Harvard professor sees answers to nagging Web-youth issues

John Palfrey says the Web isn't bad for kids and offers possible solutions to such problems as preventing teens from illegally file sharing and being exposed to porn.

John Palfrey, one of Harvard's leading thinkers on the Internet, has recently finished a study on kids raised in the digital age. He now has a few tips to share about Web porn, online piracy, and Sen. John McCain's lack of tech know-how.

Palfrey, a Harvard law professor and director of the school's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, visited CNET's headquarters on Tuesday to discuss the findings of a recent study of a group he calls "digital natives." These are people who don't know life before cell phones, computers, and the Internet.

Palfrey, who wrote a book about the study called Born Digital, was fairly upbeat about the Web's affects on young people. That's not going to surprise too many people as Palfrey is a recognized Internet booster. But after completing 100 "in-depth interviews" with young people, ages 13 to 22, Palfrey sees some possible solutions to problems confronting Web-connected youth.

Turn young pirates into content owners
Kids steal music, according to Palfrey's study. "It's plain that virtually every young person we talked to gets music exactly the same way, which is they are downloading from an Internet site. The vast majority are downloading it illegally from a file-sharing site. A very small number are downloading and paying for it."

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Palfrey found that the music industry isn't popular with young people and they believe they're "sticking it to the man" when they pirate music. Their attitudes changed when they perceived themselves to be doing harm to some other person.

"I'm completely convinced that the answer in the long-term sense is to encourage kids to be in the posture of a creator themselves," Palfrey said. "You get kids to say 'What is it like to take some content from somebody else? Once they get in a posture of being an artist, which so many kids are on a daily basis in some respects, I think there is great promise in their willingness to empathize with creators when they are creators themselves."

Efforts by the Motion Picture Association of America and Recording Industry Association of America to educate young people, which were largely just-say-no strategies, have thus far been ineffective, Palfrey said, adding that he's created a curriculum to foster this empathy in art, civics or music classes.

He had some tips to the news media about teens and young people. His study revealed what people already knew; they aren't reading The New York Times or watching broadcast TV news but they are still interested in being informed.

Teens are divided into three categories, Palfrey said. The first group likes to scan headlines and links. The second will click on the links and read full stories, and the third category will read stories and post comments or blog about it. Palfrey said that those media companies that are engaging readers by allowing them to post comments and feedback will fare better than those that don't.

Parents should get in the game
Porn and violence are available to youth more than ever thanks to digital technology, Palfrey said. This is very scary to parents, and he acknowledges that in many ways they should be concerned.

""I tell parents to get in the game," Palfrey said. "To the extent that you're not familiar with the technologies, it's about making that first step. Let your student be the guide. They will happily show you their friends' MySpace page or what a blog is. Making that first connection when you are then in the conversation opens up so many possibilities. Too many parents just say 'I don't get this' and are pretending it's not happening or not participating at all. I think this is very destructive over the long term."

How can you lead a country without e-mail?
During the talk with the audience at CNET, Palfrey was asked about statements made by McCain, the Republic presidential hopeful. McCain has said that he doesn't know how to get online. Palfrey responded that he didn't wish to make a political statement but that he didn't know how anyone lacking a rudimentary grasp of the Web and technology can lead this country effectively--not when cyberwarfare, surveillance, and security are so grounded in tech.

Palfrey called McCain's lack of Web knowledge "pathetic."

 

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