Kids these days—they IM, they text, they “twitter … and they’re also the subject of a new book, Born Digital, by two experts affiliated with Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society: John Palfrey ’01, the Henry N. Ess Professor of Law at HLS, and Urs Gasser, an associate professor at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and the newly appointed executive director of the Berkman Center.

The book’s focus is the culture of “digital natives”—those born after 1980 who learned digital modes as their first media. In the digital natives’ universe, photographs were always uploaded to computers, never dropped off in rolls at a drug store. To this group, mixed tapes and fax machines seem like historical artifacts. Born Digital examines how this generation understands technology and why parents and teachers must be attuned to the legal and cultural implications of how kids use it.

Palfrey and Gasser are both lawyers and academics, but they are also parents of digital natives—a role that informs their perspective. They’re conscious of knee-jerk reactions to the Internet’s dangers—Regulate! Block porn! Protect youngsters! Instead, they lay out a balanced approach to the digital world, one that embraces the potential uses of new technology without losing sight of its risks.

Many of the threats associated with cyberspace, such as video game violence and copyright piracy, are just new forms of analog-world problems, the authors observe. But even when the threats seem more pernicious or technologically complex—cyber-bullying, for example—they can often be handled with the same type of level-headed approach that parents, educators, and lawmakers would use in offline situations.

How do we balance protecting kids and fostering technological innovation, free of burdensome restrictions? Each of the book’s chapters considers a digital-related theme, such as piracy, creativity, and safety. The privacy chapter, for example, considers several cases in which users, often too young to understand the implications of service agreements, face challenges controlling data about their lives. In one such instance in 2006, Facebook began publishing news feeds that some users believed violated their privacy. Within days, an online group, “Students against Facebook,” swelled to 750,000 members who rallied to oppose the features. According to Palfrey and Gasser, Facebook got it right by responding to users’ demands, changing the technology, and giving them more control of their data.

But other problems don’t always lend themselves to tidy solutions. Digital addiction—seen in children as young as age five who spend significant time online—is a growing concern. Palfrey and Gasser advise that education is often the most appropriate first response, rather than banning technology or passing excessively restrictive laws. Overreaction and overregulation would deprive children of remarkable new tools. Indeed, the authors find themselves advising that their own profession often threatens to do more harm than good in Internet regulation: “The limits of law are sharply apparent in the context of many of the problems we are studying here.” Rather than banning or constraining uses, law should be understood as an “enabler of the positive things Digital Natives are already doing.”

Most of the time, the best response is simpler and saner: Talk to kids, learn the tools, and encourage dialog. “Asking about MySpace, studiVZ, and other social network sites can be a great way to start the conversation … By simply talking about what a child likes about the Web, parents can get to know their children better,” they advise. Having these discussions in the open reinforces the benefits the Internet—as a creative outlet, platform for civic engagement, and enabler of political participation.

Hear a podcast interview with John Palfrey on NPR’s “On the Media” on Jan. 30, 2009.
Growing Up Online
A whole generation of children has grown up connected to the Internet. Berkman Center for Internet & Society director John Palfrey calls these kids “digital natives.” Palfrey argues in his book Born Digital that they see the world in a profoundly different way than the rest of us.

— Mary Bridges