel room for three days. I got a massage to get the knots out of my neck and shoulder directly related to my computer usage, something I've not done in several years. I read books and played with my kids. It was a wonderful trip, good for fostering psychological boundaries between me and my devices.

* I've stopped answering texts right away, and my personal email is piling up. I apologize to all those wondering where I've gone. It's a better place, I assure you.

* I've stopped writing blog pieces for a few weeks. I need a pause. The article ideas for the blog have piled up, however, and I look forward to sharing more thoughts... in time.

An admired church and community leader, Kim Lee, is currently inspiring the parents in her congregation to examine being "present" in our daily lives. She writes, "The practice of presence is about coming alive and awake wherever we are. Presence requires three basic steps: slow down, tune in, and focus." In my brief hiatus from the blog, I've been trying to do just that.