Review of “UnSelfie” Cyberbullying Research Center

Parenting expert and educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba released a new book last week. This by itself isn’t newsworthy (she has, after all, published roughly a book a year for the last quarter of a century). But this latest contribution has the potential to have a significant impact on parents and their children.

I’ve followed Dr. Borba’s contributions over the last several years and find her to be a caring and committed commentator on all things parenting. She doesn’t purport to be omniscient about everything parents might confront, but she is connected to those who have deep knowledge in a variety of areas. And she is a voracious learner. She takes the time to interview specialists, to speak with researchers and scour academic journals, to visit treatment program sites, and to interact with parents and children. Dr. Borba’s gift is being able to take in these varied perspectives, reflect thoughtfully, and distill them into bite-sized bits of wisdom that parents and others can understand and incorporate into their daily activities.

The Power of Empathy

In this most recent book, “UnSelfie: Why Empathic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World,” Dr. Borba argues that empathy-building is the key to raising kids who can rise above the problem behavior producing situations they might find themselves in. As someone who studies teen technology use and misuse, I know well how problems can develop in online environments. Many of these can be prevented–or at least curtailed–if teens possess empathy. I downloaded the audiobook version of this text (since most of my “reading” these days is done while driving or mowing my lawn). It was nice to hear directly from Dr. Borba’s as she read the introduction.

Dr. Borba makes a strong, research-supported case for the power of empathy. Early in the book she refers to several studies that clearly demonstrate that empathetic youth do better in interpersonal contexts and are less likely to resort to hurtful behaviors. But more than that, she offers numerous practical strategies that parents and educators can employ to teach empathy and self-regulation, as well as to promote collaboration and kindness. For example, parents can help their children take the perspective of others during a disagreement. Or teachers can have students literally step in the shoes of someone else to get a sense of what it might be like to be them. Sometimes simply stopping to breathe deeply is all that is necessary for worked-up kids to cooldown. Popular books and movies can also be useful, if parents take the time to consider scenes that can be discussed during or immediately upon completion. In short, all adults who work with youth should model empathy every day and can capitalize on situations that come up to demonstrate appreciation and care for others.

The emphasis on teaching children to be kind to others resonates with our work to prevent and respond to online harassment. There are dozens of examples of teens using technology to counter cruelty in their communities, and these stories need to be championed! Too much focus in the media is placed on the bad decisions of a few, instead of highlighting the good behaviors of the majority. Showing our children the kind acts of others can encourage them to think about creative ways to show care and concern.

Don’t Misunderstand: The Kids Are Alright (But Parents Might Not Be)

There are some occasions early on where Dr. Borba slips into the time-honored tradition of bashing the younger generation. This isn’t the first time adults have implied that “kids these days” are lazy, self-centered, and amoral (compared to when “we were their age“). But this current crop of kids seem to be targeted more frequently and vehemently than others who’ve come before. I don’t believe youth today are any worse than those in previous generations. (Though their misdeeds are certainly magnified online and in the media.)

From conversations with Dr. Borba, I know that she stands with youth (and works tirelessly to help them realize their full potential). In fact, if you read closely, I think it is fair to say that the criticisms leveled against youth can be more accurately interpreted as a veiled indictment on adults and 21st Century parenting generally. Yes, more college grads live at home than ever before. But it’s adults who set the minimum wage, college tuition fees, and student loan interest rates. Yes, teens seem more concerned with individual success (and believe they have the capability to be special and unique) than in previous generations. But who was it that started handing out participation ribbons and (perhaps) overemphasized self-esteem building? Yes, children spend more time online than ever before. All I can say about this is that it is a good thing social media and smart phones weren’t around when I was in middle and high school. So, if kids are so bad these days, whose fault really is it?

Technology is Not Inherently Evil

I also question some of the statistics Dr. Borba utilizes to paint a picture of certain adolescent problems. For example, in discussing youth’s dependence on technology in relation to peer harassment she refers to a survey which argued that “cyberbullying has tripled in the last year.” We’ve studied cyberbullying for over 15 years, surveying over 15,000 students from around the United States, and have never seen that kind of jump in our work (or the work of reputable others). I wrote a post two years ago when this headline first emerged questioning its validity. That’s not to say cyberbullying isn’t a problem (it certainly is). But relying on hyperbole or one-off statistics from unreliable sources doesn’t help to make the case. This seems to be common practice in many public-market parenting books, but with her extensive knowledge of these issues, Dr. Borba simply doesn’t need to go there.

Dr. Borba points out that teens use digital devices for “at least 7 and a half hours each day.” She portrays this estimate axiomatically as a bad thing, suggesting that as a result of all of this online activity adolescents are missing out on valuable learning and family time. This obscures the fact that most teens routinely use technology to complete school work (it is one of the most commonly cited uses of technology in our surveys of students), and that many parents take advantage of technology to connect and communicate with their children. In fact a parent recently commented on our blog that she frequently takes “silly pictures with my 8 and 9 year olds on Snapchat to send to our family and friends. Hopefully this shows them it is a fun and silly way to keep in touch.” Not all technology use is bad; it can also be very positive (such as Skyping with grandparents, researching solutions to problems, or interacting with individuals with similar life experiences, as Dr. Borba rightly points out in other parts of the book).

The Bottom Line

Read this book! (Or listen to it like I did.) As a parent of a 6-year old, I listened to this book with bated breath. I picked up numerous tricks and tips to add to my parenting tool belt. In this brief review I’ve only scratched the surface of all the wonderful insight this book has to offer. If you are like me you will find yourself frequently nodding your head in agreement and regularly mumbling “that is so true” to no one in particular. Despite my minor misgivings about her characterization of the scope of some of the problems she seeks to solve, her offered solution is spot-on. Instilling empathy in youth certainly holds much promise in preventing hurtful behaviors in every generation.

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